Jan 10, 2023 - Politics

Austin issues to watch as Texas Legislature reconvenes

Lawmakers gather in the Texas Senate chamber on the first day of the 2021 legislative session. Photo: Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

Lawmakers will head into this year's legislative session with an unprecedented budget surplus, and how they decide to spend it can directly impact Austin's property taxes, schools and more.

The big picture: Expect the time-honored tradition of Austin-bashing bills to draw headlines, but there are plenty more storylines for Central Texas.

Why it matters: Newly sworn-in Austin Mayor (and former Democratic state senator) Kirk Watson campaigned, in part, on his ability to finesse a more constructive relationship with the Legislature as a way to protect liberal Austin policymaking.

Here are a few issues he and other Central Texas local officials will have to wrestle with:

Property tax relief

Austin's property taxes are among the highest in the state, and Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have said they want to use the budget surplus to lower property taxes for Texans.

What they're saying: Patrick suggested increasing the homestead exemption from $40,000 to as high as $65,000, meaning local school districts can't tax the first $65,000 of a home's value.

  • Abbott has proposed using at least half of the state's budget surplus toward property tax relief, though Patrick has disagreed it can be done.
  • "We'll need to get into session to figure out which strategy is the best strategy to use, but the people who deserve that money are the taxpayers of the state of Texas," Abbott told reporters in December.

Public school issues

Less school property tax revenue means less money to pay teachers and school staff.

Between the lines: Abbott has said he supports vouchers for parents to use public money for private school tuition.

The big picture: Austin ISD enrollment continues to dip as charter school enrollment soars. School district funding from the state is tied to attendance, so fewer students means less money.

Plus: Expect the Republican-led Legislature to hone in on red meat issues that target transgender athletes, make way for libraries to ban certain books and halt gender-affirming care for transgender children.

Silicon Hills' face off

The country's largest tech companies, which continue to relocate or expand their operations in Austin, will have to juggle how best to react to conservative legislation coming out of the Capitol.

Flashback: Austin's tech companies have long grappled with operating in business-friendly Texas, while facing pressure from consumers to speak out against measures like anti-LGBTQ+ bills, anti-abortion measures and sweeping election measures.

Reality check: The days of big business halting conservative legislation seem to be a thing of the past.

  • In 2017, a coalition of business leaders were able to successfully stop the so-called "bathroom bill," which would have required people to use the restroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate.
  • Since then, despite widespread pushback from business groups, Abbott and lawmakers have passed other anti-transgender and anti-abortion measures without any real consequence — Austin's tech scene continues to grow at a rapid clip.

What we're watching: How Watson and local leaders juggle these issues both at City Hall and the Capitol.


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