March 10th is the deadline for legislators to introduce bills and joint resolutions for the regular session which is scheduled to end on May 29th. After the first 60 calendar days of a regular session, any bill or joint resolution, except local bills, emergency appropriations, and all emergency matters submitted by the governor in special messages to the legislature, shall require an affirmative vote of four-fifths of those members present and voting to be introduced.
Since last week’s column was published, House Speaker Dade Phelan communicated additional legislative priorities that include extending tax breaks to businesses, increasing access to community colleges for low-income residents, overhauling business courts, creating the Texas Broadband Infrastructure Fund, improving the state’s water infrastructure, and streamlining the approval process for property development and building reviews. Curiously missing from Speaker Phelan’s list of priorities are many of the issues important to the Republican grassroots base that he is elected to represent.
Representative Andrew Murr, whose district includes Llano County, introduced Texas House Bill 19 to create a new court system for businesses. This new system is conceived in the style of Delaware’s Court of Chancery, a specialized court that handles issues of corporate governance laws and business dispute resolutions. This legislation would create a new court system for businesses, exclusively relying upon appointed, unelected judges who serve two-year terms. This is a radical departure from the status quo given Texas elects all judges from the Justice of the Peace to the Supreme Court of Texas.
This legislation is being pushed by a deep-pocketed political action committee (PAC), Texans for Lawsuit Reform. This PAC was created by a wealthy Houston-based real estate developer, Dick Weekley, to advocate for tort reform for the benefit of businesses. The PAC received over $37 million in contributions and expended $17 million on political candidates and lobbying fees in the last year. Significant political contributions included $330,000 to Lt Governor Dan Patrick, $275,000 to State Senator Pete Flores, $150,000 to Governor Greg Abbott, $100,000 to Speaker Dade Phelan, $65,000 to State Representative Ellen Troxclair and $30,000 to State Representative Andrew Murr.
Proponents of this new business court system argue it, and new business tax breaks, are required to attract development and investment in Texas. However, given the state’s historic growth of the last few years this need is questionable. According to the Office of the Texas Governor, Texas “leads the nation in an economic resurgence and remains one of the strongest and most diverse economies in the nation.” The state’s most recent unemployment rate is only 3.9% and the state is sitting on a record $33 billion surplus. There seems to be no shortage of businesses moving to Texas. On March 6th, Governor Abbott announced that another California company, Landsea Homes, chose to relocate from Newport Beach, California to Dallas, Texas. A spokesperson for the homebuilder cited a lower cost of living and access to a highly educated workforce as the critical reasons for moving to Texas.
Hill Country voters need to make their voices heard in Austin if they want to see their priorities pushed through the 88th session as there are special interests who are heavily invested to gain influence and access.