State Senator Pat Fallon and State Rep. Reggie Smith spent some times talking Texas Legislature Friday in Sherman. North Texas lawmakers gave an update on the the past legislative session in Sherman Friday during the annual Texas Legislative Luncheon.
The annual event, now in its eighth year, allowed representatives to talk on issues ranging from tax reform to school finance reforms.
The Freshman Year
The past year was something of a freshman year for both legislators. While Fallon previously served as in the Texas House, he was elected to the senate in 2018 following his defeat of incumbent Craig Estes during the Republican primaries. Smith was also elected to his first term in the house this last election cycle, replacing retiring Larry Phillips who won his bid to become a district court judge.
Fallon said the work in the House and Senate are similar, but the scale was different as there are far fewer senators than representatives. As such the workload is heavier in the senate. In the senate, Fallon served on five committees that met two times a week for up to eight hours in some cases.
“You can do the math and know that I am going to be in committees 30 to 50 hours a week, let alone floor time,” he said.
Fallon said he achieved a 100 percent attendance rate for all votes, and for his part, Smith said he felt he had big shoes to fill with taking the place of Phillips.
“I came in and I am replacing a guy who has been there for 16 years and it was incumbent upon me to take the ball and run with it from there,” Smith said. “The district doesn’t care — they just want business done. They don’t care that you are a freshman and that is fine.”
Smith attributed his success in his first year to hiring a strong staff, including officials with decades of experience. From there, he focused on developing relationships, which helped him become one of just four freshmen on the appropriations committee.
“To get on that committee, you have to go through the speaker of the house, so I had several conversations with him,” Smith said.
Contrary to common wisdom, Smith said he was active during his first year and filed 19 bills, of which 13 were eventually passed. Among these bills was a rule that would allow law enforcement to take a DNA sample upon arrest for certain crimes. This could in turn help solve some cold cases across the state, he said.
Property Tax reforms
The past legislative session saw extensive reforms to property tax laws aimed at reducing yearly increases to property owner’s tax burden. Under new rules, municipalities can only collect 3.5 percent additional tax revenue over the previous year for existing properties without a voter ratification election. The reforms also limited school districts to 2.5 percent additional revenue for existing properties.
Previously, municipalities could receive up to 8 percent additional revenue without a ratification election.
“If you have your property taxes increase eight percent year-over-year in short order you are going to have double your property taxes,” Fallon said. “I knocked on a lot of door over the past year and it didn’t matter if it was Jack County or Collin County: it was the same thing I was hearing — we are being taxed out of our homes.”
Smith said the total property tax relief for taxpayers this last session equates to about $5.5 billion.
Along with reforms to school districts, Fallon said legislators also focused on reforms to education itself. Among the initiatives were changes to the way students are tested each year.
Under new reforms, Fallon said the schedule for testing will be split into three 45 minute sessions throughout the school year rather than one single test at the very end. Additionally, a independent commission will be used to ensure that students are being tested at grade level.
“What we found was of third graders in Texas only 40 percent are reading at the third grade level,” Fallon said. “The reason for this is that up to the third grade you are learning to read. After the third, you are reading to learn.”
Fallon hinted at future reforms aimed at repealing the test and replace it with another form of testing for students.
“We still need some testing, but we need to do it in better and efficient ways,” he said.
Other education reforms focused on increasing compensation for not only current teachers, but retired educators as well, Smith said. Legislators in the last session dedicated $1.1 billion to the state retirement fund for teachers. This would result in retires receiving an additional $2,200 in the form of a thirteenth check through the pension system. Overall, existing educators could see between $4,000 and $5,000 in additional pay through these reforms, he said.
“We’ve got to pay our teachers; we have to do more for our teachers,” Smith said.