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

March 19, 2021

Legislative News

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House Elections Committee

The House Elections Committee met on Thursday and heard 12 bills on a variety of subjects. Of the bills heard in committee, House Bill 25 by Rep. Valoree Swanson (R-Spring), prohibits the distribution of official application forms for ballot-by-mail to a person by an official or employee of a state agency or a political subdivision. In addition, the committee heard House Bill 1382 by Rep. John Bucy (D-Austin), which requires the early voting clerk to establish an electronic system that would allow a voter to track an application for a ballot-by-mail and their voted ballot-by-mail. A substitute bill was laid out to the committee that changed the responsibility for the development of the electronic tracking system to the secretary of state. Keith Ingram, Elections Director for the Secretary of State’s Office, informed the committee that if the bill passed, they could have the electronic ballot tracker system implemented and available to voters by the November election with an anticipated cost of $40,000 to the state. Another bill before the committee was House Bill 1725 by Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston), that eliminates the option for a voter to hand deliver their voted mail ballot to the early voting clerk. All bills taken up in committee were left pending.

Heather Hawthorne, Chambers County Clerk, representing the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas, and Chris Davis, Williamson County Elections Administrator, representing the Texas Association of Election Administrators, provided testimony and were resource witnesses on several bills.

House County Affairs Committee

The House Committee on County Affairs, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), on Thursday heard testimony on several bills important to counties including House Bill 2073 by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock). The bill requires a county to provide quarantined first responders with leave, pension benefits, health benefit plan benefits, lodging, medical and transportation costs. The bill prohibits a county from reducing a first responder’s sick, vacation or holiday leave balance while in quarantine. Senate Bill 1401 by Sen. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) is the companion.

Also heard, House Bill 840 by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) created an interesting conversation as the bill allows a commissioners court, as an alternative, to use a computer to randomly generate a list of names from the grand jury pool to serve on the salary grievance committee. Current law requires the county clerk to place on a slip of paper the name of each person who served on a grand jury in the county during the preceding year, then those slips are folded and placed in the appropriate container (or hat as one member joked), mixed and then the county judge shall draw at random a number of slips equal to the number of public members needed to serve on the salary grievance committee. El Paso Governmental Affairs Manager Daniel Collins testified in support of HB 840 answering questions about the process and also answering a few other humorous questions including one about a rabbit and hat.... The process doesn’t always have to be boring! The companion is Senate Bill 870 by Sen. Cesar Blanco (D-El Paso).

Broadband Bills Heard

On March 16, the Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) which establishes the State Broadband Development Office (BDO) under the University of Texas System. Medina County Judge Chris Schuhart testified in favor of the bill citing the challenges created by unreliable internet and the potential for a positive economic impact for his community.

Nichols offered a committee substitute with several changes including directing the Governor’s broadband council to research functions including the deployment and purchasing by the public, clarifies the BDO does not have regulatory authority and makes recommendations to the legislature regarding affordability.

On March 17, the House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on the committee substitute for House Bill 5 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) which places the Broadband Development Office under the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts and creates a funding mechanism for expanding broadband access.

Both bills were left pending in their respective committees. More information about the bills is available here.

Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee

During the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety on March 18, Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne and Judge Lynn Holt, Justice of the Peace Pct. 3 Bandera County, testified on behalf of the Sheriffs Association of Texas and the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas in support of the committee substitute to House Bill 1419 by Rep. Lacey Hull (R-Houston). Otherwise known as John and Joseph’s Law, the committee substitute requires the justice of the peace or medical examiner (whomever performs the death inquest) to enter all available identifying features of the unidentified body (fingerprints, dental records, any unusual physical characteristics, and a description of the clothing found on the body) into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The committee substitute was withdrawn and the bill was left pending in committee.

Jackson County Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback testified on committee Vice Chairwoman Rhetta Bowers' (D-Rowlett) House Bill 1262 relating to training peace officers in techniques for interacting with homeless populations in their communities. The Sheriffs Association of Texas was invited to testify on the bill after visiting with Bowers and her chief of staff. Louderback expressed the association’s support for training that places better prepared officers in the communities they serve but highlighted the unfunded mandates that many additional training bills place on sheriffs’ departments. Bowers was receptive to the testimony and pledged to work with the association on language that would not place new burdens on rural counties. Louderback also requested that legislators review all the different trainings required of law enforcement officers and make necessary updates and reforms.

Clerk’s Continuing Education Addressed in Committee

The House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence met on Wed. and heard House Bill 1831 by Rep. Glenn Rogers (R-Graford) which allows county and district clerks to carry over, from the current calendar year to the following year, not more than 10 hours of completed continuing education courses that exceed the number of completed hours required under current law. Velva Price, Travis County District Clerk, representing the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas testified in support of the bill. The bill was left pending in committee.

County Cost Savings Bill Heard in Committee

On March 17, the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony on House Bill 228 by Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction) which allows a commissioners court the option by order to use an electronic recording device instead of an official court reporter. Medina County Judge Chris Schuhart testified in support of the bill clarifying the bill made it optional for the county and the court to decide. Counties are looking for fiscal relief as the number of licensed court reporters in Texas have decreased over 20 percent while the number of courts has increased 9 percent since 2005 – occasionally leaving counties in bidding wars against other counties. According to the Office of Court Administration’s estimate, it will take at least 4 years to resolve the backload of cases caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Tax Assessor-Collectors Testify

Senate Bill 876 by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) was heard Tuesday in the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce. The bill, as filed, allows auto dealers to file their vehicle title paperwork in any county of their choice. During the hearing, Chairman Hancock laid out a committee substitute that would expand the bill and allow for the public to also register their vehicles in any county. Montgomery County Tax Assessor-Collector Tammy McRae, president of the Tax Assessor-Collector’s Association of Texas (TACA), testified on the financial impact this legislation would have on counties. Bell County Tax Assessor-Collector Shay Luedeke testified regarding the associated fees collected at the time of registration. And Lynn County Tax Assessor-Collector Donna Willis testified on the budgetary impact this would have on Lynn County. The companion bill, House Bill 3113, was filed by Rep. Ed Thompson (R-Pearland).

Additionally, House Bill 1105 by Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) was heard in the House Committee on Transportation on Tuesday. This bill expands the use of digital license plates to all passenger vehicles. Luedeke testified as neutral on the bill but highlighted some concerns on behalf of TACA. TACA is working to ensure that tax offices remain in the vehicle registration process for individuals who purchase a digital license plate. Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) filed the companion bill, Senate Bill 490.

House Appropriations Subcommittees Hold Formal Meetings

Selected subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee held formal meetings this week to take a deep dive into funding requests by agencies not included in House Bill 1. Subcommittees that met this week include General Government, the Judiciary, and Public Safety and Corrections (Articles I, IV and V); Education (Article III); and Health and Human Services (Article II). More information on the subcommittees, including their membership, may be found here.

Like their counterparts on the Senate Finance Committee, the subcommittees will use decision documents listing all agency asks not included in HB 1 to guide their budget mark-up discussions. The initial decision documents for the House budget-writing committee are now available online. Eventually, these decision documents will be used to enact and record the House Appropriations Committee budget mark-up decisions.

County officials should know that no public or agency testimony is heard at these formal meetings, only committee members and legislative staff are allowed to speak. During some of these meetings, subcommittee members recommended moving unfunded items into Article XI. Article XI, the “wish list” article, is an additional article sometimes included in the appropriations bill to capture items the Legislature believes are worthy of funding, but unable to fund due to revenue constraints.

For its part, the Senate Finance Committee scheduled no meetings this week. The committee workgroups are likely meeting informally to complete their mark-up recommendations.

Senate Committee Discusses Continuing Education for County Commissioners

The Senate Committee on Local Government met Monday on several county-related bills, including Senate Bill 230 by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), relating to the continuing education requirements for county commissioners. Seliger laid out his substitute bill, noting the updated version authorizes a county commissioner’s first year of service training to be completed in person. After the first year, continued training can be done online. Some concerns expressed include a reminder that broadband is not yet available throughout Texas, virtual training is not comparable to in-person training and that this should be a commissioners court’s decision. Other testimony expressed support, noting virtual training has been successful and in-person training can be burdensome to some counties. Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston testified in support of the substituted version and on-site education, noting commissioners courts should be setting their education policy locally. SB 230 was left pending in committee.

Tax Cut Prohibitions in ARP Called Into Question by Republican Attorneys General

On Tuesday, 21 Republican State Attorneys General, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, sent the Department of Treasury a joint letter asking it to take action restricting provisions in the American Rescue Plan (ARP) they view as unconstitutional. The letter states that the section which prohibits states from directly or indirectly using ARP funds to offset reductions in net tax revenue represents a federal overreach that infringes on states’ rights. Additionally, the letter states the prohibitive language could be broadly interpreted to prevent tax policy changes. The Treasury is still in the rule-writing stage of implementing the ARP. TAC will be monitoring the situation closely and will provide updates as they become available.

The National Association of Counties has requested input from counties nationwide to assist the Treasury in writing rules implementing the ARP. Click here to add your county’s guidance.

Almost 7,000 Bills Filed in Legislature

Friday, March 12, marked a significant day on the legislative calendar. As prescribed by the Texas Constitution, that 60th day of session was the final day on which legislation could be filed absent a four-fifths vote (or with a lesser threshold for local bills meeting certain requirements). In just the few short hours that passed between publication of last Friday’s County Issues newsletter and the end of the day, over 600 additional bills were filed. Those 600 bills, representing over a 10% increase, took the final count to 6,919 bills filed by the 87th Legislature. And with that, conventional wisdom among Capitol watchers was proved decidedly wrong — while COVID-19’s far-reaching impact on legislative operations did result in a reduction in bills filed compared with the prior session (7,541 bills filed), the 87th Legislature’s bill count was nonetheless the second highest in the past 10 years. This session’s small downturn does not, it would seem, mark the beginning of a new trend, but rather an anomalous blip in the trend of ever higher bill counts.