May 1, 2017

Countdown to End of Legislative Session

SANCTUARY CITIES BAN PASSES HOUSE

After debating for 16 hours and giving preliminary approval at 3 a.m. Thursday to a bill banning so-called sanctuary cities, Texas House members got a few hours of sleep and returned to work later in the day to give final approval in a 94-53 vote. All Democrats present voted “no.”

Senate Bill 4, authored by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and carried in the House by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, imposes stiff financial penalties on local governments like Austin that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement.

The Senate approved the bill in February, and Gov. Greg Abbott has made signing it into law one of his top priorities for the legislative session. Next, a select committee of House and Senate members will negotiate differences between the two chambers’ versions before the Legislature sends it to Abbott’s desk. A court challenge is expected to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a ruling on its constitutionality.

PLASTIC BAG LEGISLATION HEARD

Even as conservative lawmakers hope that courts will soon block policies in a dozen or more Texas cities to limit the use of plastic bags at the checkout counter, an effort to shield bag bans like Austin’s won a hearing last Tuesday before a Texas House committee, prompting visits by environmental activists across the state to the Texas Capitol.  They face long odds at a Capitol where lawmakers have long angled to dismantle local bag bans, and where the governor has suggested they amount to an abrogation of personal liberty.

In an interview, Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, said bag bans interfere with the “consumer relationship with the retailer, disadvantages the poor, and hinders the overall convenience factor.” Springer, who has tried ending such bans in the past, said they are “a slippery slope to what we’ve seen in New York City, where they regulate the size of soft drinks, or the amount of salt in our diet. It’s the nanny state.”

proposal to exempt bags from such a ban, by Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, comes in response to a key August court decision now under appeal. The ruling by a San Antonio-based state appeals court to toss out Laredo’s ban on store-provided checkout bags technically has no immediate effect on similar bans outside the court’s 32-county South Texas district, which does not include Austin.

In its ruling, the 4th Court of Appeals said Laredo’s bag ban was preempted by a state law that says cities cannot “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package.” Store-provided bags, the court ruled, are containers under the law.

Hoping to insulate city bag bans from the courts, Hinojosa proposes to add a line to state code that says “‘package or container’ does not include a single-use plastic bag.”

Meanwhile, all sides have appealed the San Antonio court’s ruling to the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, hoping for broader clarity.

“We’re looking for the Supreme Court to see (the bag bans) repealed once and for all,” Springer said at a conservative policy confab in January.

BATHROOM BILL “LITE” GAINS TRACTION

The Texas House’s version of the “bathroom bill” is gaining traction. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has expressed support for the House’s version and the legislation now has more than 40 co-authors. That means almost half of the Texas House GOP caucus has signed on to the bill.

Patrick, who has been relatively quiet about the House’s version, expressed support for it on Friday. “Senate Bill 6 — or a House companion — we need to pass,” Patrick said Friday night during remarks at the Harris County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.

The House’s version is slightly different from the Senate’s — but the end result is the same. The bill would ban municipalities and school districts from enacting or enforcing local policies that regulate bathroom use.

In mid-April, the bill got a marathon committee hearing in the Texas House. The bill was left pending in committee, and hasn’t had any movement since. And with just a month left in the current session, time is running out.

UBER/LYFT LEGISLATION TAKES WRONG TURN

Five days after a controversial amendment defining “sex” as “the physical condition of being male or female” was added to a statewide ride-hailing bill, representatives from Uber and Lyft called the addition disappointing and unnecessary — though both companies stopped short of saying they’d withdraw their support.

“We are disappointed that this unnecessary amendment was added to legislation that should be focused on adopting a consistent statewide framework for ride sharing,” Uber spokesman Travis Considine said. “Uber’s comprehensive national nondiscrimination policy will not change.”

“The adopted amendment is unnecessary, as Lyft’s strong nondiscrimination policy remains in effect no matter what local or state statutes exist,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Harrison said.

House Bill 100, which passed out of the House the prior Thursday, would establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

The “sex” amendment by state Reps. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, and Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — which came amid a legislative session where some GOP lawmakers are already trying to legislate which bathrooms transgender Texans can use — passed on a 90-52 vote Wednesday after HB 100’s author, Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, said he viewed it as “further defining something that’s already defined.”

The bill now heads to a Senate committee for consideration.