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

​TAC on the Lege — Weekly Video Series

​​We've launched a new video podcast as another tool to help you navigate the twists and turns of this legislative session.

​TAC on the Lege — A conversation about what’s important to counties this week in the Texas Legislature, including changes to SB 2, the deeply flawed revenue caps bill, that leave it just as bad as before, a coming two-step vote in the Senate on said revenue caps bill, a look at how a House committee substitute to the Senate’s sanctuary cities bill changes (and doesn’t change) it, the House’s consideration of decriminalization and rehabbing of controlled substance laws, proposed plans for better courthouse security and the Senate’s latest crack at a voter ID law.
Week in Review: A Digest of What Happened This Week at the Capitol​

The big news this week: Senate Finance heard Senate Bill 2 on Tuesday and, despite solid testimony from hundreds of local officials, law enforcement and other first responders, they voted it out around midnight. The bill has been placed on the Senate Intent Calendar and could be taken up by the full Senate as early as next Tuesday. House State Affairs heard testimony on the sanctuary cities bill, SB 4, and Senate State Affairs voted out a voter ID bill. There were discussions about how to treat some controlled substances in House Criminal Jurisprudence, and House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence heard about ways to improve security for courthouses and judges.

What’s Bad for Harris County is Bad for Hardeman County – Hundreds of local officials, with a very strong turnout from county officials, showed up early and stayed late into the night to voice their opposition to SB 2 in Senate Finance this past Tuesday. County and city officials, along with first responders, spoke out against this misguided piece of legislation, which purports to give property tax relief but does nothing to address the real property tax driver, school property taxes.

What the bill does instead is this: It centralizes more power in Austin and further limits the authority and discretion of locally elected officials to serve their constituents. Despite hours of effective testimony from local officials, first responders and others (which went on until close to midnight due to the Senate taking up the bathroom bill and other matters), the committee voted the bill out that night. Here’s the vote and the committee substitute, which now features a 5 percent revenue cap, among other changes.

The bill has now been placed on the Senate’s Intent Calendar, which means it could be taken up as early as next Tuesday. There are two critical steps when the Senate intends to take up a bill: First, there is a motion to vote to suspend the rules to take up a bill out of the Senate’s regular order of business and, second, the vote on the bill itself. We strongly encourage all county officials to contact your senator​ and urge them to vote against both, the motion to suspend and to vote against the bill itself.

This bill cannot be fixed with a population bracket. It’s bad public policy for any county, regardless of size. It concentrates power in Austin and undercuts local representative government. The system of checks and balances currently in place acknowledges the central role of representative government in the process and also recognizes the role of direct democracy in the current rollback petition and election system. This system has well served Texas for decades. Don’t let SB 2 bust apart this balanced approach.  

Time after Time A committee substitute to SB 4, the bill prohibiting “sanctuary cities,” was presented in House State Affairs and contains provisions related to institutions on higher education and municipal police, a denial of state grant funds and the process for reinstatement of grant funds if the chief executive at the time of the violation is removed from office. Waiver of immunity and liability remain in the substitute; word from the committee was that more changes are forthcoming. The bill, which has already passed the Senate, was left pending.

Rocky Mountain High – House Criminal Jurisprudence met this week and considered two bills relating to the decriminalization of certain drugs. First, HB 81 by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), who is chairman of the committee, seeks to make it a civil penalty to possess one ounce or less of marijuana with a maximum penalty of $250 payable to the state. The penalty is not considered a conviction. An officer may not arrest solely on possession of one ounce or less, but may issue a citation noting the time and place the person is to appear before a justice court.

Additionally, the local district or county attorney is authorized to bring an action in justice court to collect the civil penalty. Chairman Moody said that since marijuana remains illegal in the bill, it will not hamper law enforcement's ability to find probable cause in larger cases and should result in a cost savings by unburdening certain courts with the number of cases involving small amounts of marijuana.

The second decriminalization bill heard in the committee was HB 130 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston), which reduces the penalty for the possession of small amounts of controlled substances by certain first-time offenders in Penalty Groups 1 (less than one gram, e.g., cocaine, meth, opiates), 1-A (fewer than 20 abuse units, e.g., LSD) and 2 (less than one gram, e.g., ecstasy, mescaline) from a State Jail Felony to a Class A misdemeanor (with a minimum term of confinement of 180 days).

A downward classification would mean a savings to the state of Texas, as they would no longer have these offenders in the prison system or at the more expensive rate of felony probation funding. But it would mean an upward trend in misdemeanor probation caseloads, which bring less funding for supervision and potential sentences in the county jail. Both bills were left pending in committee.

SafeHB 1487 by Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo) was heard in House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and is a reflection of deficiencies in court security reported after the 2015 shooting of Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek in her own driveway; the judge testified in favor of the bill. The bill, which implements recommendations adopted by the Texas Judicial Council, establishes local court security committees to adopt security policies and procedures and requires officer training approved by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement for certification of court security officers.

Under the bill, sheriffs are required to provide written security incident reports to the Office of Court Administration, and county clerks are required to remove certain personal information about federal judges, state judges and their spouses from public documents. Additionally, voter registrars must remove the home addresses of those individuals from the voter registration lists. There was much testimony in favor of the bill, which was left pending in committee. Rep. Smithee, who chairs the committee, indicated that there would likely be a committee substitute for the bill in the future.

Who Are You? – The Senate State Affairs committee met on March 13 and considered SB 5 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which amends the Election Code to largely codify the federal court ruling that expanded the permissible forms of identification that may be used at the polling place.

The committee substitute for the bill requires the secretary of state to establish a program using mobile units to provide election identification certificates to the public at various locations across the state. It also provides that an election officer may not question the reasonableness of an impediment sworn to by a voter in a declaration that they are unable to meet the requirement for photo identification. The bill also makes it an offense for a person to make a false statement on a declaration asserting the inability to provide photo identification; the penalty is a third degree felony. The bill was voted favorably from committee as substituted and now heads to the full Senate.

Helpful Tracking Links for Legislation

  • County Bills by Office as tracked by the Texas Association of Counties.
  • Senate and House committee postings are available on Texas Legislature Online.
  • MyTLO section of Texas Legislature Online — ​use it to create customized alerts for specific committee meetings or to track specific bills. ​​​​​​​​​​  ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​