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May 22, 2017
Legislative Update – May 22, 2017
by Shannon Meroney, President, Meroney Public Affairs
HOUSES PASSES “BATHROOM BILL”-LITE
Amendment to a Senate bill would limit school bathrooms to each student’s biological sex. Divided almost exclusively along party lines in a Sunday night vote, the Texas House backed a ban on transgender-friendly bathroom and locker room policies in the state’s public schools.
An amendment, added to a bill on school safety and emergency policies, would require public schools and open-enrollment charter schools to limit bathroom use to each student’s “biological sex,” barring transgender students from using the bathroom of their gender identity.
The amendment by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, would apply to grade schools and high schools but not colleges, universities, government or private businesses of any kind (as an earlier Senate version would have). After a final House vote on Monday, it will be returned to the Senate to consider the change. Gov. Abbott had threatened to call a special session if the House didn’t act.
SENATE APPROVES SCHOOL FINANCE FIX, INCLUDING VOUCHERS
The Texas Senate approved 21-10 a bill early Monday morning that would inject about $530 million into the public education system while creating a so-called school choice system that would redirect state money to help students pay for private school tuition.
House Bill 21, originally would have injected $1.6 billion extra into the public school system through updating and adding various elements to the school funding formula. However, the Senate has reduced the extra funding to about half a billion dollars, which would go to pay for:
- $150 million for about 150 school districts that will lose so-called Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction funding in September through a hardship grant program. The amount of grant money such school districts would receive would be based on their tax rate.
- More funding for school district construction and establish such funding for the first time for charter schools.
- Funding for schools to educate students with dyslexia.
- $20 million grant program for public schools to educate students with autism in third grade and lower.
- A state commission to study and make recommendations on how to improve the school finance system.
The Austin school district would not receive any extra funding from HB 21; Round Rock would receive about $3 million over the next two years; and Pflugerville would receive about $800,000 over the next two years. Those school districts would have received millions more under a previous version of the bill.
Arguably the most contentious part of the bill to some, including teacher groups and school district officials, is a provision that would create a so-called school choice system called education savings accounts for special education students. Under the savings account system, $8,200 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. Critics have said the savings accounts are just another name for private school vouchers.
About 40 education and policy groups have signed a letter in opposition to HB 21 after education savings accounts were added to it, saying that the bill would now strip money from public education.
The author, Senator Larry Taylor (Friendswood – R) does not see it that way and said that his bill is meant to provide more educational opportunities for a small group of students — 5,000 to 6,000 of them — who may not be getting the services they need in their public schools.
A majority of House members have made it clear they do not support school choice. Last month, during a marathon debate of the House’s version of the state budget, House members overwhelmingly approved an amendment that would bar any state money from supporting school choice programs the next two years, cementing the chamber’s stance on the issue.
Taylor has said not including education savings accounts is a deal breaker, which means if the House doesn’t agree to the education savings accounts, HB 21 fails.
Other changes Taylor has made to the original bill filed in the House include removing a funding bump for public schools to educate non-native English speakers and scrapping an increase to the $5,140 allotment that all public schools receive. Taylor said the changes were meant to bring down the cost of the bill, which was at one point $1.9 billion.
Senators tried to add about a dozen amendments to HB 21. One that would have required private schools to provide special education services required in federal law failed. Another one that would allow more state money to back charter school bonds so that such schools can obtain lower interest rates was successfully added.
LEGISLATURE PASSES STATEWIDE RIDE-HAILING REGULATIONS, THWARTING LOCAL ORDINANCES
That means Uber and Lyft will rejoin the ride-hailing party in Austin. Texas will now have just one 17-page law for ride-hailing. It requires no permits or fees for drivers, a fee to be determined for the companies that electronically assign them rides and no fingerprinting for criminal background checks. UBER and Lyft have announced plans to re-enter the Austin market immediately.
BUDGET COMPROMISE REACHED, INCLUDES RAINY DAY MONEY
Texas House and Senate budget negotiators agreed on a state budget for 2018-19 late Saturday — deciding to tap the state’s rainy day fund, a key sticking point — but not before Gov. Greg Abbott demanded they add $100 million to programs that are controlled by his office.
After the negotiations with staffers from Abbott’s office, the 10-member committee approved the budget and settled a key dispute over how to come up with an extra $2.5 billion by using elements of both chambers’ plans. The compromise budget, which will need to be approved by both chambers before it heads to Abbott’s desk, is lean and will result in cuts for many state agencies and public colleges and universities. The final price tag has not yet been determined.
GOVERNOR DECLARES VOTER ID “EMERGENCY” ISSUE
Just under the wire, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a message to the Texas House and Senate Sunday night declaring Senate Bill 5, the voter identification bill that had stalled in the House, as “an emergency matter for immediate consideration.”
The House scheduled SB 5 for a Tuesday vote – the last day the House can take an initial vote on Senate bills. The Senate passed SB 5 on a largely party-line vote in March, but the Senate also added it Sunday night as an amendment to a House measure on election policy as an insurance measure.
SB 5 would codify most of the court-ordered changes to the state’s 2011 voter ID law after a federal appeals court ruled last year that it discriminated against minority and poor Texans, infringing on the voting rights of about 600,000 registered voters who lacked a government-issued photo ID.
SB 5 would allow registered voters who lack a photo ID to cast a ballot after showing documents that list their name and address — including a voter registration certificate, utility bill, bank statement, government check or work paycheck.
Such voters would have to sign a “declaration of reasonable impediment” stating that they could not acquire a photo ID due to a lack of transportation, lack of a birth certificate, work schedule, disability, illness, family responsibility or lost or stolen ID. Voters found to have intentionally lied on the declaration could be subject to a third-degree felony, with up to 10 years in jail, under the bill. The bill also would allow voters 70 and older to use expired photo IDs to vote.
HOUSE APPROVES NEW CITY ANNEXATION LIMITS
The Texas House gave preliminary approval to a bill Sunday to limit cities’ ability to annex outlying areas without resident approval, a measure that was opposed by the city of Austin and other major municipalities.
Senate Bill 715, authored by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and carried in the House by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would require cities to get a majority of residents in areas proposed for annexation to agree to join the city or vote to do so in an election.
Under current law, a city can annex the equivalent of up to 10 percent of its incorporated land — about 18,000 acres in Austin’s case — from its extraterritorial jurisdiction, the 5-mile area that surrounds city limits, every year.
The Senate approved the bill in April. The House voted 104-34 on Sunday and is expected to take a final vote Monday. Before it heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, the Senate will have to sign off on changes made in the House or request for a conference committee to negotiate a compromise.
Leaders from cities across the state opposed the bill because it would limit their options in planning and zoning and because it would allow residents that benefit from their proximity to cities to avoid contributing to their tax bases.
HOUSE EXPANDS ABORTION REGULATIONS
After almost six hours of sometimes heated, sometimes tearful debate Friday, the Texas House gave preliminary approval to legislation that would greatly expand abortion regulations in Texas.
Senate Bill 8 would require abortion clinics and health centers to ensure that fetal tissue from abortions and miscarriages are buried or cremated, with the ashes properly scattered — similar to a state agency rule that a federal judge voided earlier this year for limiting access to abortion without offering any health benefits.
The bill also prohibits two practices already banned by federal law — the sale of fetal body parts and a second-trimester procedure that some call partial-birth abortion — and bans the use of fetal tissue from abortions in medical research.
And, with another amendment that was adopted after a long, tense fight, SB 8 seeks to ban what supporters of the regulations termed “dismemberment abortions.”
Similar laws have been enacted in seven other states, though courts have blocked four of them. Texas Democrats predicted that many of SB 8’s restrictions would similarly be overturned by the courts.
HOUSE APPROVES “SANDRA BLAND ACT”
The Texas House on Saturday approved a pair of proposals prompted by the 2015 arrest and death of Sandra Bland.
The Sandra Bland Act, named for the woman who was found hanged in a Waller County jail cell three days after a routine traffic stop escalated to a confrontation with a state trooper, is meant to “minimize circumstances where someone in jail is not screened appropriately … to make sure that person doesn’t commit suicide,” Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who carried the bill in the House, told lawmakers.
Under Senate Bill 1849, law enforcement would have to complete training in techniques for de-escalating confrontations with members of the public, “including techniques for limiting the use of force resulting in bodily injury.”
Jailers also would have to learn de-escalation tactics and complete eight hours of training on how to deal with mental health issues of prisoners. County jails also would have to provide prisoners with access to mental health professionals, in person or through electronic means, and a medical professional would have to review “as soon as possible” any prescription medication that a prisoner was taking when placed in custody.
Under the bill, police would have to make a “good faith effort” to divert those arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors to needed mental health or substance abuse treatment.
The bill had some key measures stripped out during the legislative process, leaving some activists and relatives of Bland unhappy. The bill had been amended on the Senate floor, for example, to remove a provision, opposed by law enforcement, that would have prohibited officers from stopping vehicles for a traffic violation as a “pretext” to investigate other crimes. The amended bill also removed a prohibition on searching vehicles based solely on the driver’s consent.
But the Austin Justice Coalition, an activist-led organization that pushes for police oversight, still endorsed the bill.
The House approved the measure 137-0 Saturday.
SENATE APPROVES STATEWIDE BAN ON TEXTING WHILE DRIVING
A statewide texting-while-driving ban, after running into legislative and gubernatorial roadblocks in the past four legislative sessions, cleared the Texas Senate on Friday and appears to be on the way to passage.
House Bill 62, carried in the Senate by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was approved 23-8 on both second and third readings. All 11 Democrats and 12 of the chamber’s 20 Republicans voted for the statewide ban on reading, writing or sending electronic messages from a hand-held phone while piloting a moving vehicle.
Texting would still be allowed in emergencies. Drivers can also use a hand-held phone to access global positioning systems and, in an amendment Zaffirini added to obtain another senator’s vote, to access music apps.
The statewide ban, which doesn’t address speaking on a hand-held phone, doesn’t supersede stricter local ordinances, such as the one in Austin where almost all use of a hand-held phone by someone driving a moving vehicle is prohibited. However, if the bill is signed, practices that are against both local and state law, such as typing a text or email, would be subject to only the state citation.
Texting by drivers under age 18, and by anyone in an active school zone, is already against state law. The Legislature in 2011 passed a texting ban, carried by Zaffirini and Craddick, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who said in his veto message the bill attempted to micromanage adult behavior. Texting bills in 2013 and 2015 never made to the governor’s desk.
A texting-while-driving citation, under HB 62, would carry a fine of $25 to $99 for a first offense and $100 to $200 for subsequent offenses. And the bill calls for enhanced penalties beyond that if texting leads to an accident causing someone’s death or serious injury.
(Source: Austin American Statesmen)