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86th Texas Legislature kicks off in Austin

Decriminalizing marijuana, school security, abortion among hot issues

AUSTIN, Texas – State lawmakers are back in Austin as the Texas Legislature kicked off its 86th session on Tuesday.

Lawmakers are expected to focus on a number of issues, including school finance and property tax reform.

Republicans still hold a majority in both houses, but Democrats made significant gains last November. The gains could be looked at as a possible component of the new sense of cooperation between the parties.

“I think people are beginning to see that to accomplish the things we have to accomplish, there needs to be a working relationship,” state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, drove home the point after he was voted in as the new speaker of the House.

"When it became clear I would have the privilege of standing here today, I made fostering the spirit of collaboration my No. 1 goal," Bonnen said.

There is consensus, this time, that lawmakers must find a new system to finance schools, after decades of false starts, missteps and setbacks.

Lowering property taxes has proven to be a tricky problem the Legislature failed to solve last time.

"We’ve always said you can't have school finance reform without property tax reform. Have to have them both. So we spent the last year with the school finance commission working hard on coming up with solutions," state Rep. Dan Huberty said.

Hurricane Harvey relief is also at the top of the priority list. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said the state can afford up to $1 billion to help.

“That’s one vote I can 100 percent predict will happen and is going to pass," Bettencourt said.

Other big issues for lawmakers include school security, abortion and, surprisingly, decriminalizing marijuana -- a bill state Rep. Harold Dutton first introduced in 2003.

“People around here asked me what I had been smoking. And now it’s all of a sudden caught on and a number of people are advocating it,” Dutton said.