District 13 State Rep. Ben Leman gave a recap of the past legislative session before a full house Wednesday during a luncheon hosted by the Sealy Chamber of Commerce at the Backdrop Events Venue.
The freshman representative from Anderson spoke about the “Big Three” agenda, key actions by the Legislature, and bills passed out of his office.
Referring to the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house as the Big Three, he said they outlined their key objectives for the session.
“Those goals were property tax reform, property tax relief, and school finance reform,” he said.
Each of those goals were attained, as were several others he championed, including 10 that he sponsored.
“We were able to pass 10 bills this session out of my office and that was a big accomplishment for my team,” he said, noting that “there are some members who have been there four or five sessions and haven’t passed one bill.”
The only bill the legislature is required to pass is the biennial budget.
“This was a balanced budget and it was fiscally responsible,” Leman said. “It came in underneath all four constitutional spending limits. That’s your pay-as-you-go limit, your spending limit, your welfare limit and your debt limit.”
Leman spent a lot of his time talking about property tax reform and funding public education.
“We provided $5 billion of property tax relief where we actually took that money and compressed the property tax rate about eight to 12 cents, depending on what school district you’re in, and gave you back that money through property tax relief,” he said.
He said property tax reform and property tax relief worked in tandem and also shapes funding for public schools.
“So there’s two things that were being done, property tax reform, which is to try and keep it from spiraling out of control … and then the other is to provide property tax relief, so you want to compress it, buy it down, but you don’t want to leave it to where it can pop right back up where it was in the next year or two. You need to have some sort of way for it to stay down,” he said.
He said the $5 billion in property tax relief bill places a 2.5% cap on the rollback rate for school districts.
“The reality of it is this, it forces the state to fund education. That’s what it does … By putting that cap on your school board’s ability to raise taxes without an election and approval from the citizens, it forces the state to pay the difference,” he said.
Leman said he pushed for a provision that exempts small cities and counties from the 3.5% rollback rate unless they try to raise property tax collections by more than $500,000.
“The rollback rate as it stands today was already 8%,” he said. “That’s what cities and counties and schools run. If taxes are raised on cities and counties above half a million dollars then the rollback rate goes from 8% to 3.5%. But up to half a million dollars, the rollback rate stays what it is today… That exempts up to 85 or 90 percent of rural Texas.”
The rollback rate is an amount that can trigger an election calling for increased tax rates to be rolled back to what they were previously.
Leman said the changes in education funding essentially move the burden from property taxes to sales taxes and increases the state’s share of per-student funding.
“It provided over $5 billion in property tax relief … it increased the state’s share of the education fund from 38% to 45% and puts it on a path to 50%. Your property tax compression this year is about 8-10 cents, depending on your school district, and next year it will be 13 cents and then an additional 2.5 percent in 2021.”
Leman also touted passage of Senate Bill 500 which bolstered the Teacher Retirement System.
“You have teachers who have been teaching for 30 years and then they go to retire, well they need to get the benefit they were promised when they went into teaching. … The vast majority of teachers do not receive social security. It’s one or the other. It’s their equivalent of social security program, this teacher retirement system,” he said.
Among other topics Leman touted as legislative accomplishments were:
* Reducing high-stress, high-stakes tests in schools;
* Passage of Harvey relief bills and bills to help improve recovery from natural disasters;
* Healthcare bills that encourage healthcare professionals to work in rural Texas;
* Anti-abortion bills such as the born alive protection act and preventing local government from contracting with abortion providers;
* “Common sense” bills that favor gun owners; and
* Bills that combat human trafficking.
Another bill he was proud of supports high-speed internet services across the state, especially rural areas.
“If you don’t have high-speed internet, true functional high-speed internet, it’s just as bad as not having roads,” he said. “You just can’t function; you can’t have an economy in today’s world.”
Of bills that originated out of his office were ones that combat illegal immigration, anti-spoofing and spam calls for phones, and the valedictorian bill.
“Last year over 130 schools in the state of Texas graduated less than 10 students per grade. In those instances, your valedictorian does not achieve the top 10% rule. … They were not automatically being accepted into public universities like the top 10 percent across the state,” he said.
He also complimented Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, who held his seat for many years.
“Your senator, Lois Kolkhorst, and I worked extremely well together. She’s a fighter and she stands up for what she believes in, and she’s very effective,” he said. “So we worked a lot together on various bills. She carried some of my bills and I carried some of her bills, some of which were very contentious bills that we had to strategize and develop a way to get over those hurdles.”