The legislative session has completed its 16th week. 3 weeks to go. Here’s what’s happening:
Abbott Criticized for Tweet
Everyone this week has certainly heard of the horrible incident that happened last weekend near Cleveland, Tx where several members of one family were murdered by a neighbor for being asked not to shoot his weapon near their home. The suspect – who is now in custody – was at large for several days. Gov. Abbott has received criticism for a tweet during the manhunt that referred to the victims as “illegal immigrants”. The purpose of the tweet was to announce a $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the suspect, but the reference to the legal status drew a tremendous amount of backlash. The criticism came from political opponents, as well as media outlets, all of whom called the reference insensitive and dehumanizing. Abbott issued a statement apologizing for the tweet and acknowledged that at least one of the victims was here legally and asked that his comments not diminish the tragedy. The suspect was located and captured on Tuesday in Cut and Shoot, a small town about 15 miles west of Cleveland.
Trump Weighs in on Property Tax Debate
Former President Trump has weighed in on the ongoing debate in the legislature regarding property tax relief. The House and Senate are at odds on how the state should provide property tax relief. The chambers have both agreed to spend roughly $15 million of the state’s $30 billion plus surplus on property tax relief, but can’t agree on how to get there. The Senate wants to increase the homestead exemption for homeowners while the House wants to put a cap on the year to year appraisals for for all property, home and business. Trump posted on social media this week that the legislature should adopt the Senate plan. Lt Gov. Dan Patrick – presiding officer of the Senate — is a long time ally of the former President and serves as his state campaign chairman. Trump has also not been shy to criticize House Speaker Dade Phelan, at whom he lashed out during the last series of special sessions in 2021 when he felt the House was not moving swiftly enough on election reform bills. Both proposals have passed their respective chambers, but neither chamber has scheduled a committee hearing for the opposite proposal.
House Advances Tax Incentives Package
The House has given approval to legislation that would revive the state’s largest corporate tax break program, which is the same program lawmakers allowed to expire during the last session. HB 5 – a priority of House Speaker Dade Phelan – would provide billions of dollars of tax breaks on school property taxes to manufacturing and energy companies in an effort to have them relocate from other states. In exchange, the companies must commit to substantial investment in infrastructure and hiring of new employees. The tax breaks will also apply to expansion of existing facilities, not just newly located ones. One key provision of the bill is the prohibition of renewable energy such as solar and wind, to obviously give the advantage to existing energy sources such as oil and natural gas. The bill easily passed the House by a 118-22 vote, but faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and several Republican Senators have voiced concerns over giving large corporations large tax breaks at the expense of public school districts.
ERCOT Warns of Potential Blackouts
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has warned that the state could face rolling blackouts this summer if the state experiences a long period of extreme heat. Last summer the state broke energy demand records 11 times, causing ERCOT to issue warnings for customers to conserve energy. This summer’s long term forecast once again calls for extreme heat which will cause the peak demand to rise above the 80,000 megawatt level. ERCOT officials have said that if the state does not prepare adequately by having renewables available for energy production, then the fossil fuel based plants may not be able to keep up with demand. Legislative proposals this session call for billions of dollars from the state to assist with the construction of new natural gas plants that would act as backup generators of power in cases of extreme weather. Those proposals have not gained any traction in the House, meaning a solution for more reliability for the electric grid may have to wait until a special session, or even the next regular session.
Debate on Transgender Legislation
A huge group of protestors gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday to oppose legislation on the House floor that would prohibit gender transition related treatments and surgery for minor children. In what was the most dramatic day of the session so far, the groups gathered before the bill hit the floor all throughout the building to chant and sing in an attempt to draw attention to their cause. When the bill came up for consideration on the floor, the protestors moved to the House gallery where they began to disrupt the floor activities. That led to the House Speaker ordering the gallery to be cleared so the House could conduct its business. Several protestors clashed with the Capitol police and had to be forcefully removed from the gallery and removed from the Capitol. One protestor was arrested. After that, the bill was delayed on a point of order and recommitted to committee to fix the rules violation. The bill is back on the calendar for consideration today on the House floor.
Rep. Slaton Faces Investigating Committee
Rep. Bryan Slaton, the Republican from Royse City accused of having an improper sexual relationship with an intern younger than 21, met with the members of the House General Investigating Committee yesterday. The meeting was held in executive session and was seeking to obtain all relevant testimony concerning the inquiry that was brought forth by several staff members in the House. After the meeting, Slaton was dogged by several Capitol reporters but refused to make any comment. There are reports that the findings of the committee would be ready for consideration by the full House as early as Monday. Slaton could face censure or even expulsion if the charges are found to be true.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced significant staff changes this week. Aaron Dietz, currently the state Deputy Attorney General for Legal Strategy was named Cruz’s new chief of staff beginning May 15th. Reitz has served as President of the Federalist Society and been in private practice at the Bracewell firm in Houston. Now living in Austin, he ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives in 2018.
Cruz wasted no time to start fundraising for his upcoming challenge. Houston businessman Tilman Fertitta – owner of Landry’s restaurants and the Houston Rockets — sent out an invitation on Thursday to the political class in Austin and Washington, DC for a fundraiser he will be hosting for Cruz on June 1st in Houston. Several prominent Houston area business leaders are listed on the invitation.
Dallas Congressman Colin Allred announced this week that he will seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Cruz in 2024. Allred is a former NFL player who also served in the Obama Administration as a civil rights lawyer in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Asked for a comment on Allred, Cruz simply stated that Allred is “an insignificant member of Congress that is too extreme for Texas.” The three term Congressman from Dallas will in all likelihood face state Senator Roland Gutierrez from San Antonio in the primary. Gutierrez has said he will wait until after the legislative session to make a formal announcement.
Potential candidates to replace Allred have already begun to line up. The seat is solidly Democratic. State Rep. Julie Johnson of Farmers Branch is strongly considering a race, as is Brian Williams of Dallas, a trauma surgeon from Dallas who gained notoriety with his actions during the incident in 2016 when several Dallas police officers were targeted and shot while on duty.
Activity this Week
This week the Senate continued to target the election processes in Harris County by approving a bill that would allow the Secretary of State to overturn elections there in response to the issue the county encountered during the 2022 elections when they ran out of paper ballots at several polling locations. The Senate also approved legislation to require fewer investigations of jail deaths in what dilutes part of the previously passed Sandra Bland Act. And the Senate also passed a bill that is now on its way to the Governor sent that would create felony for taking off ankle monitor.
The Senate adjourned after their session on Thursday for the weekend and will reconvene on Monday.
The House met this week and passed hundreds of measures, including a bill to ban paper license plates for newly purchased vehicles as well as several Sunset bills. As this is being written, they are scheduled to once again take up the bill relating to the banning of transgender treatments for minors.
The House is meeting today and Saturday to consider a local and uncontested calendar and then will adjourn for the weekend and convene on Monday.
Committee hearings are winding down, especially on the House side. Next week is the final week that the House can pass a bill that originates in the House. After next Friday, the House will only be able to consider bills that have come over from the Senate. So members this weekend and for the first part of next week will be furiously trying to get their bills set on the final House calendars.
When lawmakers return Monday, there will be 21 days remaining in the session.