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

Even by the standards of most legislative sessions, at this point in the closing days things remain up in the air, unresolved. Reports late Friday afternoon indicate that there is an agreement between the House and the Senate over the budget, with $3.9 billion to public schools and $2 billion from the rainy day fund for water. The big issues this session (water, transportation, restoring some of the public education cuts from 2011) have been intertwined with the budget. The ability to balance all these interwoven elements has dictated whether an agreement could be reached between the chambers as well as between and among the parties and the factions within the parties.

What’s the deal with water? SJR 1, the Senate’s proposal to use the rainy day fund to pay for water, transportation, and spend a little bit more money for education, left that chamber and sat in the House, unheard for close to three weeks. In the meantime, the House vehicle for spending $2 billion to fund the state water plan died, continuing a stalemate between Senate and House visions for water plan funding.  The House version of SJR 1 would amend the constitution to create the state water implementation fund to implement the state water plan, and it gives direction on how to accomplish this. Unlike the Senate version, it would not directly appropriate money from the rainy day fund.  In the meantime, early reports indicate an agreement has been reached by SB 1 conferees to use $2 billion in rainy day money for the water plan. SJR 1 has been placed on the House Calendar for Monday, May 20.

Road Matters. The Senate Committee on Transportation voted out HB 2612 by Rep. Flynn, a bill that allows a commissioners court to identify an alternate route to a road and require heavy vehicles travel the alternate route to prevent excessive damage to the road. The alternate route must be of sufficient strength and design to withstand the weight of the vehicles traveling the route. The bill also allows a road supervisor, in certain circumstances, to prohibit or restrict the use of a road under the supervisor’s control by any vehicle that would unduly damage the road, if an alternative, more suitable road is available within the county at that time. Additionally, HB 2300 by Rep. Keffer and sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Carlos Uresti, has passed the Senate. The Senate added the increased overweight truck fees and fines (SB 1670 and SB 1671 by Sen. Nichols) to HB 2741. These will certainly be a big help in enforcing overweight truck laws.

Indigent Health Care Bill Advances. The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations voted out HB 2454 by Rep. Frank, which allows a county to credit a health care expenditure for an eligible resident toward eligibility for state assistance if the resident is an inmate of a county jail. The bill was recommended for the Local and Uncontested Calendar.

Electioneering on Public Property. The Senate Committee on State Affairs voted out HB 259 by Rep. Simmons. The bill prohibits an entity that owns or controls a public building where voting will take place from prohibiting electioneering, which is defined to include the posting, use or distribution of political signs, on the premises outside the prohibited 100-foot distance on election day or during early voting. The bill authorizes an entity to prescribe reasonable regulations concerning the time, place and manner of electioneering. It now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Mental Health Check Up. HB 1947 by Rep. Burkett was reported from the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. This bill outlines temporary detention procedures for mentally ill patients in certain medical facilities. Facilities would be able to hold a person for up to four hours if the person is determined to be gravely disabled; law enforcement would be allowed to take such person into custody and transport them to the nearest appropriate inpatient mental health facility. According to existing statute, jails are not deemed suitable except in extreme emergency (Health and Safety, Sec. 573.001(e)). However, HB 205 by Rep. McClendon did not receive a Senate committee hearing after much encouragement from county officials and many other stakeholders. HB 205 passed the House 145-1. Statewide county organizations, local mental health authorities and many other stakeholders support its provisions. The planning directive in HB 205 would be helpful to other bills, such as HB 1947, in ensuring that persons with no criminal charges experiencing mental crisis have state hospital or local inpatient/outpatient treatment beds and resources readily available and accessible.  Efforts are still afoot to get this important piece of legislation through the Senate.

Michael Morton Act Signed Into Law. The governor signed SB 1611 by Sen. Ellis, a bill that requires the state’s prosecuting attorney to provide a defendant with certain information, including offense reports and witness statements, as part of standard discovery. The legislation, also known as the Michael Morton Act, is named after Morton, who was exonerated after spending almost 25 years in prison. The bill also requires defense attorneys to redact certain identifying information of witnesses before allowing others to view the documents and codifies existing duties to disclose exculpatory evidence and information. In addition, the Legislature passed SB 825 by Sen. Whitmire, a bill that revises the State Bar’s grievance procedures to prohibit private reprimands for grievances against prosecutors who fail to disclose exculpatory evidence and delays the start of the statute of limitations applying to such grievances until the date on which a wrongfully imprisoned person is released from prison. The bill was sent to the Governor.

Annie, Get Your Gun! Several bills filed this session relating to nullification and firearms moved through the legislative process this week as they were reported favorably from the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security. HB 1076 by Rep. Toth, dubbed The Texas Firearms Protection Act, prohibits the state or any of its subdivisions from adopting a rule, order, ordinance or policy to enforce federal statutes, orders, rules or regulations enacted on or after Jan. 1, 2013, that regulates a firearm, a firearm accessory, or ammunition or impose a prohibition, restriction or other regulation that does not exist under the laws of this state. The bill also creates a Class A misdemeanor offense for certain violations and allows any citizen to file a complaint with the attorney general if there is evidence to support an allegation that an entity has adopted such policies. If an entity is determined to be in violation, the entity would have state grant funds withheld the following year. HB 1314 by Rep. Creighton creates a Class A offense for any officer or employee of the United States, State of Texas, or political subdivision if, while acting under color of the person’s office, the person seizes a firearm in accordance with federal regulations that impose prohibitions, regulations or restrictions that do not exist under Texas laws and that violate the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, HB 928 by Rep. Krause prohibits Texas law enforcement agencies, political subdivisions and officers employed by these entities from contracting with or providing assistance to federal agencies or officers regarding federal firearms regulations that do not exist in Texas statutes. Contracts or agreements pertaining to border security that are in effect on Aug. 31, 2013 would be exempt. Political subdivisions that do not comply will be denied state grant funds for the year following a determination and any citizen can file a complaint with the attorney general. Their future in the Senate is uncertain.

County Budget Matters. The House Committee on Ways and Means favorably reported SB 656 by Rep. Paxton. The bill requires a vote by the commissioners court to adopt the budget to be a record vote and also requires the adopted budget to contain a cover page that contains certain information, including a specific statement relating to property tax revenue, the record vote of each member of the court, historical information on the county’s various property tax rates, as well as the total amount of bonds and other debt obligations owed by the county. It also requires the commissioners court to post the cover page and the record vote on the county’s website if such a website is maintained. The bill is set on the House Calendar for May 20.

Hear Ye Debt Election! SB 637 by Sen. Paxton was voted favorably by the House Committee on Elections. The bill requires an election order for the issuance of a debt obligation to state the purpose for the debt obligation and the principal amount of debt to be authorized as well as other information regarding the county’s general debt obligations. The election order must be posted 21 days before an election in certain public places. It must also be posted on the county’s website, along with the contents of the proposition. The bill was recommended for the Local and Consent Calendar.

Tax Exemptions for Tots. The Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters considered HB 1360 by Rep. Ritter. The bill allows a person to receive a property tax exemption for a property that is leased to a qualified school. The property is eligible for the exemption if the school is used exclusively for educational purposes and the property is reasonably necessary for the operation of the school. Questions have been raised regarding changing the long-standing practice of providing tax exemptions to the person who owns the land subject to a tax. The bill was left pending.  

To Appraise or Not to Appraise. The Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters also considered HB 585 by Rep. Villarreal, which makes a myriad of changes to the appraisal review board process including changing the appraisal review board appointment process for counties with populations of 120,000 or more; allowing multiple property appeals; modifying review board hearings; and modifying rules regarding lawsuits against appraisal districts. The bill was reported favorably to the full Senate Finance Committee.

Busy Week for County and District Clerks’ Bills. The Senate Committee on Jurisprudence considered several bills, including HB 1435 by Rep. Darby, an omnibus bill that relates to certain notices, reports and descriptions provided by or filed with court and county clerks. Also considered was HB 1728 by Rep. Ashby, which relates to the use of an unsworn declaration, the disposition of certain court exhibits and the seal of a constitutional county court or county clerk. Both bills were voted out of the committee and recommended for the Local and Uncontested Calendar. Left pending was HB 3314 Rep. Kuempel. This bill removes the requirement that a clerk receive hours for dedicated subject matters related to registry funds and fraudulent filings. It does not reduce the total number of hours required. In addition, the bill allows clerks appointed to fill an unexpired term to complete 20 hours within 12 months of appointment and 20 hours of continuing education for each calendar year thereafter. The House Committee on County Affairs voted out SB 692 by Sen. Carona, which allows certain county officers, county employees, or candidates for county office to file financial disclosure statements by electronic mail. The bill was recommended for the Local and Consent Calendar.

Election Bills On Their Way to the Governor. Several election related bills have passed and are on their way to the governor’s desk. HB 2263 by Rep. Miller allows voters to request a replacement voter registration certificate by telephone or electronically. SB 160 by Sen. Huffman requires an election officer to provide a poll watcher with a form of identification to be displayed by the watcher while at a polling place. HB 1164 by Rep. Thompson eliminates the requirement that a county honor ward lines of certain cities when establishing a county election precinct. HB 2475 by Rep. Miller revises the oath required by a person who assists a voter in marking a ballot to include a statement indicating that the person is not the voter’s employer, an agent of the employer or an officer or agent of a labor union to which the voter belongs. Additionally, HB 666 by Rep. Miller allows senior citizens and disabled voters to apply to vote by mail once a year. 

Property Record Corrections. SB 887 by Sen. Uresti, a bill that provides clarification in allowing a person with personal knowledge to prepare or execute a nonmaterial correction instrument in the conveyance of real property, was sent to the governor.