FORT WORTH – In a wide-ranging interview, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick outlined 2017 legislative priorities, including passing school choice and allowing citizens to vote on local tax increases while also sharing opinions on how the falling price of oil will affect the state budget, colleges opting out of open carry and Gov. Abbott's proposed constitutional amendments.
"School choice is one of my highest priority items," he said. "Nevada just passed the most sweeping school choice bill in America. Every family has a chance of a scholarship or a savings account. I really like what they're doing. We will do something, I believe, similar to what they're doing," Patrick said on WFAA-TV's Inside Texas Politics Sunday morning.
The Nevada approach, Patrick suggested, might even appeal to opponents who believe school choice would hurt inner-city campuses.
"What the Nevada program does that I like about it, it basically says the state portion of education can be portable but then the schools keep the local taxes. So, those who say this will undermine schools and take out money – for those who don't know the school budgets are roughly 50-50 – 50% from the state 50% from local or county property taxes. So if a child moves [to the school of their choice] and [districts] get to keep the half that's local then [schools] are actually getting more money they can spend in their schools, pay teachers and yes some students will leave," Patrick explained.
The lieutenant governor said property taxes will also again be in the cross-hairs of state lawmakers when they return to Austin next January.
"We cannot have local governments … grow their budgets 6, 7, 8, 9 percent a year. People can't afford it," Patrick said. "What I want to do is change the rollback rate."
Last session, Patrick helped lead a successful increase in the homestead exemption which lowered property taxes. Lawmakers also forever prevented any kind of tax placed on the sale of property.
Patrick said he thinks there will be support next year for legislation that would let citizens vote on local tax increases over a certain percentage.
"If cities, counties and school districts raise your taxes on your home or business property more than five percent," he said, "then you have a right to vote on that."
Lt. Gov. Patrick said it is too early to know how the drop in oil prices will affect state spending.
"Of course it's going to impact the budget," he said. "We walked into the last session cash flush. We made the decision in the Senate to spend $5 billion less than we could have plus what we have in the rainy day fund which is over $12 billion, so we have a good reserve coming into the session."
At least 20 private colleges have opted out of a new state law which allows concealed handgun license holders to openly carry a pistol. Patrick was asked whether lawmakers expected so many would opt out.
"I did expect a number of schools to try to circumvent the law," he said. "Where people have guns we have less crime."
Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott proposed new amendments to the U.S. Constitution which, among other things, would let two-thirds of states overrule a federal law or Supreme Court decision.
"First of all, in general, I support the concept and did last session. I'm supportive of the concept. I have to look at detail on each item and really do a little homework and study on it. I haven't read in detail every issue," said Patrick.
The lieutenant governor also wondered whether the proposed bullet train between North Texas and Houston would ever be built.
Texas Central Railway, a privately funded venture with Japanese investors, said it intends to begin running high-speed bullet trains between the state's two largest metropolitan areas within five years.
But there is growing debate from property owners in East Texas. A number of their representatives have sent letters to Patrick's office and more recently to the Japanese ambassador expressing opposition to the rail line.
"We don't want to put any state money to it," Patrick said. "If you want to build it and you can work through the property acquisition appropriately and get the rural areas on board … then we're a free enterprise people. I don't know if it will ever be built. It's a big number. And we'll see what happens."
The 85th Texas Legislature convenes on January 10, 2017.