Here’s a quick recap of what happened over the last week:
New Laws in Effect
31 new laws went into effect on New Year’s Day, ranging from taxes to e-cigarettes. As part of the omnibus property tax relief package passed in the summer of 2023, about 70,000 businesses throughout the state will no longer be subject to the state’s franchise tax. Under the new law, businesses that have a taxable revenue of less than $2.5 million annually are exempt from the franchise tax. This amount is doubled from the previous $1.25 million threshold for exemption. Also, businesses that are not required to pay will no longer have to file “no tax due” form.
To address the dramatic increase in teen vaping rates, the legislature passed a law creating a criminal offense for e-cigarette companies that engage in marketing and advertising practices geared towards minors. Vaping rates among high schoolers is at roughly 10%, down from a high of 28% in 2019. The new law makes it a misdemeanor offense to market e-cigarettes to young people by featuring any type of cartoon characters or images of celebrities on the packaging.
One of the more controversial laws that just took effect relates to a new ban on diversity, equity, and inclusion offices at public universities. Universities are now also forbidden from sponsoring any programs or policies that are “designed or implemented in reference to race, color, or ethnicity”. Supporters of the new law claim that diversity programs are polarizing and actually work against inclusion, while critics say the measure will harm the efforts of colleges to have a student body that reflects the diversity of the state.
Lawmakers also passed a law now in effect that attempts to address mental health issues among our youth. Under the new law, local governments and jurisdictions can begin intervention and alternative sentencing programs for alleged penalties at the start of the judicial process. These programs can include rehab services, alcohol and drug awareness programs, and job training programs. Previously, these type programs could only be offered after an actual conviction.
According to numerous news accounts, the southern border saw the highest number of illegal migrants in the month of December. Although actual numbers are not yet available, officials with the Customs and Border Patrol said that a record 302,000 migrants were documented attempting to cross the border in the month of December. This is the highest number ever recorded for a single month. More than 785,000 migrant encounters have been recorded since the fiscal year began on October 1st.
On Wednesday, US House Speaker Mike Johnson led a delegation of 60 Congressional Republicans on a visit to the southern border. The group toured border areas near Eagle Pass, where the number of illegal crossings number into the thousands on a daily basis. At a news conference at the conclusion of their tour, the Speaker said he would use the upcoming deadline to pass a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown as leverage against President Biden to force stronger border policies by the administration.
Lawsuit Over Busing of Migrants
Hundreds of migrants are now being dropped off at New Jersey train stations to bypass the new policy set in place by New York City Mayor Eric Adams regarding charter buses. Last week, in response to the state of Texas and other border states busing migrants to NYC, the mayor placed severe restrictions on when and where buses carrying the migrants would be allowed to drop off passengers. In response, the buses coming from Texas are now stopping in New Jersey. The first group was dropped off over the New Year’s weekend went to Seacaucus, but there are drop offs happening all over the state. New Jersey State Police reported that a total of 10 buses have arrived in New Jersey from Texas carrying an estimated 400 migrants. In December, NYC reported 14,700 migrant arrivals including 14 buses in a single night. NYC officials claim to have processed over 161,000 migrants over the last several months, with at least 33,000 arriving on buses sent from Texas.
And in yet another effort to stop the state of Texas from sending migrants to NYC, yesterday the city’s Department of Social Services sued the 17 busing companies that have transported migrants from Texas to New York City. The lawsuit cites a New York state statute that penalizes anyone that “knowingly brings any person from out of state into New York for the purpose of making that person a public charge.” The case was filed in New York Supreme Court and seeks $708 million in damages from the companies, which is the estimated amount that the city has spent caring for the tens of thousands of migrants that have been sent to New York from Texas over the last 16 months. In response, Gov. Abbott called the lawsuit baseless and argued the fact that all migrants that have arrived in New York have done so voluntarily.
Department of Justice Sues Texas Over New Border Law
The federal Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit to stop a new law passed by the legislature during the last special session that allows state and local law enforcement officials to arrest anyone suspected of illegally crossing the border. The new law makes crossing the border between ports of entry a Class B misdemeanor, carrying a possible sentence of 6 months in jail. In the filing in federal district court in Austin, the DOJ said the law is unconstitutional and will disrupt the operations of the federal government. The state of Texas has said it is prepared to defend the law all the way to the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has set precedence in a similar case related to state level law enforcement of immigration laws. In 2012, the Court struck down an Arizona law that allowed state law enforcement officials to investigate the immigration status of suspected offenders. The Court ruled states do not have the right to enforce federal immigration law. However, the court makeup is substantially different now, and the new Texas law is likely to eventually be considered by the US Supreme Court. The new Texas law is scheduled to go into effect on March 5th.
Far-Right Activist Attacks Speaker
The far-right political group Empower Texans continued their vicious attacks on Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan over the holidays. The group sent a mail piece to voters in the Speaker’s district that suggested a severely anti-Muslim theme. The card shows Phelan at an event hosted by state Reps. Suleman Lalani and Salman Bhojani – both of whom are Muslim – in the Capitol earlier this year. The event was held in the Captiol, open to the public, and intended to celebrate Ramadan, a Muslim holiday. The card insinuates that Phelan is Muslim by stating that “Phelan’s pro-Muslim record is real”. Leaders in the Muslim community immediately denounced the mailer, as did most Republican members of the Texas House, over which Phelan presides. Phelan has been the subject of numerous attacks by far right groups, and has been involved in public feuds with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Phelan faces two opponents in the March Republican primary but is expected to easily defeat both.
Gov. Abbott went on the attack this week against two incumbent Republican state Representatives with viable challengers. First, Abbott went on twitter to attack Rep. Justin Holland of Rockwall for his vote against public education vouchers – the one issue on which Abbott is basing all of his endorsements in state House races – and his vote in committee to raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase a semi-automatic rifle. Holland has two opponents in the Republican primary. One is Dennis London, who Holland defeated by 45 points in the 2022 primary and the other is former Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson. Abbott has not made an endorsement in this race and may not since Pierson endorsed Don Huffines in his race against Abbott in 2022.
Abbott also took to twitter to attack incumbent Republican Hugh Shine of Temple. Abbott criticized Shine for his vote against the voucher bill and reiterated his support of Hillary Hickland, a party activist from Belton who is an outspoken supporter of vouchers and the banning of sexually explicit books in school libraries. Abbott has not only endorsed Hickland, but also attended her campaign kickoff announcement in December.
State Senator Judith Zaffirini (D, Laredo) has made history by becoming the first woman to become Dean of the Texas Senate. Zaffirini assumed the title on Sunday evening at 10PM when Senator John Whitmire resigned from the Senate to be sworn in as mayor of Houston. First elected in 1986, Zaffirini was one of three women elected to the Senate that year. Prior to 1986, only 6 women had served in the Senate. The role of Dean is given to the longest serving member of the Senate and is purely ceremonial. There are no additional privileges afforded to the Dean. The only distinction of the Dean is to make any ministerial announcements to the body and then make the daily motion to adjourn when the body has completed its work for the given day.
Former Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas passed away on New Year’s Eve. At the time of her retirement from Congress in 2022, she was the longest serving member of the Texas Congressional delegation. Johnson was elected to the Texas Senate in 1986 and then elected to Congress in 1992. A Democrat, she served a mostly urban area of Dallas. She was the first Black woman elected to office in Dallas and the first Black member of Congress from Dallas. Johnson was a registered nurse and was the chief psychiatric nurse at Dallas’ Veterans Affairs Hospital before embarking on her long political career. Johnson will lie in state at the Hall of State in Fair Park on Monday. Her funeral will be held at Concord Church in Dallas on Tuesday, followed by a graveside service at the Texas State Cemetery on Wednesday.
House committee chairs submitted ideas for interim studies this week, so the House committees could be getting their charges soon.
With the primaries now just two months away, fundraising by members and candidates is in full swing and will continue up to the March 5th primary date.