May 15, 2017

Legislative Update – May 15, 2017

by Shannon Meroney, President, Meroney Public Affairs

LEGISLATIVE DEADLINES KILL MANY REMAINING BILLS
In a sign of their priorities on a day that spelled deadline doom for many bills that failed to make it to the floor of the Texas House for a vote, lawmakers spent valuable hours Thursday debating and passing a bill designed to stiffen regulations on abortion.

As many bills — including ones that would decriminalize marijuana possessionimprove farmworker housing conditions and allow handguns to be carried concealed or openly without a state-issued license — withered on the vine as the midnight deadline loomed, lawmakers revisited the sorts of abortion battles that have embroiled Texas in recent legislative sessions.

SCHOOL CHOICE RETURNS IN SCHOOL FINANCE BILL

In a surprise move on Thursday, Texas Senators slipped a school choice program into a House bill that would have injected $1.6 billion into the public education system and advanced the bill to the full Senate, which could consider it as early as Monday.

School choice has emerged as one of the most divisive education issues this legislative session and one that critics have said is a private school voucher system that would divert much-needed dollars from public schools.

This session, the House has indicated that it opposes school choice but supports funding schools at a higher level than the Senate says the state’s tight budget can handle. In a bargaining move by the Senate to push school choice, a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and an issue supported by Gov. Greg Abbott, House members who oppose school choice at least have to consider the issue now.

The Senate version of the bill would now create a school choice program called an education savings account for special education students. Under the savings account system, $8,300 of per-student funding the school district receives would be diverted to an account that a special education student leaving public school could use on private school tuition or other non-public education expenses.

The Senate version of HB 21 retains provisions to increase funding to educate bilingual students and increase the basic allotted money that school districts get per student from $5,140 to $5,350. The increase in the basic allotment would lower recapture payments — by $382 million statewide over the next two years — that property-wealthy school districts like Austin have to send to the state to be redistributed to property-poor districts.

HOUSE APPROVES FAITH-BASED BAN ON LGBT FOSTER FAMILIES

Divided largely along party lines, the Texas House approved a bill Wednesday that would allow faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to refuse to place children with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender households over religious objections.

The 93-49 vote sent House Bill 3859 to the Senate, where similar legislation has been stalled in committee.

Supporters, most of them Republicans, said HB 3859 would protect the free practice of religion while keeping essential Christian organizations in the child-welfare system, which is plagued by a shortage of homes for children who had been abused or neglected.

Led by Democrats, opponents said the bill would allow for state-sanctioned discrimination under the guise of religion, favoring conservative Christian beliefs — and potential objections to non-Christian, single or LGBT Texans — over the welfare of children.

TEXAS AG SUES TRAVIS COUNTY SHERIFF AND AUSTIN MAYOR OVER SANCTUARY CITY POLICIES

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued multiple high-ranking Travis County officials, including Sheriff Sally Hernandez, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and other staunch opponents of a new law that will punish counties for failing to comply with federal immigration practices.

The lawsuit, which seeks a judge’s opinion on the legality of Senate Bill 4, is perceived as a pre-emptive strike against any litigation the county had planned against the state. In what could end up being a protracted battle in federal court, the state got the first word, accusing Travis and Austin officials of being “publicly hostile to cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.”

The lawsuit came about the same time Gov. Greg Abbott took to Facebook on Sunday evening to livestream his signing of the controversial “sanctuary cities” bill.

A statement released Monday by the attorney general’s office never mentions Travis County or Austin by name, instead attributing a quote to Paxton saying that “some municipalities and law enforcement agencies are unwilling to cooperate with the federal government and claim that SB 4 is unconstitutional.”

The bill will go into effect in September, giving Hernandez approximately four months to alter a policy she began in February reducing cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Under Hernandez, the county has refused to detain defendants for immigration investigations unless they are charged with crimes such as murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking.

That position under SB 4 will be illegal and grounds for Hernandez to be charged with a crime and for the sheriff’s office to be fined $25,000 a day. According to the lawsuit, Travis County from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3 declined 142 ICE detainer requests (69 percent).

The new law was a priority for both Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.