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

The Week Behind Us and the Week(s) Ahead of Us – The House passed a major school finance reform bill, a House committee heard about getting rid of the Driver Responsibility Program, and sheriffs worked on jailers, jails and training.

April 05, 2019

Legislative News

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The Week Behind Us and the Week(s) Ahead of Us – The House passed a major school finance reform bill, a House committee heard about getting rid of the Driver Responsibility Program, and sheriffs worked on jailers, jails and training. House committees also heard a bill increasing the jurisdiction of courts, including justice courts, as well as bills related to open meetings and grand juries. A Senate committee heard from clerks about how best to preserve historic records, while tax assessors worked on priority legislation related to flooded vehicles and delinquent alcohol permits and licenses.

Potential Driver Responsibility Program Repeal – On April 3, the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee considered HB 2048 by Chairman John Zerwas (R-Richmond), a bill that would repeal the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) and eliminate program surcharges assessed on drivers convicted of certain offenses. Any losses in revenue related to repealing the DRP program would be offset by three revenue sources: an increase in the Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority (ABTPA) assessment on motor vehicle insurance companies from $2 to $4 per motor vehicle per year; an increase in the state traffic fine from $30 to $50; and additional fines for convictions of DWI.

Surcharges assessed on or before the effective date of the bill would be forgiven and driver’s licenses suspended due to failure to pay would be reinstated.

The bill would establish an additional fine of $3,000 for the first conviction of certain intoxicated driver offenses within a 36-month period; $4,500 for a second conviction in a 36-month period; and $6,000 if the person's blood, breath or urine showed an alcohol concentration over a certain amount. The new fines would be assessed once, rather than each year for a three-year period under the DRP. One of the most important aspects of the bill is that it eliminates the driving while license suspended and driving without insurance $250 surcharges.

County officials and county representatives were on hand to offer information to the committee, including Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston and Midland County Justice of the Peace John Barton. The bill was left pending in committee. The House companion bill to the legislation, SB 918 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), is set for a hearing on April 11 in Senate Finance.

School Finance Reform Bill Passes House – On April 3, the House passed HB 3, the House’s school finance bill by Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston), by a vote of 148-1. The legislation will infuse $6.3 billion into school finance formulas and provide $2.7 billion towards school property tax relief. In total, 36 of the 92 pre-filed amendments were adopted. Together with the House’s property tax bill, HB 2 by Ways and Means Chairman Dustin Burrow (R-Lubbock), these bills represent the signature issues of the Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker.

Committees Hear Legislation Impacting Sheriffs’ Offices – The House Committee on County Affairs held a public hearing last Thursday, March 28, to discuss several bills on county jailer training. Among those was a bill by Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington), HB 2467. The bill would reduce the amount of time during which a temporary jailer must complete a preparatory training program to within 90 days. Current law allows for the training to be completed within a year.

A similar bill by Rep. Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas), HB 3775, would eliminate the temporary jailer designation. It would have the effect of requiring that preparatory training be completed before serving as a county jailer. County jail administrators from Robertson and Collin County were present to testify against both bills citing concerns with the fiscal implications to comply without additional funding and the availability of the courses that may limit a county’s ability to comply. The Sheriffs’ Association of Texas also opposed the legislation for the same reasons.

This week the committee met on April 3 to consider voting the bills out to the House for final deliberations. Sheriffs Hawthorne of Chambers County, Micah Harmon of Lavaca County and A.J. Louderback of Jackson County visited with the bill authors and committee members or their staff to highlight the same concerns but emphasized the disproportionate negative impact to about 189 rural counties. The bills were not brought up for a vote but both members emphasized needing to address better compliance with county jailer preparatory training.

This week the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security met to discuss several bills proposed by the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas. HB 3503 by Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco) would require annual firearms training for county jailers who are required to carry firearms in the performance of their duties. HB 3063 by Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo) would allow the transfer of a retired county or municipal law enforcement animal to its handler under certain circumstances. HJR 96 by Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) proposes the constitutional amendment to be voted on by voters at an election to be held Nov. 5, 2019, that would authorize the transfer of a law enforcement animal to the animal’s handler. All the bills were left pending before the committee and will likely be voted on at their next regular meeting if the majority of the committee supports these bills.

Jurisdictional Increase for Courts Gets First Hearings – On April 1, the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony on Chairman Jeff Leach’s (R-Plano) HB 3336,  which increases the jurisdiction for many courts in Texas. HB 3336 allows county courts at law to have jurisdiction over larger civil disputes and requires the Supreme Court to promulgate rules to expedite the resolution of civil disputes having $250,000 or less in controversy. This expands the existing requirement to expedite cases having less than $100,000 in controversy. Furthermore, for justice courts, the jurisdictional limit is raised from $10,000 to $20,000. The committee heard testimony from Judge John Barton (Justice of the Peace, Pct. 4, Midland County and JPCA Judges Legislative Committee Chair) and Judge Lynn Holt (Justice of the Peace, Pct. 4, Bandera County) in support of the bill.

HB 3336 also requires that if a case has $250,000 or more in controversy then the county court at law must empanel a 12-person jury, as would be done in a district court. Currently, the requirement is a six-person panel in cases filed in county courts at law.

HB 3336, as filed, created a pilot program to enhance the civil justice system by directing the Supreme Court to select 10 counties to establish individual pilot programs. The committee substitute, which was laid out by Chairman Leach at the hearing, removes this provision.

Senate companion SB 2342 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), along with the committee substitute that mirrors the committee substitute to HB 3336, was heard in the Senate State Affairs Committee on April 4. Judge Nicholas Chu (Justice of the Peace Pct. 5 Travis County) testified in support.

Grand Juries – On April 1, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee considered HB 2427 by Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City), a bill that reforms grand jury proceedings. Specifically, the legislation entitles a witness who testifies before a grand jury, including an accused, to have an attorney present in the grand jury room while the grand jury is questioning the witness for the purpose of providing consultation. It also amends the Michael Morton Act to require the disclosure of any exculpatory information that was obtained as a result of a grand jury proceeding.

Several district attorneys testified against the bill, expressing concerns over extending the right to counsel to these proceedings, which are primarily investigative in nature. Additionally, there were concerns over potential delays in indictments as a result of the changes. The bill was left pending.

Open Meetings and Walking Quorums – The House State Affairs Committee met on April 1 to consider a couple of bills aimed at addressing the recent Court of Criminal Appeals decision, Texas v. Doyal, which ruled that the “walking quorum” provision in the Open Meetings Act lacked specificity and was unconstitutionally vague.

Both HB 3402 by Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) and HB 2965 by Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) address the decision by specifying the exact type of series of communications and conduct that would constitute the criminal offense of conspiring to circumvent the Open Meetings Act.

HB 3402 was reported favorably and now heads to the House Calendars Committee. The companion to HB 3402, SB 1640 by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), has been voted from the Senate State Affairs Committee and will next be considered by the full Senate.

Expanding Sentencing Options for DWIs – On April 4, the House Corrections Committee considered HB 3582 by Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction), a bill that would authorize deferred adjudication as a sentencing option for certain defendants charged with driving while intoxicated and boating while intoxicated offenses.

Under the provisions of the bill, certain first-time offenders would be eligible for the sentencing option. The defendant would be required to install an ignition interlock device as part of the sentence unless the judge finds that this requirement would not be in the best interest of society. Additionally, a deferred adjudication sentence in these cases will still be considered a conviction for the purposes of enhancement of subsequent offenses.

Comal County Criminal District Attorney Jennifer Tharp testified in support of the legislation, as well as a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The bill was left pending.

Continuing Records Preservation FeesSB 658 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) was heard in Senate State Affairs and Heather Hawthorne, Chambers County Clerk and Legislative Chair for the County & District Clerks’ Association of Texas, testified on the bill. The bill will make the temporary increase of $10 permanent for historic records preservation fees charged by county and district clerks. This will allow the revenue stream to continue and be invested in the preservation and restoration of vital local government records. The bill was voted favorably from committee and recommended for the Senate Local/Uncontested Calendar.

The companion bill, HB 686 by Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), has been voted favorably out of House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee and is now being considered in the House Calendars Committee. SB 918 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the companion bill, is in Senate Finance waiting on a hearing.

Committees Consider Tax Assessor-Collector Priority LegislationHB 3051 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) creates a classification for vehicles that have sustained water damage due to flooding. Larry Gaddes, Williamson County Tax Assessor-Collector, testified on behalf of the Tax Assessor-Collectors Association of Texas in support of the bill in the House Transportation Committee on April 3. The intent of the bill is to better inform the public of damage the vehicle may have sustained due to recent flooding events since flood damage is often not visible outside the vehicle.

HB 3754 by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) authorizes counties and municipalities to enter into an agreement with a third party vendor for collection of delinquent alcohol permits and licenses.  John Ames, Dallas County Tax Assessor-Collector, testified in support of the committee substitute on behalf of the Tax Assessor-Collectors Association of Texas in the House Ways and Means Committee also on April 3. Currently, cities and counties have limited options for recovering delinquent alcohol permit fees. HB 3754 strengthens the county and city’s ability to recoup said fees.

Homestead Exemptions After DisastersSB 443 by Sen. Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) extends the timeframe for which a property owner has to begin repairs on a property deemed uninhabitable as a result of a natural disaster to five years. Areas with large condominium complexes and areas with few readily available contractors are still struggling to get repairs done in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. To qualify for the extension the area has to be declared a disaster by the governor and property rendered uninhabitable or unusable as a result of the disaster. This bill seeks to address their needs by extending the homestead exemption timeline in disaster declared areas. The bill passed out of committee unanimously and was recommended for the local and uncontested calendar.

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.