The legislative session has completed its 15th week.  4 weeks to go.  Here’s what’s happening:

Tensions Remain High Between Lt. Governor and Speaker

With now roughly one month remaining in the regular legislative session, major differences still remain between the House and Senate regarding priority issues.  House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt Governor Dan Patrick – who presides over the Senate – each have their own priorities and own political base to protect.  Therefore, compromise on issues such as property tax reform, electric grid reliability, and school choice becomes increasingly difficult.  Patrick touts the fact that the Senate has passed all 30 of his priority bills that includes banning tenure at public universities, banning transgender medical treatment for minors, and banning diversity policies at universities in addition to the major issues already mentioned.  Phelan downplays the fact that the House has been slower to move.  But, the pace of a 150-member body will always be slower than that of the 31-member Senate.

Breakfast meetings that have taken place in previous sessions between the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker are not happening this session.  Governor Abbott has not weighed in on many of the priorities and has not taken sides in the ongoing feud.  The main point of contention right now is the approach each chamber is taking over how to reduce property taxes.  The Senate wants to increase the homestead exemption while the House wants to cap year to year appraisals.  Each chamber has passed their own plan, but the opposite House has not taken either under consideration, and each says they have no plans to do so.  The other major issue of difference is school vouchers.  The Senate passed a voucher plan – allowing state dollars for private school tuition – along party lines, but the House plan has not received a committee vote.

All of this points to an eventual special session, or sessions.  Lt Governor Patrick has said while he cannot call a special – only the Governor can do that – he can “force” a special session by failing to pass necessary legislation such as the state budget.  Patrick has publicly said he will not negotiate with the House on their property tax plan, and Speaker Phelan has given no indication of compromise either.  The session will end on Memorial Day, May 29th.  If the budget, along with many of the other priorities discussed above are not passed by that time, then the legislature will assuredly go into overtime.

House Passes School Safety, Funding Bills

One area where the House and Senate are moving similar bills is in school safety.  On Monday, the House passed HB 3 and HB 13, which calls for uniform school safety standards at our public schools, as well as at least one armed security guard on all school campuses.  To better address mental health issues, the House package also requires school district employees to complete mental health training to help the employees identify and support students with mental health or substance abuse issues who could potentially pose a threat to school safety.

The House has also approved a bill that would increase the amount individual schools receive in per student funding.  The basic allotment – the money schools get per student – would be increased over the next two years. Plus, the money each school receives would now be based on average enrollment, not average daily attendance.  This is a significant change that allows schools to have a more reliable funding stream, and was proposed so schools can receive state funding based on how many they expect to be enrolled, not just how many actually show up for class every day.  The funding bill also increases funding for modest teacher pay raises and sets forth requirements for basic pay based on length of service.  Overall, the funding package will send an additional $4.5 billion to our public schools.

Texas has roughly 5.5 million students in public schools today, spread out over 2,100 school districts.

Senate Passes Ban on Foreign Governments Buying Lands

The Senate this week passed legislation that would ban governmental entities from certain countries – China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran — from buying land that is used for any type of agricultural purposes such as timber or farm production, or has mineral rights in place.  This is a substantial change from the original bill that was filed that banned citizens from those four countries from buying any land or a home in Texas.  Proponents of the bill say it is necessary to ensure hostile foreign governments do not gain control of strategic or vulnerable areas.  One example used in defense of the bill was the purchase of a wind farm by a Chinese national near Laughlin Air Force Base in Val Verde County.  Opponents argue that the bill unfairly targets Asian-Americans and furthers an attitude of distrust towards that community.  The bill now exempts any American citizen from the bill, and grandfathers any purchases that have already occurred.  The bill heads to the House, where its fate is uncertain.

House Passes Bill to Shield Teens from Social Media Ills

Due to the growing concerns over materials on social media and the link to mental health issues among teens, the House has passed legislation that would give parents greater control over how children use social media platforms.  And, would require the companies to try and protect the users from harmful materials.  The bill would require digital service providers – social media companies such as Facebook, SnapChat, and Instagram – to better protect the young users from content that promotes self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, bullying, and other detrimental behaviors.  The bill also requires the companies to require parental consent before collecting any information from a minor, including the information needed to set up an account.  The tech related companies voiced opposition to the bill, saying that the bill will do nothing to stop teens from using the platforms, since the requirements established in the legislation are vague and provide no means by which the companies will establish the rules.  The bill also calls for parents to seek legal recourse with the state Attorney General, and not have the ability to sue the companies directly.  The bill had little opposition among House members, and now goes to the Senate for consideration.  Similar measures challenging social media companies were passed in the 2021 session when Republicans targeted Twitter for banning former President Trump, and a law was passed prohibiting companies from banning users due to their political views.  That law is being challenged and its fate is in the hands of the US Supreme Court.

House Approves Marijuana Decriminalization

The House on Thursday narrowly gave approval to a bill that lowers the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.  Under current law, possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana is punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.  The bill passed yesterday reduces the penalty to only a fine of up to $500 for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.  This is akin to receiving a speeding ticket.  This comes as many cities throughout the state have reduced decriminalization policies on their own, including the use of diversion programs to avoid prosecution.  Annually, there are 80,000 misdemeanor arrests in Texas for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the DPS, along with local jurisdictions, say the cost of prosecution has become too burdensome.  A recent poll conducted by the University of Houston showed 80% of Texans support lowering the penalty for low-level marijuana possession.  House Speaker Dade Phelan and Governor Abbott have indicated support for this legislation, that now moves to the Senate where Lt. Governor Patrick has been a longtime opponent of lessening any laws related to marijuana.

Agriculture Commissioner Issues Dress Code

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has ordered all agency employees to dress in a manner consistent with their biological gender.  Miller issued the edict earlier this month that applies to all employees, interns, and contract employees at the Department of Agriculture.  The memo states that if the policy is violated, a warning is given, and employees must go home and change.  If the problem persists, then termination is a possibility.  Republican leaders and lawmakers have focused on transgender related issues this session, including the prohibition of gender modification surgery for minors, requiring athletes to compete in sports corresponding with their biological gender, and the banning of drag shows.  The ACLU immediately came out against the Miller mandate, saying it violates federal Title VII, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Political Notes

With the announcement by President Joe Biden that he will seek reelection in 2024, the University of Texas Politics Project again drew attention to their poll conducted in February that most voters in Texas do not want either one to run again, and certainly aren’t excited about a rematch.  The poll shows that 43% of Texans have a very unfavorable view of Biden, and Trump has a 42% unfavorable rating.  61% say Biden should not run, while 58% say the same about Trump.

Embattled state Rep. Bryan Slaton – under investigation by the House for an alleged improper relationship with an office intern – has already drawn 2 opponents in the Republican primary for 2024, should he choose to seek reelection.  Slaton is from Royse City in northeast Texas, and the district includes Greenville, Sulphur Springs, Commerce, and Canton.  Two people have already filed campaign treasurer appointments, which is the first step in raising money for a potential race.  David Van Trease, a veterinarian from Wills Point and Douglas Roszhart, a former member of the Greenville City Council are preparing to challenge Slaton in 2024.  The House General Investigating Committee has not issued their findings yet, but could at any time.  If found to have violated House rules, Slaton could face censure or expulsion.

President Joe Biden has tapped El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar as a national co-chair of his reelection campaign.  Naming a Texan could indicate that the Democratic incumbent plans to make a stronger play to win the state in 2024.  No Democratic Presidential candidate has carried the state in the general election for President since Jimmy Carter in 1976.  In the 2020 Presidential campaign, Trump bested Biden by a 52-46 margin, which was the worst showing for a Republican since 1996.

Activity this Week

This week the Senate approved more bills to tighten and restrict our election process including a bill to establish election marshals at polls and a bill to allow the state to seek alternative jurisdictions for election related crimes if the local prosecutor chooses not to pursue the charges.  The Senate also approved a resolution calling for a “Right to Life” monument to be constructed on the Capitol grounds.

The Senate adjourned after their session on Thursday for the weekend and will reconvene on Monday.

The House this week passed measures including a codification of their current redistricting lines to ensure judicial compliance, a bill to further invest in greater broadband access for rural and underserved areas, and a bill to increase voting related penalties from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The House floor session was also interrupted yesterday when a group of protestors began shouting from the gallery in opposition to a bill under consideration that would increase the penalties for fentanyl related distribution.  The gallery was temporarily closed to remove the protestors, and the House then overwhelmingly passed the proposal.

The House is meeting today and then will adjourn for the weekend and convene on Monday.

What’s Next??

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 House Higher Education committee will consider a bill that has already been passed by the Senate to require transgender athletes to compete in sports corresponding with their biological gender.

When lawmakers return Monday, there will be 28 days remaining in the session.