End of Session Report
Texas’ 87th Legislative Session officially ended last week with many issues remaining unresolved. While members, pundits and citizens alike celebrate the end of session, they fully expect to be back sometime soon for at least two special sessions. It is unclear exactly when the chambers will reconvene, but it is understood that much work is still to be done.
The last days of session were riddled with tension after it became clear that a number of top GOP priorities were unlikely to pass in time. This tension reached its boiling point when House Democrats staged a walkout on the last day to break quorum and force the closure of session without solidifying final approval to Senate Bill 7, a leading GOP priority voting bill that would substantially overhaul the state’s election laws. Abbott ensured members and the public that this bill as well as a bill that would make it harder for jailed individuals to make bond without cash, another top GOP priority, would “be added to the special session agenda.”
Despite attempts by Dan Patrick to force Abbott into calling the special session as early as this summer, the Governor has yet to declare when he will be ordering a reconvening prior to the one already planned for the fall to handle redistricting which was forcefully delayed along with the census. The Governor is the only official with the powers to convene a special session.
Abbott showed off yet another of his powers when he expressed his disapproval of the Legislature’s actions by announcing his intention to veto the segment of the state budget that funds the legislative branch. He tweeted, “no pay for those who abandon their responsibilities. Stay tuned.” Aside from his obvious desire for lawmakers to pass voting and bail legislation during the special session, Abbott recently hinted at the possibility of other potential topics being added to the agenda. What those topics are remains unspecified, however, they are likely other proposals that were successfully killed by the Democrats throughout the session. Those proposals include ones that would’ve banned local governments from using taxpayer dollars to pay lobbyists, prohibited social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoints and barred transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity.
And now, for a closer look at the Legislature’s most hotly contested bills and topics:
The following are bills that have been, as of this writing, sent to Abbott but not yet signed into law.
Permitless Carry of Handguns aka “Constitutional Carry”
Sent to Abbott on May 24
Just before midnight the day before session was to end, the lower chamber managed to pass HB 1927 in an 82-62 vote. The next day – the final day of session – the Senate sent the bill to Abbott’s desk after approving it in a 17-13 vote along party lines. The bill has been a bill long desired by conservative activists who have failed in several previous sessions in getting it passed. If signed into law, it will allow most adults in Texas to carry a handgun without a license, training, or screening. The bill carries with it a verbal commitment from Abbott to sign it into law. The Senate sponsor, Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said the bill was “the strongest [he’d] seen in [his] legislative career regarding the rights of our Second Amendment.” HB 1927 excludes only those adult Texas residents who are otherwise prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a gun. The bill passed only after a compromise was struck, largely to assuage concerns from law enforcement. They were concerned over a provision that would restrict their ability to question individuals carrying guns based only on their carrying of that gun. This provision was tossed out, allowing the bill to pass the House and carry on to the Senate. The compromise also ensured the preservation of the Senate amendment increasing the criminal penalties for felons and family violence offenders caught carrying. With 20 states across the country fighting to get similar laws on their books, Texas’ proponents of this bill now see themselves consecrated as the United States’ leader in “gun rights”. Opponents of the bill believe it will not only endanger the public, but also law enforcement. Under current state law, Texans must be licensed to carry handguns openly or concealed. License applicants must submit fingerprints, complete four to six hours of training, and pass a written exam and a shooting proficiency test. Texas does not require a license to openly carry a rifle in public.
Sent to Abbott on May 28
If Rep. Justin Holland’s HB 2622 is signed into law by Abbott, Texas state and local governments would be prohibited from enforcing or providing assistance to federal agencies on certain federal gun regulations that do not exist under state law, such as registry, license and background check requirements and programs that would confiscate guns or require people to sell them. Essentially, this bill will act as a support to HB 1927, ensuring that Texas’ membership in the ranks of a small, but growing, club of states that have passed laws that designate them as second amendment “sanctuaries.” Legal experts call this move largely symbolic as “it doesn’t mean the Department of Justice can’t enforce federal firearms laws in the state of Texas. It just makes their job more difficult, because they can’t rely on assistance from state or local government agents to help them out.”
Critical Race Theory Banned
Sent to Abbott on June 1
Despite opposition from educators, school advocacy groups, and senators and representatives of color, Senator Bryan Hughes’ HB 3979 has been approved and sent to Abbott. The bill will require the State Board of Education to develop new state standards for civics education in addition to a teacher training program to start in the 2022-23 school year. Included in the bill is the specific curriculum requirement to teach the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence as well as the removal of previously approved requirements to teach the writings/stories of multiple women and people of color. Although the Senate did vote to include the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 13th 14th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the complexity of the relationship between Texas and Mexico to the list of required instruction, the bill bars students from getting course credit for civic engagement efforts, including lobbying for legislation or other types of political activism. The most controversial aspects of the bill remain, including a provision that teachers must explore current events from multiple positions without giving “deference to any one perspective.” Supporters of the bill claim it is a way to ensure that no race or gender is taught as superior to any other.
Sent to Abbott on May 27
After months long negotiations between and within the chambers, the two year budget totaling $248 billion passed and has been sent to Abbott for approval. A day after the Senate unanimously approved the bill, the House passed it with a 142-6 vote. Once the bill finds its way to Abbott’s desk, he will have the right to veto individual line items. He has threatened to veto the item which funds the legislative branch. This move would be in retaliation for the Legislature’s inability to pass what he views as priority bills. If passed without any vetoes, SB 1 would spend over $116 billion in general revenue which matches Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s projections for state funds available in the next biennium – up $3 billion from his last estimation. The bill would not require tapping into the Rainy Day Fund, formally known as the Economic Stabilization Fund. The $248 billion in approved spending is $13.5 billion less than the 2020-2021 budget cycle. This is thought to be in large thanks to federal coronavirus relief funding. How that funding is spent has been one of the largest contentions in discussing the budget. As it is written, the $16 billion in federal relief funding is not yet appropriated, rather, will be determined in the upcoming special session. SB 1 fulfills the Legislature’s 2019 promise to better fund the public school system and appropriates $8.6 billion for higher education, including $486 million to fund enrollment growth, which was added into the budget at the last minute and is seen as a victory for colleges, universities and health-related institutions. Additionally, it appropriates $110 million for need-based financial aid for students at two- and four-year schools. Many lawmakers expressed grief that Texas’ Historically Black Universities remain underfunded in the bill despite pleas for increased appropriations.
Winter Storm Response
Sent to Abbott on May 30
SB 3 aims to revamp the state’s power grid system in response to February’s winter storm that left millions without electricity for days and ended in the death of 100 Texas residents. The bill failed to make the comprehensive structural changes to Texas’ electricity market that many experts called for after power crisis. Rather than a total overhaul, lawmakers chose to address only a few more pointed issues exposed by the storm. The bill will require power generation companies to prepare their facilities for instances of extreme weather. The House included language in their bill to create a $2 billion fund to help companies to achieve weatherization, however, that language was excluded in the Senate’s final version of the bill. The requirement for gas facilities to weatherize will be much more limited than electric power generators. Only those gas facilities deemed “critical” by regulators will be required to prep their facilities. The bill does not include language to require more weatherization for homes, pipes and other consumer infrastructure. Experts see this as a grave oversight. The bill would allow companies to seek billions of dollars in state-approved bonds backed by charges on customers’ bills to stabilize the state’s distressed energy market. Practically, this means consumers could face increased electricity and gas bills for years to come. Additionally, SB 3 includes a requirement to study and implement an emergency alert system similar to an Amber Alert to warn residents of potential outages and provide life-saving updates. SB 2 includes language to shrink the number of seats on ERCOT’s board of directors from 16 to 11, and the state’s top politicians would have strong influence over the board. 8 of the 11 members would be appointed by a selection committee comprised of three members appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker of the House.
Sent to Abbott on May 28
Texas is one of six states to not have a broadband plan. Experts believe that nearly 9 million Texas residents are currently living without broadband internet. This is either because the infrastructure doesn’t reach their homes or because they aren’t subscribed to a service. HB 5 aims to address this. The bill would attempt to incentivize the expansion of broadband internet access to areas across the state through the creation of the State Broadband Development Office, which would award grants, low-interest loans and other incentives to build out broadband access.
HB 1280/SB 8
Sent to Abbott on May 25/Signed on May 19
Called a “trigger” law, HB 1280 would almost immediately ban abortions in the event that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The law would also kick in after a court ruling or constitutional amendment gave states the authority to prohibit abortions. This bill comes shortly after Abbott signed one of the country’s strictest abortion laws, SB 8, and the new conservative ruled Supreme Court has yet to encounter a challenge to Roe v. Wade. This measure is widely backed by Republicans and passed both the House and Senate with ease. The Texas ban prohibits abortions as early as six weeks and enforces a robust penalty on doctors, who could face life in prison or $100,000 fines if they perform abortions. The bill does not make exceptions for women at risk of suicide or self-harm, pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or in the case of severe or potentially lethal fetal abnormalities. Women who face death or a “substantial impairment of major bodily function” if an abortion is not performed are excluded from the measure. Texas is one of at least 10 states who have passed similar “trigger” laws. Opponents of the bill believe that, if enacted, this law will only push abortions out of state or underground which would greatly increase the health complications of the procedure.
SB 23/HB 1900
Sent to Abbott on June 1
The senate’s version of this bill would require Texas’ major cities and counties to hold a public vote before reducing the budget of their law enforcements. The House’s version would financially reprimand cities who cut their law enforcement’s budget. Both aim to stop cities in Texas from cutting law enforcement’s budget. More specifically, the Senate version is only applicable in counties with more than 1 million people and the House version only in cities with more than 250,000 people. These bills are the Republicans’ response to last year’s cultural movement to reevaluate the role of policing in our society which resulted in Austin decreasing it’s police budget. The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Oliverson, said that “Texans deserve to feel safe in their communities, and this bill guarantees that local voters have input in a critical decision.” The House version passed after two hours of heated debate with numerous amendment challenges from Democrats, all of which failed. HB 1900 would allow the state to siphon some sales taxes for state use and ban the accused city from increasing property taxes or utility fees. It would also forbid the city from further annexation and allow any areas annexed within the last 30 years to opt for de-annexation. In both chambers, Democrats call the bill tyrannical and a deliberate and clear attempt by the Republican-led state to control large, mostly liberal, cities and counties. Under SB 23, the $1 million cap would only apply to Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis counties
Sent to Abbott on May 31
In the name of religious freedom and in response to events in the pandemic, the legislature passed HB 1239. The bill will ban state agencies and officials from issuing orders that “close or have the effect of closing places of worship in the state.” Opponents worry the bill will make it difficult to protect the public in future emergencies. The bill passed despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against COVID-19 restrictions on churches last November that stated that government officials could only close religious organizations if they were also closing nonreligious organizations. Douglas Laycock, an expert on religious freedom policy at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, said “there are very few occasions or reasons on which it would ever be necessary to shut down a place of worship, but COVID is one.” “This bill is absolute. It says it doesn’t matter how crowded the church is, it doesn’t matter how high the infection rate is, it doesn’t matter how deadly the disease is.” The bill defines a place of worship as “a building or grounds where religious activities are conducted,” making it an unusually vague bill. Under this language, any event a church hosts will be covered.
The following are bills that FAILED passage.
Terminated with the loss of a quorum on May 30
If the House Democrats had not walked out on the vote to pass SB 7, the bill would have been sent to Abbott and become law. SB 7 is widely supported by conservatives as an “election integrity” bill. The bill would ratify new restrictions on voting and limit the capacity of local officials to run elections. Specifically, it would restrict 24-hour voting, drive-thru voting and voting on Sunday mornings, tighten the rules for voting by mail, and increase access for partisan poll watchers. Democrats and opponents say this bill aims to decrease access to the polls and would disproportionately affect people of color. Civil rights groups warn of the potential encroachment of this bill on the federal safeguards for voters of color and many threaten taking the government to court if it is passed. Previously, House Democrats put the Department of Justice on notice after a committee rewrote SB 7 without notice and without public input in what they called “grave deviation from standard operating procedure.” House Democrats see federal intervention as their last hope in killing this bill when Republicans inevitably revive their push on the issue in the upcoming special session.
Transgender Student Athletes
Missed deadline on May 25
If passed, the controversial SB 29 would have mandated transgender children to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. The bill’s supporters said it was intended to protect the transgender girl athletes from the unfair advantage of playing against girls because of their higher levels of testosterone. Opponents said the legislation was harmful and discriminatory against transgender Texans. The bill did not pass because it failed to meet the House’s deadline for passing bills from the upper chamber. It is likely that the bill will be revived in the upcoming special session as it was one of the most high-profile priorities for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Abbott. Texas is among several states that have considered bills limiting school sports team participation for transgender children this year.
Prohibition of Gender Affirming Health Care
SB 1311/SB 1646
Missed deadline on May 25
SB 1311 and 1646 were the second and third bills pursued by Republicans addressing the rights of transgender children to fail. SB 1311 is a bill that would have banned gender modification surgery and hormone therapy for those under 18 and jeopardized the medical licenses for physicians who prescribe hormone therapy. SB 1646 would have classified transition-related medical care as child abuse. Although both passed in the Senate, they failed to meet key deadlines to advance in House committees. The bills died in large part because of well-organized lobbying efforts. Angela Hale, senior advisor for Equality Texas, said “the vast majority of Texans do not want to see our community under attack session after session [and] a lot of good people rallied together to defeat this legislation. And we worked very hard, and we did it because we wanted to protect innocent children, who should not be political pawns in this game of Dan Patrick’s.”
HB 20 would have made it more difficult for jailed individuals accused of violent or sexual crimes to be released from jail without cash, and it also would have limited the ability of charitable organizations to post bail for people accused of certain crimes. Bail reform, which was materialized by HB 20, was a major priority for Abbott who has promised to revive the issue during the upcoming special session. The bills cosponsor, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, argued that the legislation was necessary because of the number of individuals allegedly committing crimes while out on multiple bonds. Opponents say that reinforcing the existing system of cash bail will only further discriminate against poor defendants. They say wealthy defendants will still be able to bond out, regardless of the seriousness of the charges against them. Despite finding a negotiated compromise behind closed doors and successfully passing it in the Senate, legislatures were unable to meet the midnight deadline in the House.
Casino Gaming and Sports Betting
Despite gambling interests throwing millions of dollars and dozens of lobbyists at the effort, legalizing casinos and sports betting in Texas won’t become law this year. GOP Rep. John Kuempel said, “there’s not time for it to pass this session.” The bill would have let Texas voters decide whether to build “destination resorts” with casinos in the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas – Dallas being number one on that list. None of the bills to expand gaming in Texas made it over their first committee hearing in the legislature and because the Texas Constitution bans most gambling, the legislation would have needed a two-thirds vote of lawmakers and then the support of a majority of voters to become law. The proposals had strong backing from the Las Vegas Sands who largely funded the multimillion-dollar lobbying effort to lift the ban. State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, was the most vocal supporter of the bills in the upper chamber. She argued that legalizing casinos and gaming would create tens of thousands of permanent jobs and generate billions of dollars for the state’s GDP. “I don’t know any other initiative, policy that could give our economy a shot in the arm like this could,” Alvarado said. “Unfortunately, I think Republicans still have a hard time with the issue.”
The casino bills met a similar fate to that of legislation to legalize sports betting. The House bill to legalize sports betting got a hearing before the State Affairs Committee last month and was not voted out before the Monday deadline. The sports-betting legislation was backed by an alliance of professional Texas sports teams, racetracks and betting platforms.
In an interview last week with a radio station in Lubbock, Gov. Abbott confirmed there will be at least TWO special sessions upcoming. The legislative community was already preparing for a special session in October/November to address the issue of Redistricting – the required process of redrawing all state legislative and congressional districts that occurs every 10 years in response to new census data. This special session will also contain the topic of appropriating the $16 billion in federal COVID relief funds scheduled to be sent to the state this summer. In addition to this special session, Abbott confirmed that a special session will be called later this summer to address topics and GOP priorities not successfully completed during the regular session. This will definitely include election law overhaul, bail reform, and potentially other issues he deems to be a priority for his personal agenda.
Special sessions of the Legislature can only be called by the Governor. They are limited to specific topics, that only the Governor can designate, and they can last no more than 30 days.