Front and center in this week’s legislative action was the House’s movement on SB 1, the state budget. Under House rules, amendments must be filed 48 hours prior to deliberation. When that deadline elapsed, 240 amendments had been filed, confirming the semi-perennial tradition of a long and wide ranging debate. A cynical observer may paint it as something of a “soap box standoff” given the fact that even a successful amendment is unlikely to survive final work on the budget by the ten-member conference committee charged with reconciling the differing House and Senate versions. However, others would contend that the recorded votes provide valuable insight on yet undebated contentious issues.
Not to be overlooked, as House budget deliberations took center stage, was news from the Lieutenant Governor that House Bill 1927 by Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), colloquially known as “permitless carry” or “constitutional carry,” currently lacks the votes in the Senate. Both chambers continued action on policing reforms as the Derek Chauvin verdict was delivered and advanced legislation to give the Legislature increased involvement in any future gubernatorial declared disaster. Also, not to be missed is the proliferation of political signals in advance of the 2022 election, which will feature most of the statewide offices — and if Texas politics were not cinematic enough, add to the fray Matthew McConaughey dipping his toe in the water for a gubernatorial bid.
The House Committee on County Affairs, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), heard testimony on Tuesday on important county-related bills, including House Bill 553 by Rep. Ed Thompson (R-Pearland), which requires an emergency service district to submit annual budgets and tax rates to commissioners courts. The bill also grants those courts the authority to reject one or both within 30 days. Also heard was House Bill 2133 by Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-Midlothian) to allow a county by order to restrict a registered sex offender from going in, on, or within a specific distance of a child safety zone in the unincorporated area of the county. Ellis County Commissioner Layne Grayson was on hand to testify in support.
The committee also heard House Joint Resolution 120 by Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), proposing a constitutional amendment to abolish the office of county treasurer in Galveston County. Several county treasurers were present to testify in opposition to abolishing this constitutional office. Kevin Walsh, Galveston County Treasurer, testified that abolishing his office would not bring about cost savings as the statutory duties of the treasurer would need to be performed by other additional full-time employees. As he has been re-elected every four years, Walsh noted that Galveston residents have made their voices heard. Midland County Treasurer Mitzi Baker, President of County Treasurers’ Association of Texas, noted the treasurer of any county is the elected watchdog of public funds and doing away with the office would “weaken the integrity of county government.”
Gayla Hawkins, Grayson County Treasurer, said the county treasurer’s office was created to work together for checks and balances; getting rid of the office would harm accountability, concluded Hawkins. Orlando Sanchez, former Harris County Treasurer, testified it would be ”fiscally irresponsible“ to get rid of the office. He said that oversight of spending is needed and advocated for ”fiscal prudence.”
All bills were left pending.
The House Elections Committee met and took up 12 bills, including House Bill 3974 by Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston), which prevents an individual from changing their residency to influence the outcome of an election. The companion is Senate Bill 1111 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), heard April 19 in Senate State Affairs and now scheduled for possible action by the full chamber.
The committee also heard House Bill 2293 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), establishing hours of voting during the early voting period and specifying that early voting may not be conducted before 6 a.m. or later than 9 p.m. House Bill 4028 by Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) was also considered; it requires the Secretary of State to provide a standardized training program for county election officers. Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) filed the companion to HB 4028, Senate Bill 231.
The committee heard another of Cain’s bills, House Bill 4044, allowing the Secretary of State to withhold Chapter 19 funds if a voter registrar fails to cancel a voter registration because of willful neglect. Bettencourt filed Senate Bill 1113, the companion to HB 4044. In addition, House Bill 4364 by Rep. Jacey Jetton (R-Sugar Land) was heard. HB 4364 requires a poll watcher to provide proof of identification to the election judge at the polling place where the watcher serves and be allowed free movement within the location at which the watcher serves.
HB 2293 was left pending; all other bills were voted out of committee.
Chris Davis, Williamson County Elections Administrator, representing the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, testified on several bills.
Senate State Affairs Hears Election Bills
On Monday, the Senate State Affairs Committee met and took up seven bills related to elections, two of which were proposed constitutional amendments. Senate Bill 1111 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) states a person may not establish a residence to influence the results of an election. The companion is House Bill 3974 by Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston), which was heard and passed by House Elections on April 21.
In addition, Senate Bill 1509 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) was considered; it requires an early voting ballot application to be accompanied by a legible photograph, a copy of photo identification, or, the last four digits of an applicant’s social security number. The committee also heard Bettencourt’s Senate Bill 1589, which gives the Secretary of State the authority to appoint a chief state election marshal for each department of public safety region to investigate an alleged violation of election fraud and with authority to file appropriate criminal charges. A final bill of note, Senate Bill 1612 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Englewood), makes any communication by letter, e-mail, or other communication between a voting system's vendors and a public official subject to the public information act.
SB 1612 was left pending; all other bills were voted out of committee.
House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence
Senate Bill 30 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) was heard in the House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence and laid out by the Chairman, Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano). The bill pertains to the removal of offensive and discriminatory language from certain real property records. A substitute to the bill was adopted and left pending in committee. Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) filed the companion, Senate Bill 222.
Sheriff Testifies in House Homeland Security on In-Custody Deaths
On Wednesday, the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas (SAT) testified in the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety against House Bill 2901 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), which would create a $10,000 fine for the first day, and $1,000 for each subsequent day, for failing to submit a custodial death report. Collected fines would be deposited in the state’s crime victims’ compensation fund. Under current law, a law enforcement agency that has a death in its custody is required to complete a custodial death report, including certification that a good faith effort has been made to include all facts known or discovered during the investigation, within 30 days; the penalty for failing to correctly file a custodial death report is a Class B misdemeanor.
Rodriguez’s bill would give the Texas Attorney General’s office the authority to investigate, notify, fine and sue to collect the fine when it receives a complaint regarding the report. An Austin area media outlet claims that 372 reports were filed from late 2015 through 2020. It is estimated this represents approximately 10% of the total custodial death reports filed during that period.
SAT Legislative Chairman and Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne testified against the bill as filed, citing the high priority every Sheriff places on properly reporting any in-custody deaths.
“We have 24 hours to notify [the Texas Commission on] Jail Standards of a death in our jail, so I do not want somebody to think that the 238 county jails in the state of Texas, that we aren’t on top of it,” Hawthorne said.
He also pointed out that sometimes investigations can take more than 30 days as autopsy and toxicology results often take weeks to return. SAT and Rodriguez both stated they were willing to work together to address any issues. HB 2901 was left pending in committee.
House Floor Action on Senate Bill 1
The House adopted its version of Senate Bill 1, the appropriations bill for the 2022-23 biennium, on Thursday, April 22. There were over 240 pre-filed amendments to the state budget bill. Many of the amendments ended up in Article XI. Article XI, often referred to as the wish list article, consists of unfunded budget requests that the Legislature may consider for funding should additional revenue become available.
Two amendments of importance to counties that were adopted are:
- A floor amendment by Rep. Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth) and Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), which provides $30 million for contracted inpatient mental health beds in rural and urban areas, and $123.5 million for cost-based reimbursement for rural hospitals whereby they are paid full cost to treat Medicaid patients. According to the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals, Texas leads the nation in rural hospital closures.
- A floor amendment by Rep. Richard Pena Raymond (D-Laredo) allocates $500,000 out of funds appropriated to the Office of Court Administration to use information technology to reduce the court backlog due to COVID-19 and other factors.
TAC's Legislative Services team will provide a full report on all floor amendments of importance to counties in next week’s newsletter.
House Adopts House Bill 2
On Thursday, April 22, the House adopted House Bill 2, the supplemental appropriations bill intended to balance the books for the two-year budget cycle that ends on August 31, 2021. As previously reported, HB 2 eliminates the $946 million budget deficit Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimated for the current two-year budget by enacting $5.7 billion in General Revenue and General Revenue-Dedicated Fund cost savings. Most of the cost savings come from:
Reduced appropriations from General Revenue Funds for the salaries of public health and public safety employees eligible for reimbursement from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF).
The 5% reductions leadership required of most state agencies in May 2020.
A reduction in the state’s share of school finance funding due to increased school district property value growth, lower daily attendance rates, and federal CARES Act funding.
HB 2 appropriates funds from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF) to complete construction of replacement campuses at Austin State Hospital and San Antonio State Hospital ($276.5 million), and continue implementation of the State Flood Plan established by Senate Bill 8, 86th Legislature, 2019 ($100.5 million). The bill also appropriates $19.2 million to the Texas Historical Commission for deferred maintenance projects, of which $18.5 million is for courthouse grants and the Mason County Courthouse.
One of the amendments to HB 2 adopted on the House Floor on Thursday would trigger a special session of the Legislature to appropriate the state’s share of anticipated additional federal relief funds such as the American Rescue Plan. The amendment by Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) prohibits the expenditure of additional federal COVID-19 Relief funds without appropriate, official action by the Texas Legislature.
Ways & Means Hears Tax Bills
The committee heard two property tax bills important to counties. The first is House Bill 1360 by Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa), relating to the procedure by which a taxing unit is required to provide public notice of certain ad valorem tax-related information. Last session, the Legislature changed the publication requirements for taxing units to publish tax rates and public debt information from publishing in the newspaper to posting on the taxing unit’s website. HB 1360 adds back in the newspaper publication requirement. Robin Harper, Tax Assessor-Collector from Andrews County, testified as neutral on the bill on behalf of the Tax Assessor-Collectors Association of Texas (TACA), highlighting the fact that there is nothing precluding taxing units from publishing in the newspaper today and noting the additional cost.
The committee also heard HB 746 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), relating to installment payments of ad valorem taxes imposed on certain homesteads. The bill as filed would allow individuals to pay their property taxes in installment agreements of five or nine equal payments without accruing penalties and interest. A committee substitute was offered during the hearing, changing the bill to allow for quarterly payments by any individual. Kevin Kieschnick, Tax Assessor-Collector for Nueces County, testified on behalf of TACA regarding the association’s concerns with the bill. Both the as filed version and the committee substitute would result in an increased cost of administration in the tax office.