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Week in Review: A Digest of What Happened This Past Week at the Capitol

The House began meeting on Friday, a sign that we’re reaching the point in the legislative session where bills need to advance quickly to have a chance of passing. Notably, an analysis indicates that the House, thus far, has passed significantly fewer bills than at this same time last session — about one-third less. Ultimately, that may mean that we’ll be seeing a significant number of amendments in these last few weeks, as legislators try to move their bills.

Here’s a recap of what happened in both the House and Senate this past week on some significant county-related bills:

Paving the way for Transportation — Infrastructure bills are building momentum and working their way through the process. HB 3664 by Rep. Darby, which raises the motor vehicle registration by an average of $30 a year, was voted out of the House Committee on Appropriations. SJR 1 by Sen. Williams, authorizing funds for water and transportation, and SB 1747 by Sen. Uresti, creating county energy transportation reinvestment zones, were voted favorably from their respective committees and placed on the Senate Intent Calendar. Next week, the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters will hear SB 1778 by Sen. Zaffirini, a bill that authorizes the use of 25 percent of the severance taxes collected for county road projects, as well as SB 1780 by Sen. Zaffirini, which allows a county to hold an election to retain increased tax revenue from new oil and gas production for repairing roads. Additional information about these bills is available here.

Fireworks Debate Continues — The House Committee on State Affairs heard another bill this week relating to the regulation of fireworks. The bill, HB 3236 by Rep. Ritter, would eliminate all current county authority to regulate fireworks in certain drought conditions and through a local disaster declaration. With all county authority repealed, it would authorize the Commissioner of Insurance to adopt rules regulating the use, but not the sale, of certain aerial fireworks during defined drought conditions. Several county representatives, including fire marshals and Wise County Commissioner Kevin Burns, testified in opposition to the legislation, expressing concerns with the bill’s impact on local control and the elimination of a county’s ability to protect the safety of residents and property, particularly in times of extreme drought. The bill was left pending.

Legal Representation Bills Get Hearings — Committee substitutes for SB 1738 by Sen. Rodriguez and HB 3762 by Rep. Coleman were heard this week in Senate IGR and House County Affairs, respectively. The substitutes reflect agreements reached between the county auditors association and county judges and commissioners associations on the question of legal representation for county officials. SB 1738 was left pending, while HB 3762 was voted favorably from committee.

Water Moves — Committee Substitutes for HB 4 by Rep. Ritter and SB 4 by Sen. Fraser were voted out of Senate Natural Resources. In his explanation as he laid out the bills, Sen. Fraser noted the bills will be identical, with both creating the state water implementation fund and both incorporating changes to the structure of the Water Development Board.

Want to file a document in the clerk’s office? Show me some ID! — The House Committee on County Affairs heard HB 3464 by Rep. Bohac, a bill that gives a county clerk the authority to require a person to show photo identification to file a document. The acceptable forms of photo identification include, but are not limited to: a driver’s license, an election identification certificate, a personal identification card issued by DPS, a U.S. military identification card, a U.S. passport and a concealed handgun license. Whichever form of acceptable identification is presented, the information may be copied or recorded and will be kept confidential. The bill was left pending. If it smells like a nuisance County representatives supported HB 1932 by Rep. Stickland, adding discharge from a failing on-site sewage disposal system (OSSF) to the list of public nuisances and allowing the county to use any reasonable means of abatement necessary – but only if the defendant fails to abate the nuisance as ordered by a court. The bill was voted favorably from committee. Also supported was HB 2519 by Rep. Springer. The bill removes a mandate allowing a commissioners court upon petition to establish, maintain and operate a free county library in an area located outside the municipalities. The bill was left pending. Bracket removed HB 2825 by Rep. King removes the population bracket of 100,000 or more so that a commissioners court in any county can designate the sheriff or, through an interlocal agreement, the chief of police to serve as the countywide sex offender registrar. The bill was left pending.

The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice heard testimony from Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne regarding his appreciation for Sen. Huffman’s SB 1189, which provides law enforcement the authority and procedures for the seizure and disposition of firearms when answering mental health calls; the bill is supported by several law enforcement groups. The bill was voted favorably from committee. The sheriff also addressed SB 1003 by Sen. Carona, which includes county jails in an independent third party review of the use of administrative segregation. He stated that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards provides oversight and audits all 237 county jails annually. Hawthorne also noted the commission requires the re-evaluation of an inmate in segregation every 30 days and suggested financial resources for a third party reviewer of county facilities could be more appropriately directed to the Jail Commission to increase their technical assistance budget. The committee agreed that it would be more reasonable to focus the review on facilities that do not have an oversight process in place. An amendment is anticipated. Thank you to Sen. Carona, Sen. Huffman and Sen. Whitmire for working with the counties!

Limits on Environmental Enforcement?  The House Committee on Environmental Regulation considered two bills, HB 3117 and HB 3119, both by Rep. Burkett, which would limit the ability of local governments to settle and pursue local environmental enforcement actions. Currently, Chapter 7 of the Water Code authorizes local governments to initiate civil suits for certain environmental violations. HB 3117 would allow the attorney general to settle these environmental enforcement suits brought by a local government without the consent and approval of the local government. Additionally, HB 3119 would prohibit a local government from entering into a contingent fee contract for legal services for these types of civil suits. Several county and city representatives testified in opposition to the legislation and discussed the limitations the bills place on local control. Those opposed discussed the current checks and balances in place with respect to settlements in these suits. Witnesses also referenced the current lack of county staff resources to pursue environmental violations as a significant reason for the use of contingent fee legal services and discussed the reduced financial burden of these contingent fee contracts on local taxpayers. Several corporations and business associations testified in favor of the legislation. The bills were left pending.

Electronic Voter Registration — The House Committee on Elections considered HB 313 by Rep. Strama, a bill that mandates the Secretary of State to implement a program to allow a person with a valid driver’s license or personal identification card to complete a voter registration card over the Internet. Proponents of the bill stated it would save counties money and make the voter registration system more efficient. In some counties, additional workers are hired to process voter registration cards near an election date. Opponents of the bill felt that a paper voter registration application was more secure. The bill was left pending in committee. Vote Anywhere! HB 1518 by Rep. Sheffield, also heard in House Elections, would allow each county participating in a countywide voting program to eliminate county election precincts in a primary election and a runoff primary election. The bill was left pending in committee.

Eminent Domain — The House Committee on Land & Resource Management heard HB 20 by Rep. Kolkhorst. The bill would allow the repurchase of real property from an entity with eminent domain authority from a former property owner if the initial use of that property was not for the originally stated public use. Local governments voiced concern during the hearing that the bill would make it more expensive for entities to undertake condemnation proceedings, and that the uncertainty that the bill would introduce in the eminent domain process would harm entities that are using eminent domain for legitimate public purposes. The bill was left pending in committee.

Making the system fair for everyone — The Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters considered SB 1342 by Sen. Davis. The bill seeks to return appraised values closer to their equitable market values in order to bring the property tax system back in line with its original intent. Under the law as interpreted by the courts, taxpayers may have their property values reduced to “the median appraised value of comparable properties” without any consideration of what the property or the comparable values are really worth. Chief appraisers report that Sec. 42.26(a)(3) of the Tax Code is increasingly being used at the administrative level and in district court, driving values away from their market value. The bill requires owners of non-homestead property valued at more than $1 million dollars to present evidence that their property is appraised at a market value that is at least 10 percent higher than comparable properties. The bill also defines what is considered a comparable property and authorizes the comptroller to adjust comparables with oil, gas, and energy properties. The bill was supported by county associations and appraisal districts and was left pending.