Daily Light Managing Editor
For all of the turmoil at its beginning and end, the 80th Legislature produced several positives for Texas residents, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, noted during a town hall meeting with constituents Wednesday afternoon in Waxahachie.
“When you look at your tax bill this fall, you should see a decrease in your taxes,” Pitts said, discussing property tax relief and its funding. “I think that’s something we wanted to do.”
Legislators also sought to remedy an issue that arose relating to senior citizens’ tax bills, he said, noting however that several school superintendents have since raised a concern that the measure approved may not actually work as lawmakers intended.
“We need to look into that,” he said, adding, however, that he doesn’t expect to be called back to Austin for a special session on any issue. With that said, the 14-year representative for Ellis and Hill counties forecasts a “brutal” election season on the horizon.
Discussing his and others’ efforts to bring about a change in the House leadership of Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, Pitts said an increasing number of lawmakers are tired of the Midland Republican’s heavy-handed management.
A contentious speaker’s race at the start of the session and Craddick’s subsequent retaliation against those who sought his ouster laid the groundwork for efforts again before the session’s end to bring the incumbent speaker’s days on the dais to a close.
“It wasn’t a pleasant session, but it was the right thing to do,” Pitts said.
Although the session ended with Craddick still in his chair, that fight’s not over, Pitts said, saying Texas never intended for there to be a “divine speakership” that doesn’t allow an option for a speaker to be removed by the same House members who elect that person.
Pitts said he weighed his role as chairman of Appropriations (a position Craddick subsequently stripped from him after the Waxahachie lawmaker took a position of opposition) against doing what he believed to be in the best interest of his district and seeking a change in how the state’s House of Representatives is being handled.
“I don’t think my constituents want a sovereign speaker. … I thought it was the right thing to do (to seek a change),” said Pitts, who has since filed a response with the state Attorney General’s Office relating to the issue of removing a speaker. “I did a brief (with the attorney general). I felt I owed it to my constituents to weigh in on this.
“I still think the speaker can be removed by the people who elected him,” Pitts said. “He was elected by the members and I believe the members can remove him.”
Pitts said he and other like-minded lawmakers believe the speaker will continue his retaliatory efforts, saying they each expect to be targeted during their primaries with well-funded opponents and that Craddick will look to secure his position by supporting freshman lawmakers.
“His big deal is freshmen. He gives them a tremendous amount of money,” Pitts said, saying he and others seeking to better the status quo expect their opposition to say their efforts to bring about a needed change hurt the House’s work during the 80th Legislature.
Not true, Pitts said, saying he himself put Craddick on the record in the regular session’s last days as in agreement that “no piece of legislation was hampered, delayed or not passed” because of the issues.
Looking to the future, Pitts said he intends to continue to explore ways to address tax appraisals and appraisal caps so as to better balance taxpayers’ rights against government funding needs.
“We have got to figure out a way to stop appraisal creep but, at the same time, not have bankruptcies in our school districts,” he said, noting concerns raised by what happened in California after its passage of Proposition 13. “I think the people in my district want something to be done (and) we’re working on those ideas.”
Other notes from the session:
The House voted down a bill that would have removed the right for the top 10-percent graduating students at any school district in the state to have a guaranteed admission to the state’s universities.
“If we were to have changed the 10-percent rule, small districts like Avalon, Italy and Milford would never be able to get a student into Texas A&M or the University of Texas at Austin,” Pitts said. “It wouldn’t be fair for the people of Ferris if their children weren’t able to go (to the flagship schools).”
Lawmakers approved a 13th check for teacher retirees, with Pitts saying the expectation is that teacher retirement pay could see an increase next year - the first such in five years.
“The fund should be actuarially sound next year,” Pitts said. “When that happens, the board can increase the annuity. It doesn’t have to be done by the Legislature.”
Extensive reforms were passed relating to the Texas Youth Commission after abuses came to light about the system.
“Did we go far enough? We’ll have to see,” Pitts said, noting lawmakers focused on moving the TYC more toward rehabilitation. “We wanted to think about rehabilitation rather than putting them in jail and throwing away the key and forgetting about them.”
Lawmakers approved a $100 million increase for border security that will go to law enforcement agencies. An extensive bill relating to punishment of sex-related offenses against children was passed overwhelmingly, Pitts said, noting “Jessica’s Law” was a major bill pushed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Transportation - particularly toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor - remains a huge issue for lawmakers, who passed several measures - including an eminent domain bill - only to see them vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.
One bill that was passed that includes language relating to a moratorium on toll roads has since put lawmakers at odds with the governor’s office and the Texas Department of Transportation.
“Our feeling is there is a moratorium. The governor’s office thinks otherwise, as does TxDOT,” Pitts said, adding, “TxDOT is not popular this session. There are a lot of people unhappy with them.”
Major water and clean air bills were passed as sponsored by state Sen. Kip Averitt, whose district includes Ellis County. Pitts said he sought to ensure property rights were addressed with the water bill relating to reservoir designation and described the clean air bill as “a really good bill” that will help remove older vehicles from the roadways. Lawmakers approved an increase in funding for state parks as well as transferred several historical sites to the oversight of the state Historical Commission. A disappointment has been Perry’s veto of some funding for community colleges that Pitts said has now placed those institutions in danger of having to raise tuition or other fees to make up the loss. He said he has personally spoken with the commissioner of education to find a way to restore the funding.
“He promised me this will be taken care of,” Pitts said, saying the commissioner has not given a time frame and noting other lawmakers are weighing in on the issue. “We really need that decision made today.”
Almost all of the state representatives have at least one community college in their district - Pitts has two - with the Waxahachie Republican noting the members support the institutions.
“I think the last thing any House member wants is less education in our districts,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing for our junior colleges.”
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