John Bucy III was swept into office in last year’s ‘Blue Wave’ election, earning 53.3% of the vote for the Texas House District 136 seat held by Tony Dale since 2012. He made the most of his freshman term, passing seven bills during this year’s legislative session. He addressed constituents during a Legislative Town Hall on July 2 at Leander’s San Gabriel Campus of Austin Community College to talk about the session and his future plans.
Bucy told a group of about 40 attendees that the biggest bills state lawmakers tackled this year were related to the budget and school finance reform.
The $251 billion budget includes $5.1 billion dedicated to buying down property taxes, $7.7 billion for behavioral health and substance abuse programs, $6.1 billion for highway construction, $589 million for the Teacher Retirement System pension fund to fund a one-time, up to $2,000 “13th check” for retired teachers and $56.6 million to help fund efforts to tackle the rape kit testing backlog in the state.
Bucy said the school funding is significant, noting people would have to look back almost 30 years to see a similar size increase in school funding. He said they will seek to build on these gains in future sessions.
Under the $11.6 billion school finance package passed by the Texas Legislature, $6.5 billion in new spending for schools and $500 million in increased higher education funding will help educational institutions. The bill raised the basic allotment, or the base funding guaranteed for each student, by more than $1,000.
Bucy said changes to the formula will help local school districts keep a larger portion of their own funding, instead of that money being “recaptured” under the “Robin Hood” program. He said as a result of the bill, Leander ID was able to keep $10.2 million and Round Rock ISD was able to keep approximately $114 more than those districts would have seen recaptured under the previous formula.
However, Bucy took aim at the controversial Senate Bill 2, which adds provisions aimed at making the tax rate more transparent, but generated debate over provision that requires cities, counties and other taxing entities to hold an election if they want to raise property tax revenues by more than 3.5 percent over the prior year.
Municipal officials across the state have been critical of the provision, arguing it will hamstring city budgets – potentially impacting public safety and other local services. Moody’s Investors Service, a prominent international credit-rating service for bonds, issued a May analysis that alleged the benefit would be “minimal” for homeowner savings but could “substantially” hurt local governments.
“What it really does is cripple local control, and I’m a big believe in local control,” Bucy said. “I’d be in support of modifying or repealing Senate Bill 2.”
Weakening local control means voters have less of a say in changing things they don’t like when they vote in local elections, Bucy said.
Bucy introduced a total of 31 bills this session. Eighteen of those received committee hearings and seven of those eventually became law – a significant accomplishment for a first-time lawmaker. As a result, the state’s House Democratic Caucus named him Freshman Lawmaker of the Year.
Typically, freshman lawmakers only file a few bills in their first year as they spend time learning the Legislature and the intricacies of the various committees, Bucy said, adding that the average state lawmaker had just four of their bills passed during this session.
“I just thought we weren’t elected to take a hands-off approach and because of the way we campaign, I felt we needed to live up to our own campaign promises,” Bucy said.
Four of Bucy’s passed bills this session – and approximately half of his filed bills – dealt with different aspects of election law. Bucy, who served on the House Committee on Elections, said he drew from his experience serving as the chair of the Williamson County Democratic Party prior to be elected. He said the bills were focused on increasing transparency in the process and making it easier for people to know where to vote.
He argued his House Bill 933, which requires polling locations contain contact information for election offices and various other notices to be posted on the county or Secretary of State website, would be “transformative for the State of Texas.”
He said Williamson County is ahead of the curve in its posting of election-related information online, but said many counties have not moved in that direction yet. He said the old law allowed them to simply post a piece of paper outside of a commissioner’s court to meet reporting requirements, which he argued was challenging for counties that have communities hundreds of miles apart.
Bucy also said a growing number of people, particularly young people, primarily go online to find information. He said Texas has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among young people, so he’s interested in any change that will make it easier for them to be informed and vote.
“It just makes common sense. We do everything online,” Bucy said.
The other election laws dealt with standardizing election results data, requiring street addresses be included in polling place notices and moving existing law dealing with political signs to a newly-created section of the Election Code.
Looking forward, Bucy said he would like to see legislation for same-day voter registration, online voter registration and automatic voter registration. He said he also pushed bills to help people with disabilities to vote but was disappointed those bills didn’t get any hearings.
“I think we have an inherent right to vote and all of these obstacles get in the way of that,” Bucy said.
Bucy also had two bills passed that work together to allow Cedar Park to access a greater portion of its local Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT Tax) revenues for investing in economic growth and tourism while simultaneously granting the city the legal right to use those funds on the city-owned HEB Center and the planned U.S. Tennis Association’s Texas Headquarters project.
“Basically, it means we’re going to be able to keep a lot more of our tax money in Cedar Park to help with economic growth,” Bucy said. “The state has always seen a reward on it when they put these funds towards something like a convention area.”
Another bill he saw passed persons with the Power of Attorney over a minor to be able to co-sign that minor’s application for a driver’s license, removing a barrier that would have otherwise required the individual to become a legal guardian of the child to sign it.
Bucy said the bill originated with a woman who had Power of Attorney over her brother after one of their parents passed away and another who wasn’t “in their life.” Bucy said the constituent didn’t want to become her brother’s legal guardian for personal reasons. Without the law change, the brother wouldn’t have been able to obtain a license until he legally became an adult at 18.
Looking forward, Bucy said that if he wins re-election, he wants to tackle redistricting, Medicaid expansion, more election legislation and making fine arts education a core along with other items in the next legislative session.