Watch: Four new Texas House members discuss immigration, property taxes and public school financing

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Four freshman lawmakers’ priorities for the 2023 legislative session include lowering property taxes, improving public education, and reducing the number of migrants and drugs crossing the Texas-Mexico border, they said during a Texas Tribune event Tuesday.

Republican state Reps. Carl Tepper of Lubbock and Ben Bumgarner of Flower Mound struck libertarian tones, saying Texans want to be “left alone” by their state government and emphasizing a desire to give some of the state’s budget surplus back to the taxpayers from whom it came.

“That’s our money,” Bumgarner said. “The reason why we have a surplus is we paid too much in taxes. So I want to see it go back to we the people.”

Democrat state Reps. Mihaela Plesa of Collin County and Maria Luisa “Lulu” Flores of Austin said their biggest priorities were increasing funding for public education and reducing property taxes. Plesa pushed for giving retired teachers a 14th paycheck for the year, an increase over the 13 checks the last Legislature gave teachers in 2021, and trying to change the state’s “recapture” financing method for public education. Her district in Collin County is among the most affected in Texas, she said.

Flores said she would prioritize school funding and increasing pay for teachers.

Tepper also said increasing safety measures at schools would be a big focus for lawmakers in response to last year’s shooting at a Uvalde elementary school, where 19 students and two teachers were killed.

“We need to defend our schools better,” Tepper said.

In a nod to Republican leaders’ push to enact a “parental bill of rights” to limit what educators can teach about race, sex and gender, Bumgarner said he wanted to “get politics out of schools” and have teachers focus on “things that matter.”

Both Republicans said they were supportive of giving parents state funds to move their children from public schools and into schools of their choice, which is expected to be a big fight in the Legislature this session. Traditionally, Democrats and rural Republicans, whose public schools are major employers and often the only choice for education in their area, have joined forces to prevent such legislation from passing. But Tepper said his constituents in Lubbock “are demanding some options.”

The lawmakers disagreed along party lines about how to tackle an increased number of migrants at the border. Republicans lauded Gov. Greg Abbott for his multibillion-dollar effort to send Department of Public Safety troopers and National Guard service members to the border and build a state-funded border wall. They said his efforts to bus migrants to other parts of the country had brought national attention to the crisis.

Democrats agreed that there was an issue at the border but disagreed with the state’s approach to tackling it. Plesa was critical of benefits disparities for National Guard service members deployed to Abbott’s border mission. Those members are not afforded death benefits on equal terms with other law enforcement officers serving on the mission. She has signed on to Republican state Rep. Jared Patterson’s bill to bring troops to parity for death benefits on the mission.

But she was also critical of the mission’s lack of results after multiple years of multibillion-dollar investments and spending on a border wall.

“I’m not against border security, but I think the thing looks more like an art installation,” she said.

All four lawmakers, however, agreed that immigration was at a tipping point and urged the federal government to address the issue.

“We’re pleading with Congress to get your act in order,” Tepper said. “Find a solution on this, get that border secure and then find a solution for basic immigration.”

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