The Week Behind Us and the Week(s) Ahead of Us – It was a race to the finish line as lawmakers worked to file their bills before the March 8 deadline. More than 2,000 bills were filed this week alone. House Appropriators worked on the supplemental appropriations bill, backfilling money owed during the current biennium. This time around, the supplemental bill includes Harvey money for state agencies, funding for the Medicaid shortfall, and DPS crime lab funding; county advocates are asking for additional funding for transportation infrastructure. The House also proposed its school finance reform legislation, which is already scheduled for a hearing.
County and district clerks had several of their important bills up for hearing, as did the treasurers, while justices of the peace are asking for access to motor vehicle financial responsibility information to better administer justice. Additionally, the House and Senate unveiled a package of high priority bills to address disasters.
House Committee Considers Supplemental Appropriations – On Feb. 7, the House Committee on Appropriations met to consider HB 4 - the supplemental appropriations legislation designed to address the funding gaps and concerns that have arisen since the Legislature adopted the 2018-2019 budget. HB 4 contains roughly $1.8 billion from the economic stabilization fund, or rainy day fund, roughly $1.7 billion from General Revenue, and $2.3 billion in federal funds.
The bill includes significant appropriations to state agencies impacted by Hurricane Harvey, funds the Medicaid shortfall, provides additional funds to the Texas A&M Forest Service to address the costs of wildfires, appropriates funding to DPS for crime lab facilities costs and provides funding related to improvements in school safety. The Legislative Budget Board prepared a helpful HB 4 infographic noting where the funding will be appropriated.
During the hearing, counties were on hand to testify in support of a rider that would put $500 million into the County Transportation Infrastructure Fund created by SB 1747 during the 83rd session. Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon testified on behalf of the County Judges and Commissioners Association, telling the committee about the success of the first round of funding in 2013 and how beneficial this amount would be for counties today. No action was taken.
The Senate is expected to take up and consider its supplemental appropriations bill, SB 500, on March 11.
Clerks’ Priority Bills Receive Hearings – This week, several bills important to the County and District Clerks’ Association were considered in their respective committees.
HB 685 by Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) was heard in the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee and Lynne Finley, Collin County District Clerk, testified in favor of the bill for the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas. The bill will provide protection to court clerks and counties from liability relating to the public disclosure of certain court documents that are accessed by a third party from a statewide court database. Rep. Clardy offered a complete committee substitute bill that further defined a “court clerk” to include statutory probate court, justice court, and municipal court. The bill was left pending in committee.
The committee also heard HB 686 by Rep. Clardy and Stacey Kemp, Collin County Clerk, testified in favor of the bill for the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas. The bill makes the temporary fee increase of $10 permanent for historic records preservation fees charged by county and district clerks. It does not increase fees. Making the fee permanent will continue to provide much needed resources for clerks to preserve and implement records management practices and establish disaster recovery protocols. The bill was left pending in committee.
HB 703 by Rep. Cody Harris (R-Palestine) was heard in House Public Health this week and Teresa Kiel, Guadalupe County Clerk, testified in favor of the bill for the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas. The bill changes the date a birth record becomes public information to on or after the 125th anniversary of the date of birth, which aligns with recommended national standards. The bill will provide protection to vulnerable senior citizens and prevent access to confidential information that could be used for fraudulent activities. There was some discussion between committee members of the possibility of lowering the 125 to 100 years. The majority of opposition to the bill came from genealogical societies who stated it would limit their access to the records to maintain accuracy in their genealogical research. The bill was left pending in committee.
Finally, HB 1067 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) was heard in the House Elections Committee. The County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas and Chris Davis, Williamson County Elections Administrator and President of the Elections Administrators Association of Texas, registered in favor of the bill. The bill is permissive and provides that if a candidate dies after the second day of the deadline to file an application for a place on the ballot, the authority may omit the candidate on the ballot. The bill was left pending in committee.
IGR hears Treasurer Platform Bill - The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations (IGR), Chaired by Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), met on March 4 to begin hearing legislation. Three local bills were laid out, including a measure to allow a fire control, prevention and emergency medical services district for a high growth municipality, another to reduce petition requirements for a place on a local hospital board and a bill to allow a local hospital district to employ and commission peace officers.
The fourth bill, of particular interest to counties, was SB 354 by Chair Lucio, which addresses direct payment of county salaries and expenditures. Sen. Lucio explained an August 2017 Attorney General opinion KP-160, which held that counties with populations of 190,000 or fewer lacked the necessary statute to authorize preapproval of payroll and office expenses without special meetings of the commissioners court. Jim Allison, General Counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association, spoke in favor of SB 354. Travis County Treasurer Dolores Ortega Carter testified that the County Treasurers Association of Texas supports resolving the issue raised in AG opinion KP-160 by removing the population bracket and making the disbursement approval process uniform in all Texas counties. All four bills were voted favorably from IGR with SB 354 advancing to the Senate Local and Uncontested Calendar.
Verifying Financial Responsibility - HB 196 by Rep. Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton) was laid out in the House Insurance Committee on March 5. The bill would allow justice and municipal courts to access the motor vehicle financial responsibility verification program. Currently, all law enforcement officers have access to this program in real time, however, justice and municipal courts are unable to access this information. Judge Gary Janssen (Justice of the Peace, Fort Bend County, Pct. 1, Place 1) and Judge Nicholas Chu (Justice of the Peace, Travis County Pct. 5) testified in support of the bill. They explained how access to this information would help create a more efficient justice court. The bill was left pending in committee.
Senate and House Unveil Disaster Relief Legislation - Eighteen months after Hurricane Harvey ravaged much of the state, a much anticipated package of disaster relief bills was revealed on March 6 in a news conference. For details on the high priority legislation, read more here.
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.