The legislative session has completed its 15th week. 6 weeks to go. Here’s what’s happening:
Bomb Threat at Capitol
On Sunday afternoon, an unknown person made a 911 call claiming that there was an explosive device in the Texas Capitol. The DPS immediately cleared the building, and alerts were sent to all Capitol employees telling them to avoid the building and the surrounding areas. The DPS conducted a full search of the building with K-9 dogs, finding nothing. The DPS declared the building safe and allowed employees and visitors to return shortly after 7PM Sunday evening. Lawmakers were not in session on Sunday, and there were reportedly very few staff in the building at the time.
Lt. Governor Patrick Talks Special Session
In an interview with Spectrum News this week, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said that the disagreement between the House and Senate on property tax reform could lead to a special session this summer. For a little background, both the House and Senate have plans to both reduce property taxes and send more state dollars to local school districts. The Senate version increases the homestead exemption while the House version calls for a cap on the annual taxable appraised values of properties. And, instead of trying to forge a compromise, the two chamber leaders are speaking to each other through media interviews and on social media.
Patrick, presiding officer of the Senate, said in his interview this week “California Dade wants a California tax plan”, referring to Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan. Patrick went on to say that he could not and would not work with the House on a compromise tax plan, declaring “you don’t negotiate on bad math”. Phelan has fiercely defended his chamber’s proposal – that passed by a 140-9 vote – by saying it is the only plan that benefits both homeowners and businesses by creating stability and predictability for property owners. Both sides seem dug in and have each released polls showing support for their respective plans. Furthermore, each chamber has passed their own proposal and each waits to see what if any movement the other chamber will take. With less than 40 days to go in the regular session, a special session is looking more and more like a possibility.
House Committee Considers Gun Safety Legislation
The House Select Committee on Community Safety met this week to consider HB 2744, which would prohibit the sale to, or possession of an AR-15 style rifle by anyone under the age of 21. This was in response to the Uvalde shooting, where the gunman was 18, and used a similar type weapon. Raising the age for the purchase of these assault rifles has been a priority of the families since the tragedy. Families of the victims of the shooting testified at the contention and emotional hearing that lasted well into the morning hours due to the number of people that wanted to testify. Supporters know that final passage is a longshot, but they are pleased to at least have a committee hearing so they can again remind the public of their tragic loss, and hopefully begin to change the attitude towards the purchase and possession of assault style weapons. After over 8 hours of testimony lasting until after 4AM, the bill was left pending in committee.
Austin Sees Drop in Violent Crime
Austin police chief Joseph Chacon announced this week that the city has seen a 25% drop in violent crime since the Texas Department of Public Safety began assisting with city patrols in late March. The city and the DPS entered into an agreement a few weeks ago due to a staffing crisis that has nearly 300 officer vacancies that has caused an increase in crime in the city over the last couple of years. According to Chief Chacon, DPS Troopers have served more than 100 felony warrants, arrested 96 more for felonies, and arrested 63 for misdemeanor offenses. He also credited the increased law enforcement presence with preventing harmful and unlawful actions that may have occurred in the absence of a police presence. There is not certain timetable for the duration of the agreement. However, there are concerns of “over policing” that have been voiced by members of the Austin City Council over the partnership.
Incumbent Republican US Senator Ted Cruz has reported raising $1.5 million in the first quarter of this year as he begins his campaign for a third term. Cruz has not made public what his total cash on hand figure is, but he reported having $3.4 million at the end of 2022. Cruz narrowly defeated Beto O’Rourke in his last reelection bid in 2018. Sources around the state Capitol are now indicating that state Senator Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat from San Antonio, is likely to challenge Cruz in 2024. Gutierrez represents Uvalde, and has made headlines championing the families of the victims of the school shooting massacre. He has introduced a series of gun and school safety legislation during the current legislative session. Gutierrez does not have to seek reelection to his state Senate seat until 2026, so he could challenge Cruz without losing his current seat. Sources indicate Gutierrez will not make a formal announcement until the conclusion of the legislation session in late May. Democratic Congressman Colin Allred of Dallas is also considering a run against Cruz.
The city of Houston is making a push to host the Republican National Convention in 2028. Legislation is currently moving through the session that will allow the city to use part of the hotel occupancy taxes to make improvements to the George R. Brown Convention Center, including expansion of the facility’s capacity. The Republican convention will take place in Milwaukee in 2024. Nashville and Miami are the two main rivals for Houston’s 2028 bid. Houston last hosted a national convention in 1992 when hometown son George H.W. Bush was renominated for reelection. Houston had also submitted a bid to host the Democratic convention in 2024, but that convention was awarded to Chicago. If Houston wins the bid, the convention will take place in either July or August of 2028.
Activity this Week
This week the Senate approved, among other bills, a bill to ban diversity programs at all public universities in the state. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs are intended to make advances in hiring practices, But, supporters of the bill claim the programs have done the opposite, and created a negative environment on campuses. After a nearly 5-hour debate, the bill passed along party lines. The Senate also passed legislation aimed at keeping schools safe, in response to the shooting in Uvalde. The bill gives authority to the Texas Education Agency to assess and oversee school safety needs and plans, calls for more training for active shooter response, and calls for stricter oversight of truancy and discipline policies with the goal of better identifying troubled students. The bill passed the Senate unanimously. One other bill of interest passed by the Senate this week would abolish Stephen F. Austin State University and admit it into the University of Texas System. The Nacogdoches based institution has been lobbying to be included in the UT system so they can be part of the system’s funding and appropriations process to better meet the region’s needs. The university will be allowed, at least for now, to keep its name, logo, and mascot.
The Senate adjourned after their session on Thursday for the weekend and will reconvene on Monday.
The House this week passed measures including a ban on sexually explicit materials in school libraries. Under the bill, some books that have explicit references will be removed, while parents will also have a say in what books are permitted. The House also passed a controversial bill aimed at restricting the authority of cities to enact regulations and ordinances that are stricter or in conflict with state statute. The bill was devised in response to the controversial “paid sick leave” ordinances passed by several of the state’s larger cities last year. The House also passed a proposal that would increase the penalty for giving alcohol to a minor, and the bill included a provision that created a felony offense for any “public officer” who gives alcohol to a minor. This was in response to the allegations that surfaced last week that Rep. Bryan Slaton (R, Royse City) had relations with a 19-year-old intern, including the provision of alcohol. The chamber also passed a measure to extend Medicaid benefits to new mothers for a full year after childbirth, provided their income level qualifies for the assistance.
The House met Friday and celebrated their “Speakers Reunion Day”, where all former members of the legislature are invited to come and be recognized on the House floor. After today’s activities, the House will adjourn for the weekend and convene on Monday.
Next week, committees on both sides of the rotunda will have very full agendas throughout the week. End of session deadlines are approaching, and members are pushing for committee hearings so they can attempt to get their bills to the floor before time runs out.
Also next week, the full House will consider a package of bills to increase funding and oversight of public school safety measures, legislation to increase funding and further development of rural broadband access, and a recodification of their redistricting legislation to ensure court compliance.
The Senate will consider legislation banning tenure for university professors, as well as more legislation regarding reliability of the electric grid.
When lawmakers return Monday, there will be 35 days remaining in the session.