The Week Behind Us and the Week Ahead of Us – Only 10 days remain in the 86th regular legislative session. The conference committee report on Senate Bill 2, the property tax bill, is imminent, the Driver Responsibility Program repealer has now passed both chambers, the state budget is close to being finalized, while the comptroller tells the Legislature it has a little bit more walking around money. That controversial elections bill was voted out of committee, a game room regulation bill is headed to the governor’s desk, open government bills advance, and mutual aid law enforcement task forces receive consideration. An important Justice of the Peace bill should pass a major hurdle, a DWI bill will provide more discretion, and we include an update on a couple of problematic contingency fee contract bills.
Property Tax Update – Conferees have been named and work is underway to address the differences between the House and Senate versions of SB 2. While the bill is authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) as chair of the Senate conferees negotiating the differences with the House. Ways and Means Chairman Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) chairs the House conferees.
While both versions of the bill will cap property tax revenue growth for a county and local government at 3.5 percent, the House version goes further to recognize the need to provide counties with some flexibility. The offices of both the Speaker and Lt. Governor remain very involved in the negotiations. Throughout session the property tax and school finance bill, HB 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), have been linked. It is anticipated that details of any compromise on SB 2 will emerge once negotiations on HB 3 are also reached.
Bill Repealing Driver Responsibility Program Passes Both Chambers – Both chambers have passed legislation that would repeal the onerous Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), which assesses surcharges on defendants convicted of certain offenses. HB 2048 by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), and sponsored by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), eliminates program surcharges assessed on drivers convicted of certain offenses and replaces lost revenue with increases in certain fees and fines so there is no impact to funding for trauma centers.
The Senate adopted three amendments. The first amendment makes slight changes to which accounts are credited with the fees and fines collected. The second amendment applies a $6,000 fine to those operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated with an alcohol concentration level of 0.15 or more. The third amendment provides details on what information may be provided by a person to support the claim of being indigent. It is anticipated that the House will concur with the Senate amendments, in which case the bill will likely be sent to the governor by early next week.
State Budget Update – House Bill 1 by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) conferees met this week to adopt compromise funding for Articles I, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII. Together these six articles will fund the majority of state agencies and represent roughly 29 percent of the total state budget. The conferees continue to work through Articles II and III, which address funding for health and human services and education, including funding for the compression of property taxes.
Budget writers received some good news this week when Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar revised his biennial revenue estimate. The updated estimate will provide an additional $500 million to the Legislature for state appropriations.
TAC has created a budget document that identifies and tracks those items of interest to counties.
Controversial Elections Bill Voted out of Committee – SB 9 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), which has already passed the Senate, was heard in the House Elections Committee. Chris Davis, Williamson County Election Administrator, testified on the substitute bill laid out to the committee by Chair Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth). There are many facets to the bill, including provisions that create offenses and enhance penalties for certain conduct relating to elections. The proposed House committee substitute removes the most onerous part relating to the decertification of electronic voting equipment that does not have a paper audit trail by August 2024.
The substitute also changes a provision that creates an offense if a person hinders access to a walkway, sidewalk, parking lot or roadway within 500 feet of a polling place; under the substitute, the distance is changed to within 100 feet of a polling place.
The bill was voted out of committee and now heads to the Calendars Committee.
County Game Room Regulation Bill Sent to the Governor – Both chambers have passed HB 892 by Rep. John Kuempel (R-Seguin), which amends the Local Government Code to remove the bracket and allow all commissioners courts to regulate the operation of game rooms. The bill now heads to the governor.
Open Government Bills Advancing – An array of open government bills are making their way through the Legislature. SB 1640 by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) addresses 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. The bill specifies the exact type of series of communications and conduct that would constitute the criminal offense of conspiring to circumvent the Open Meetings Act. The bill has already passed the Senate and is scheduled for consideration on the House floor on May 17.
SB 944 and SB 943, also by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), make several changes to the Public Information Act. SB 944 is an omnibus bill that outlines a process for the preservation of public information maintained on privately owned devices; authorizes a governmental body to designate one email address and one mailing address for receiving written requests for public information; and requires the Attorney General to create a public information request form. The House adopted a couple of amendments regarding the release of certain records relating to an investigation not resulting in a conviction under certain circumstances and the confidentiality of certain information relating to the humane disposition of an animal. The measure has now passed both chambers.
SB 943 aims to address two Texas Supreme Court decisions, Boeing v. Paxton and Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton, that excepted certain information relating to public-private contracts from disclosure under the Public Information Act. The bill has already passed the Senate and is set for House floor consideration on May 17.
Another bill, SB 494 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), revises certain procedures relating to the Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act in the event of an emergency, urgent public necessity or catastrophic event. The measure has passed both chambers.
Mutual Aid Law Enforcement Task Forces – The Senate passed HB 1789 by Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) and sponsored by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), pertaining to Mutual Aid Law Enforcement Task Forces. It 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 Interstate 30 (Parker, Tarrant, Dallas, Rockwall) or Interstate 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 bill has already passed the House.
House to Vote on SB 1840, Justice Court’s Court Assistance and Technology Fund – The Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas have a priority bill, SB 1840 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), up for consideration on the House floor on May 17. The bill would allow the existing Justice Court Technology Fund to statutorily allow for funds to be used for court assistance such as court personnel and court personnel training. This fund is maintained by a $4 fee already collected from defendants convicted in criminal cases.
There is no change to the amount of this fee; SB 1840 just authorizes what the funds can be used for. SB 1840 would provide more flexibility to smaller counties with fewer resources, many of which do not have a clerk. For example, a court might be equipped with the most up-to-date technology but in desperate need of additional staff to alleviate the workload that has increased over time. Additionally, this bill allows judges, per their discretion and commissioners court approval, the ability to help constables’ offices with technological enhancements. Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction) is the House sponsor and has been a leader on this issue.
Limits on Contingent Fee Contracts – HB 2826 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood) would impose certain restrictions on local governments regarding contingent fee contracts for legal services. The bill was voted from the Senate State Affairs Committee on May 13 and recommended for the local and uncontested calendar, which usually signals a fast track to final passage. SB 970, a similar bill by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), passed the Senate last week and has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.
Expanding Sentencing Options for DWIs – The Senate passed 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 determines it is not necessary.
Additionally, a deferred adjudication sentence in these cases will still be considered a conviction for the purposes of enhancement of subsequent offenses. The bill also requires an ignition interlock device as a condition of release on bond for the offense of driving while intoxicated with a child passenger. The bill has already passed the House.
Deadlines – Friday, May 17 marks the 130th day of the 86th Legislative Session. With 10 days remaining, the Senate and House are working to pass legislation with several deadlines looming. May 17 is the last day for the House to consider local House bills on second and third reading, and the first day the Senate can consider bills and resolutions the first day they are posted on the Senate Intent Calendar. May 18 is the last day House committees can report out Senate bills in order to get them set on a House calendar. Additionally, May 22 is the last day the House can consider all Senate Bills. All the upcoming deadlines can be found 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.