The Week Behind Us and the Week(s) Ahead of Us – The big rollback bill ran into some choppy seas; state leaders are pushing a sales tax increase to buy down property taxes; and the budget is headed to conference committee, as usual. Big bail reform bills were heard and there is genuine hope that the Driver Responsibility Program will be repealed. Justice court civil jurisdiction may expand, as may the use of the justice court technology fund. Committees heard significant human trafficking jurisdiction bills and sheriffs are working out mutual aid agreements and increasing certain training for jailers.
Property Tax Update – The House was scheduled to hear HB 2, the House’s property tax bill by Chairman Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), on the floor on April 11. In its current form, the bill contains a revenue cap of 2.5 percent for counties. Engaged county officials voicing concerns with the bill have helped generate extensive discussion and led to more than 180 pre-filed amendments.
Considerable discussions between the Senate and House on how to proceed continued late into the afternoon and, with no resolution being reached, the bill was postponed until April 15 at 10 a.m. SB 2 by Chairman Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), the Senate’s property tax bill, can be taken up at any time on the Senate floor, but has been stalled since the middle of February. With just over 40 days left in the 86th Session, the tension is rising and time is running short, so it remains critical to stay engaged.
Sales Tax Proposal to Provide Property Tax Relief – On April 10, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen expressed their support for a proposal to raise the state’s sales tax from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent with the proceeds being used to lower property taxes. The proposal is expected to generate approximately $5 billion a year, but details and the logistics of how the sales tax increase would impact the average property owner have not been made clear. Early analysis indicates property owners will likely benefit but the average household making less than $150,000 a year will likely experience an increase in the taxes they pay.
While no legislation was highlighted or endorsed, Rep. Dan Huberty’s (R-Houston) previously introduced HB 4621 and HJR 3 may be the most likely legislation that could be modified. Huberty’s bill was designed to provide an additional revenue source that could be used to offset school property taxes which currently make up more than half of the local property taxes levied in Texas but only contemplated a 0.01 percent increase.
Such an initiative would require a constitutional amendment, requiring 100 votes in the House and 21 votes in the Senate, as well as voter approval in November before becoming law. The sales tax swap for property tax relief proposal already met opposition from Democrats who consider the tax regressive. With only 83 Republicans in the House, and assuming all are supportive of the sales tax increase, any effort would also require support from at least 17 Democrats.
State Budget Heads to a Conference Committee – On April 10, the Senate passed the committee substitute for HB 1 on a record vote of 31-0. The Senate Finance Committee made changes to the bill in committee to reflect the Senate’s priorities for the 2020-2021 biennium. Overall the budget is $248 billion, $11.9 billion of which is new spending (a 5.1 percent increase from the current biennium).
The bill contains many differences from the House but reflects an equivalent $9 billion in new funding for public education and property tax reform, an increase of nearly 16 percent over current funding. The budget also reflects significant investment in Health and Human Services agencies totaling $84.8 billion, an increase of $1 billion from the 2018-2019 biennium.
The bill was received back in the House on April 11 and House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas (R-Richmond) refused to concur with the Senate changes. The House appointed five conference committee members: Chairman Zerwas, Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Galveston), Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston), Rep. Oscar Longoria (D-Mission), and Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston). The Senate is expected to name conferees soon so negotiations can begin as early as next week.
Potential DRP 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 has been reported favorably from committee.
Update: DRP Repeal Bill Heard in Senate – Senate Finance heard testimony from county officials on SB 918 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) on Thursday, April 11. Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson and Travis County Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu offered testimony as to the problems of the program. Huffman stated that the companion bill, HB 2048 by Rep. Zerwas, was moving on the House side so she would wait for the bill to come over. Meanwhile, Huffman wants to continue to have conversations about ways to make the bill better.
Bail Reform Bills Considered – On April 8, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence heard testimony on bail reform legislation. HB 2020 by Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-College Station) and HB 1323 by Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction) were laid out together and are both entitled the Damon Allen Act in honor of the DPS trooper who was killed during a traffic stop; the man accused in Allen’s murder was out on bond when the incident occurred. Several elected officials testified on the bills.
The committee substitute for HB 2020 creates a Bail Advisory Commission which is tasked with developing a validated statewide pretrial risk assessment tool in coordination with the Office of Court Administration (OCA). It requires a magistrate to consider the results of the risk assessment before making a bail decision. Additionally, it authorizes only a district judge or certain associate judges to release defendants charged with felonies and certain misdemeanors on bail.
Sheriffs’ Association of Texas President Gerald Yezak (Sheriff, Robertson County) testified in support of the bill expressing that bail reform should be a top priority. Furthermore, David Slayton, OCA’s director, testified that the fiscal impact for hiring additional district judges to cover the workload associated with HB 2020 would result in an almost $7 million negative impact to the state.
HB 1323 differs from HB 2020 in that it directs OCA to develop an automated pretrial risk assessment system that would measure a defendant’s risk status. Magistrates would be required to consider the results of the risk assessment before making a bail decision. The bill incorporates recommendations supported by the Texas Judicial Council, which is chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.
David Slayton gave a demonstration of this risk assessment tool during his testimony. Additionally, Slayton explained that there would be a $600,000 one-time start-up expense, but that there is dedicated funding for this in HB 1 (the state budget bill) should it pass as written. Justice of the Peace Lynn Holt testified on behalf of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas in support of HB 1323. He educated the committee on the duties of magistrates and expressed his support for the access this bill would give to magistrates regarding the criminal history of the defendants.
Both bills were left pending.
Elected Officials Active in House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee – The House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence heard testimony from elected officials on April 8. There were two bills of importance to the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association – HB 1380 and HB 1805 both by Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction).
HB 1380 increases the justice court civil jurisdiction from $10,000 to $20,000 and increases the cost to file in justice court from $25 to $50 in order to cover services rendered for justice court. Judge John Barton, Justices of the Peace Legislative Committee Chair, testified that HB 1380 would create greater efficiency in the court and would allow more Texans access to justice.
HB 1805 expands the current technology fund for justice court to allow for funds to be used for court assistance. This assistance includes additional court personnel and training for that personnel, which judges can utilize in their court. The bills were left pending in committee.
Human Trafficking Jurisdiction – Committees in both the House and Senate recently considered legislation relating to jurisdiction over human trafficking cases and heard concerns from district attorneys across the state regarding that legislation.
On April 4, the Senate State Affairs Committee considered SB 1257 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). The committee substitute for the bill would provide the attorney general with concurrent jurisdiction in multijurisdictional cases involving certain human trafficking offenses. The substitute also provides the attorney general with jurisdiction over certain human trafficking offenses occurring in a single jurisdiction if a local county or district attorney decides not to prosecute the offense. Its companion bill, HB 3979 by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), was considered by the House Committee on the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence on April 8.
During testimony, several district attorneys expressed concerns over the proposals to provide the attorney general with original criminal jurisdiction over these cases. In discussing the need for the legislation, the bill authors cited the limited number of these cases that have been prosecuted. However, prosecutors highlighted the limited number of arrests for these types of offenses and stated that these cases often get prosecuted as other offenses, which sometimes have tougher punishments.
SB 1257 was voted out of the Senate State Affairs Committee and now moves to the full Senate. HB 3979 was left pending in committee.
Sheriffs Unite – HB 1789 by Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) pertaining to Mutual Aid Law Enforcement Task Forces is meant to clarify a county’s and municipality’s authority to work together in the form of mutual-aid task forces, by which sheriffs’ offices cooperate in training and a wide range of law enforcement operations. Current law allows mutual aid task forces only in contiguous counties. This bill would permit, for example, counties that contain portions of I-30 (Parker, Tarrant, Dallas, Rockwall) or I-35 (Hill, Johnson, Tarrant, Denton) to form mutual-aid interdiction task forces to fight organized crime’s trafficking of drugs, money, and people along these highways.
The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee held a public hearing on the bill on April 10 where several sheriffs testified in favor of the bill. It’s expected the bill will be voted out of committee soon for further consideration by the House.
Weapons Training for Jailers – SB 1879 by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) would require an initial and annual demonstration of weapons proficiency from only those county jailers who carry a firearm in the performance of their official duties - for example, inmate transport. Current law requires peace officers to demonstrate weapons proficiency initially as a condition for a license and annually to an agency’s firearms-proficiency officer. However, current law does not require that of county jailers. This bill will bring Texas sheriffs’ practice of arming county jailers who transfer inmates into line with best practices and reduce the risk of liability associated with a county jailer’s use of a firearm. This amendment would not apply to county jailers who never carry a firearm in the performance of their duties. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard the bill on April 10. Sheriff Skinner of Collin County testified in support of the bill and it’s expected the committee may soon vote the bill to the Senate Floor for further action.
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.