AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Top Texas Republicans agree property tax relief is their top priority, but remain sharply at odds about how to get it done.

On Thursday, House Speaker Dade Phelan unveiled what he said would be “the largest property tax decrease in history of state of Texas.” It’s in House Bill 2, the coveted bill number carried by Ways and Means Committee Chair Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas.

HB 2 would also decrease the amount that school districts can tax a home, lowering the maximum compressed tax rate by 15 cents.

“That will bring the overall property tax relief to well over 17 billion, the largest property tax cut in the history of the state of Texas without argument,” Phelan said. “House Bill Two will be the avenue in which we hopefully get that done and get it to the governor’s desk.”

The arguments, however, came quickly.

On the same stage just hours later, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick publicly grilled Phelan’s property tax plan.

“I think the intentions of the House are good. But that would be a disaster and undo everything we’ve done that has brought property tax relief,” Patrick said. “The appraisal cap will undermine what we’ve accomplished. And what did we accomplish? We’re controlling local government spending to three and a half percent by counties and cities, and two and a half percent in our school districts. That’s how you lower property taxes.”

His chamber has its own plan with the support of all 31 senators.

SB 3 by State Sen. Paul Bettencourt would increase the homestead exemption by 75% to $70,000. That’s the amount of a home’s value that is exempt from property taxes. The homestead exemption is currently $40,000.

“An exemption is the most powerful tool we have,” Bettencourt said. “That technique of an appraisal cap is, at best, a one-year break that shifts the tax burden off to other folks that then raises the tax rates…that homestead exemption will be there helping you every year for the next five decades. And that’s why the Senate unanimously backed the homestead exemption bill because that’s the type of tax relief we need.”

Bettencourt estimated the homestead exemption increase will translate to savings of $341 per year for the average homeowner.

House Democrats say they prefer Bettencourt’s plan to their own chamber’s, too.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer, however, would prefer the legislature not prioritize property tax relief at all.

“We are very laser-focused on increasing our investments in public education, stopping the defunding of education through private school vouchers, and to make sure that we’re paying our teachers and educators living wages,” Fischer said. “It’s not that Democrats are against tax cuts. Democrats pay taxes too, but Democrats want to fund the essential functions of government. And that’s to educate our future leaders of tomorrow. If we’re not doing that, then what are we doing up here?”

Senator changes bill after backlash over limits to home sales to Chinese citizens in Texas

A bill that aims to restrict Texas land sales to citizens from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran drew a crowd to the Capitol on Thursday.

More than 100 people testified at a hearing in the Senate chamber for Senate Bill 147. The bill from State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, aims to address fears from some top Republican officials that foreign adversaries could endanger state interests by buying Texas land.

SB 147, as originally filed, called for banning individual citizens from buying any Texas real estate. Critics of the bill said that could affect immigrants trying to purchase a home while they work through the years-long process of seeking citizenship.

Most of the people who testified at Thursday’s hearing spoke in opposition to the bill. One of them was Wei Li, who told lawmakers that he came to the U.S. in 2006 and now works as a college professor. He said he’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship later this month.

“This will be 17 years after I moved to the U.S.,” he said in his testimony. “Long journey, but deep down I know I’m already Texan long while ago. I can cook perfect, moist brisket. I even understand how to use ‘bless your heart’ properly.”

“But SB 147 and SB 711 are a slap on my face. It scoffs at me,” he continued, his voice breaking,  “Sorry, you’re not Texan. People like you will not even deserve to own a home.”

Similar concerns have sparked rallies at the Capitol and criticism of Kolkhorst’s bill. Kolkhorst said after listening to the concerns, she changed the bill.

“Listening to people, we’ve met with so many people and [heard] their concerns. That’s why we changed the bill,” Kolkhorst said.

“You can buy a home. You do not have to be a legal permanent resident or a citizen. Anyone can buy a home and homestead,” Kolkhorst said, describing the committee substitute she filed.

Full interview with State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst

Sen. Kolkhorst said national security is the focus of SB 147. She said the bill aims to “secure national security for our state and our country because of the role that Texas plays in national security with all of our military bases and strategic refineries and different things we have here.”

The bill has backing from prominent Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott. After the changes to the bill, Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs sent a statement applauding Kolkhorst’s efforts.

“I’m thankful Texas has champions like Senator Lois Kolkhorst working in our state legislature to protect our great state and its citizens from those who would do us harm,” McCaul’s statement read.

It builds on the Lone Star Infrastructure Act passed by state lawmakers in 2021. That bill cites “acts of aggression towards the United States, human rights abuses, intellectual property theft, [and] previous critical infrastructure attacks” among the reasons to ban businesses from those four nations from connecting to the power grid, water and chemical plants, communications and cyber systems.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, voted for the Lone Star Infrastructure Act, but said that SB 147 goes too far.

Before Thursday’s hearing, he posted a picture on Twitter, showing a section of the Texas Constitution. “The Texas Constitution itself forbids discrimination based on NATIONAL ORIGIN,” Wu’s post noted.

Kolkhorst said the criticism led to important changes to the bill.

“Senate Bill 147 with its revisions, allows anyone to buy a home and to declare that their homestead,” Kolkhorst said.

“We’ve made changes. And that’s the beautiful thing about America and Texas is that we come together and we discuss those, freedom of speech, being able to testify on a bill,” she said.

Doctors could get a Texas medical license in 10 days or fewer. What it means for you

Dr. Niki Davis logged on through her computer from Salt Lake City, Utah. 

The patient she treated started the telehealth appointment using their phone or computer in Austin. It’s how Davis now treats most of her patients. 

			Telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic pushed Texas to join a Compact with dozens of other states to expedite doctors’ licenses. (Courtesy Dr. Niki Davis)

Telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic pushed Texas to join a Compact with dozens of other states to expedite doctors’ licenses. (Courtesy Dr. Niki Davis)

She’s board certified in both family and lifestyle medicine and part of the team at Plant Based TeleHealth, which started during the pandemic. 

“People don’t have a lot of time to get into their car, drive to the doctor’s office, wait in the office for a while to see the doctor, see them very rushed in 10 or 15 minutes,” Davis said. “I get to see people for a full hour or a 30-minute follow-up.”

Davis is one of more than 1,300 doctors licensed in Texas since March of last year through the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact

“I added Texas as soon as I saw that it was in the Compact. You know, Texas is a big state for us,” Davis said. “We have a lot of patients in Texas who are looking for this kind of medicine, these kinds of doctors who are there to help walk them through making lifestyle changes, to feel better, lose weight, get off medications.”

The state law that made Texas part of the Compact went into effect in 2021, but applications weren’t accepted until last March. 

The Compact, which now includes 37 states, the District of Columbia and the Territory of Guam, expedites medical licenses — making it easier for doctors licensed in other states to treat patients in Texas. 

It also means Texas doctors can now more easily get licenses in other states in the Compact.

“Any time you can get more physicians in the state I think is the better because that provides more opportunities for the people of Texas to access care,” said Stephen “Brint” Carlton, executive director of the Texas Medical Board. “It has made it much easier for physicians to become licensed in Texas. And so it does lower the kind of regulatory burdens or hoops they may have to jump through.”

WATCH & LISTEN: The Texas Medical Board says the average days for physician licensing through the traditional process was 26 days in the most recent fiscal year, but the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact speeds up the process to 10 days or sooner. (KXAN Animation/Aileen Hernandez)

The Texas Medical Board, which oversees licensing for Texas physicians, explained the average time it takes for physician licensing through the traditional process was 26 days in the most recent fiscal year, but the compact speeds up the process and licenses can be issued in 10 days or sooner.

“Getting your license through the Compact doesn’t change what the standard of care is in Texas — so or any other state. All it is — it is — that voluntary, expedited pathway to get the license. Once you get the license, you are subject to each state’s individual standard of care requirements, and to be able to maintain the license and practice in that state,” Carlton added. 

TMB data obtained by KXAN investigators shows doctors from Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, Arizona and Washington have been issued the most Texas licenses. The top specialties are family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, psychiatry and neurology.

KXAN partnered with its sister station in Arkansas as the state weighs its own options for telehealth and joining the Compact. 

TapClick to see the number of doctors from the 37 states licensed to practice in Texas through the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact between March 1, 2022 and January 19, 2023. Physicians currently in Texas who did not previously have an existing license to practice medicine in Texas are able to obtain a license through the Compact. Darker colors indicate more licenses. Source: Texas Medical Board. (KXAN Interactive Map/Dalton Huey)

For some, like Kenneth Soyemi from Illinois, getting a license in Texas allows them to do their jobs in general.

Soyemi is a medical director for Health Service Corporation, which is the parent company of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. He reviews medical records for Texas Medicaid patients to justify hospital stays and requests for service. 

“Utilization reviews are a necessary process to help ensure hospitals provide appropriate patient care and insurance companies cover the costs they are required to,” Soyemi said. “The compact system will make it easier to hire and credential providers in reasonable time.”

Doctors can qualify to practice across state lines if they meet requirements including holding a full, unrestricted medical license in a Compact member-state.

They must select a State of Principle Licensure (SPL) — a home state where they hold a license to practice medicine and meet at least one of the following requirements: 

  • The physician’s primary residence is in the SPL
  • At least 25% of the physician’s practice of medicine occurs in the SPL
  • The physician is employed to practice medicine by a person, business or organization located in the SPL
  • The physician uses the SPL as his or her state of residence for U.S. Federal Income Tax purposes

Additionally, they can’t have any history of disciplinary actions towards their medical license, be under an investigation and have any criminal history. 

		Stephen 'Brint' Carlton is the Executive Director of TMB which oversees licensing. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Stephen ‘Brint’ Carlton is the executive director of TMB which oversees licensing. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

To apply, doctors have to complete an online application, confirm eligibility, select their home state, pay an application fee and complete mandatory fingerprinting for a national criminal background check. 

“We go back, make sure they graduated from an accredited medical school, look at their residency where they completed the residency — did they do the required amount of time for that postgraduate training,” Carlton said.

It costs $700 to apply, plus additional fees for each state where they want to be licensed.

Doctors who qualify will then receive a letter of qualification and they’ll be able to select states where they want to get licensed. TMB said that doctors themselves are responsible for making a self-determination of eligibility before applying.

“It’s kind of a primer to them is, ‘Hey, before you start down this path, and pay the money to the compact, and start, you know, filling out the paperwork, make sure that you meet all those requirements.’ We’re obviously going to double-check that you do,” Carlton explained. 

TMB said it has denied 35 applicants for reasons such as already having a full physician license in Texas, wanting to withdraw their application or duplicate applications. 

The American Telemedicine Association, or ATA, based in Washington, D.C., believes the Compact helps break down interstate barriers by increasing access to care and helping with the physician shortages crisis. 

“When Texas does something, the rest of the country notices,” explained Kyle Zebley, senior vice president of Public Policy with ATA. “It’s a major leap forward for the Compact given the size of Texas — the number of patients that will now have increased access. It’s another great fork in the road for the telehealth community as we seek to really make sure that as many states as possible adopt as many of the Compacts as possible.” 

Earlier this month, the Texas Medical Association told KXAN investigators that while the state has seen strong physician growth, recruitment is still needed. 

“For instance, Texas still has a serious shortage of physicians. Despite having 8.8% of the U.S. population, the state has 7.3% of active U.S. physicians, according to data collected by TMA. And Texas’ ratio of 204.6 patient care physicians per 100,000 people is well below the national average of 247.5,” said a TMA publication in December 2022

Zebley said while the Compact has made it easier for doctors to join the Texas workforce, some limitations could be streamlined. 

“Doesn’t automatically mean that a physician has access to every state that, you know, the more than two three dozen states that have adopted the Compact. That — it’s not like a universal recognition by all those other states. You still have to go through the oftentimes time-consuming process of getting a license in the individual state in question,” Zebley explained.

For instance, registered nurses and licensed vocational nurses have their own Compact and only need one multistate license. According to the Nurse Licensure Compact, they can practice in their home state and in other Compact states without having to get additional licenses. 

Another limitation some doctors pointed out is if they get licensed through the Compact, they are the only ones who can treat patients — not any other medical staff at their office unless they, too, are licensed through the state.

Chart listing the top five specialties of out-of-state physicians who have been licensed to practice in Texas through the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact between March 1, 2022 and January 19, 2023. Source: Texas Medical Board. (KXAN Interactive Chart/Dalton Huey)

“I think the success, a lot of it, is looked at how much are people using the Compact,” Carlton said. “Hopefully not, but in the event that there is some type of disciplinary action for someone that is a Compact licensee, you know, how smooth is that, that communication from us to other states and other states to us to make sure that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do as far as disciplinary action.”

He added any investigation would be carried out by the medical board in the state where the patient who filed the complaint lives and any disciplinary action taken would be shared with all Compact states. 

WATCH & LISTEN: When a complaint is filed against a doctor licensed through the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, any investigation would be carried out by the medical board in the state where the patient who filed the complaint lives, according to the compact’s website. Any disciplinary action taken. would be shared with all compact states. (KXAN Animation/Aileen Hernandez)

Since 2017, the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact’s Board said only 21 of their 15,000 licensed physicians have faced disciplinary action — lower than the national average. 

Davis is now licensed in 13 states. She said Texas’ process is more stringent than most.

“In Texas, they require that you take an exam. So that took a little bit extra time where I had to purchase some materials to study from and then I had to purchase this exam to take,” she said.

But she said being able to apply through the Compact has meant more time with her patients, and it’s a “game changer.” 

“As someone who is working mostly telehealth, it has made such a difference for me,” she said. “It allows me to focus more on the things that I love about medicine, which is working with the patients.”

Republican Congressmen clash over border policy bill

Two Texas Republicans in Congress are at odds over how to pass a border and immigration bill. The dispute has some lawmakers worried it could delay urgent help needed at the border.

Republican Chip Roy introduced a bill that he says will force the Biden Administration to control the flow of migrants at the southern border. He said the legislation would give the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to shut down border crossings until the U.S. can detain everyone who crosses illegally. It also gives the government power to detain asylum seekers while their cases are processed in court.

Republican Tony Gonzales represents a south Texas district that includes a large portion of the border between the U.S. and Mexico. He’s opposed to Roy’s bill, calling it “anti-immigrant.”

“These bills need to be realistic,” Gonzales said. “They need to be tangible things that are ultimately going to support securing the border. Not a messaging bill that is anti-immigrant or anti-Christian.”

Gonzales says he’s working with both Republicans and Democrats to pass a series of border bills. He’s scheduled on Monday to lead a congressional delegation to the Mexican border in Eagle Pass.

Roy took to the House floor Thursday to criticize members of his own party for delaying border help.

“What is this side of the aisle doing about open borders? Nothing!” Roy said in the speech.

“Will Republicans honor their campaign commitments to secure the border? Yes or no? What I am seeing right now from my Republican colleagues does not give me faith,” Roy added.

Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn says House Republicans need to be united on a single immigration bill for it to have any chance of passing both chambers.

“I’ve talked to both Congressman Roy and Congressman Gonzales and I have asked them to work out their differences,” Cornyn said. “The House needs to start because no bill that comes out of the Senate is going to pass the House.”