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

March 12, 2021

Legislative News

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Texas House Speaker Announces Priority Bills

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) announced seven priority bills on Monday in response to the widespread power outages last month. The proposals dovetail with Gov. Greg Abbott’s previously issued emergency items regarding reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and winterization of the state’s power grid.

The proposals include:

  • House Bill 10 by Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall): Reformation of ERCOT.
  • House Bill 11 by Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall): Protection for consumers and the state’s electrical grid during extreme weather.
  • House Bill 12 by Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo): Creation of a statewide alert system for impending extreme events.
  • House Bill 13 by Rep. Chris Paddie: Improvement of coordination between state agencies during disasters.
  • House Bill 14 by Craig Goldman (R-Tarrant): Weatherization of natural gas infrastructure.
  • House Bill 16 by Ana Hernandez (D-Houston): Prohibition on variable rate products for homeowners.
  • House Bill 17 by Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont): Prohibition on differing regulation of utility service according to energy source.

Governor Adds Emergency Item

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott added “correction of any billing errors by ERCOT, including any inaccurate excessive charges and any issues regarding ancillary service prices” to the list of emergency items for the 87th Legislature to consider.

The billing errors refer to the fact that ERCOT kept energy prices at the highest level allowable – $9,000 per megawatt hour – for 32 hours longer than it should have during last month’s arctic blast, overcharging power companies by $16 billion.

Justices and Constables Testify

The Justices of the Peace and Constables Association (JPCA) testified in three House committees this week. JPCA President Judge Rick Hill, Brazos County, testified on Monday in the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence in support of House Bill 689 by Chair Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth), relating to the appearance of an arrested person before a magistrate. Judge Nicholas Chu from Travis County, JPCA’s JP legislative vice chair, also testified on Monday. Chu testified before the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues in support of House Bill 675 by Rep. Ramos (D-Dallas). The bill would allow a member of the armed forces to participate in a marriage ceremony via proxy or videoconferencing. Lastly, Travis County Constable Carlos Lopez, JPCA’s constable legislative chair, was invited to testify during the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety’s organizational hearing held on Thursday. Lopez provided an overview of constables’ duties and the important work JPCA does across the state.

House Ways and Means Hears from Tax Assessor-Collectors

On Monday, Kevin Kieschnick, Nueces County tax assessor-collector, provided testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee on behalf of the Tax Assessor-Collectors Association of Texas (TACA).  House Bill 535 by Rep. Hugh Shine (R-Bell) would have changed the interest rate charged on deferred property tax accounts from a fixed rate to a floating rate. A committee substitute was offered to change the bill’s language back to a fixed rate and lower the amount of interest charged, from 5% to 3.5%. On behalf of TACA, Kieschnick thanked Shine for his willingness to work with local entities on the bill.

House County Affairs Holds Organizational Meeting

The House Committee on County Affairs, Chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston,) hosted its organizational meeting on Thursday hearing testimony from associations representing issues under the committee’s jurisdiction. Jim Allison, General Counsel, County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas; Adam Haynes, Policy Director, Conference of Urban Counties; and Rick Thompson, Legislative Consultant, Texas Association of Counties, provided information to the committee about their associations and important legislative issues including local decision making, mental health services and unfunded mandate protection. County Affairs is the primary body to hear county related legislation.

Committee Substitute for HB 3 Laid Out

The House Committee on State Affairs met Thursday to hear several bills, including House Bill 3 by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), on how state and local government respond to a pandemic disaster and also addressing the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic. Burrows laid out a committee substitute and explained the differences from the filed version. 

Among the biggest differences in the reworked legislation is that committee substitute to HB 3 (CSHB 3) creates a 10-member Pandemic Disaster Legislative Oversight Committee. This committee would consist of the lieutenant governor, speaker of the house and certain committee chairs from both chambers. If the legislature is not in session, the oversight committee could review or terminate a pandemic disaster declaration in effect for more than 30 days or it could terminate rules, orders or specific provisions tied to the pandemic disaster declaration.

Of particular concern to counties are two areas not addressed by the substitute legislation. Chapter 418 of the Government Code explains the tiers for disaster response. In the event of a conflict, the decision of a county judge prevails over the mayor (Sec 418.108(h)(2)). CSHB 3 does not include a provision establishing the chain of command for local pandemic disasters. In addition, CSHB 3 adds a provision to freeze tax revenues for any county or city that issues an order requiring a private business to close in response to a pandemic. While the language in this section is broad, it could result in a county’s tax revenues being frozen for one year.
The committee heard several hours of testimony and left CSHB 3 pending in committee.

In-Person Court Proceedings Authorized

Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court issued Emergency Order 36 to replace Emergency Order 33. The order allows all courts to hold in-person court proceedings, including jury trials, after adoption of minimum standard health protocols and an in-person proceeding schedule for all judges in the county or municipal court buildings. The adoption must be made by an administrative district judge or presiding judge. Additionally, courts may modify or suspend deadlines and procedures until June 1. Courts are still allowed to hold proceedings virtually in certain cases, using technology provided to certain prospective jurors. The order extends a provision involving possession and access to a child from previous orders. Lastly, an evidentiary panel in an attorney professional disciplinary or disability proceeding may conduct the proceeding remotely.

Budget-writing Committees Pause Temporarily

The Senate Finance Committee agency hearings on Senate Bill 1 are complete. The committee met on Monday to hear testimony on Article IX, General Provisions, which guides budget transfers between line items and programs; sets salary schedules for state employees such as prison guards and game wardens; and sets travel and capital budget restrictions. Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) announced the SB 1 workgroups and workgroup members (see table below). Nelson concluded the hearing, stating she wanted the committee to complete mark-up and vote out SB 1 before the Easter holiday. 

Neither the House Appropriations Committee or its subcommittees held hearings on House Bill 1 this week. The appropriations subcommittees completed their agency hearings last week. This is a temporary pause in the budget mark-up process.

Both committees are expected to take further action on the budget once they better understand the American Rescue Plan, the additional funds available to the state of Texas under the bill, and the eligible uses of those funds.

Save our Seniors Vaccine Program Expanded

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the Texas Department of State Health Services, and the Texas Military Department announced the 34 counties that will participate in the second week of the Save Our Seniors COVID-19 vaccine initiative. During the first week of the initiative, 26 counties participated. Abbott announced the Save Our Seniors program in Corpus Christi last month to provide vaccines to seniors throughout the state.

Counties participating in the second round of the program are Aransas, Bandera, Bowie, Brooks, Caldwell, Callahan, Coke, Coleman, Dallas, Duval, Henderson, Hockley, Lampasas, Leon, Liberty, Mason, Mitchell, Presidio, Rusk, Sabine, San Patricio, Stephens, Sutton, Titus, Trinity, Val Verde, Van Zandt, Walker, Waller, Webb, Wharton, Willacy, Wilson, Wood.

Change in Urban Definition

The U.S. Census Bureau has proposed changes to the criteria used to determine urban areas (UAs) for the 2020 Census. Changes to the criteria could impact counties given statutory definitions of rural and urban areas – including counties.

The Texas Demographic Center (TDC) has competed an analysis of the impact of the first three proposed changes. According to the analysis, if the proposed threshold of 10,000 persons is implemented, 142 Texas counties would see declines in urban population changes. Some Texas counties, such as Crane, Jim Hogg, and Sutton, would change from 100% urban population to 0% urban population (i.e., 100% rural population) in 2020.
For additional analysis of how these changes could impact your county, contact the TDC at tdc@utsa.edu or visit their website.

In addition, the National Association of Regional Councils produced a helpful overview of the proposed changes which include:

  • Adoption of a housing unit density (rather than population density) threshold for qualification of census blocks.
  • Qualify UAs based on minimum threshold of 4,000 housing units or 10,000 persons instead of a minimum threshold of 2,500 persons.
  • Cease distinguishing different types of UAs.
  • Maximum jump distances reduced to 1.5 miles.
  • No longer include the low density hop or jump “corridor” in the UA.
  • No longer include the low-density territory located within indentations formed during the UA delineation process.
  • Splitting of large agglomerations of densely settled territory.

The full recommendation, including contact information for questions and to provide public comment by May 20, is available in the Federal Register.

Legislature Charging Forward

The newest member of the Texas House took the oath of office and was sworn in by House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont). Attorney David Spiller (R-Jacksboro) replaces now-Senator Drew Springer (R-Muenster) in representing the 22 counties in House District 68. Spiller won a special election runoff and will serve on the House County Affairs and Land and Resource Management committees.

While many predicted that the pandemic’s impact on Capitol operations would result in far fewer bills filed in the 87th Legislature, the reduction has been moderate. With today’s bill filing deadline, more than 6,300 have been filed. For comparison, the 86th Legislature saw 7,541 bills, which eclipsed the prior session’s 6,800. In next Friday’s Week in Review, we will assess the updated total, which still will not be final, as local bills and supermajority approval allow legislation to be introduced after the bill filing deadline.