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

March 26, 2021

Legislative News

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2020 Unfunded Mandates Report Released

The 2020 Unfunded Mandates Survey report, The Cost of County Government, was released online this week in a new, easier to use format. Thanks to the many county auditors, treasurers, judges and staff who researched and reported their data for use in this publication – it would not have been possible without your support! And a special thanks to our partners at the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, Texas Conference of Urban Counties, Texas Association of County Auditors and County Treasurers’ Association of Texas.

Senate State Affairs Hears Election Bills

The Senate State Affairs Committee is holding a hearing today, March 26, to take up 14 bills, of which 12 are related to elections. Among the election bills is Senate Bill 7 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), which requires a voter verifiable paper audit trail on all electronic voting equipment by 2026. SB 7 also strengthens poll watcher protections, streamlines the prosecutorial process for alleged election fraud, creates a criminal offense, contains measures to keep voter registration rolls accurate and provides for criminal penalties. The committee will also consider election legislation that pertains to voter registration, early voting mail-in ballots, verification of citizenship of registered voters, eligibility of interpreters in an election, and requiring electronic voting equipment to have a voter verifiable paper trail by 2024.

The complete committee agenda may be viewed online.

County Affairs in Action

The House Committee on County Affairs, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), held a hearing on Tuesday to vote out pending bills. Among them: House Bill 362 by Rep. Carl Sherman (D-Dallas), which allows a commissioners court, by order, to require submission of bids or proposals through electronic submission, and House Bill 840 by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), which allows a commissioners court to direct the county clerk to use a computer to randomly produce a list of names from the grand jury pool to select salary grievance committee members.

The committee also held a hearing on Thursday to hear testimony on important county bills, including House Bill 537 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Denton), which allows a county to post public notices on the internet in place of publishing them in the newspaper. Other bills included House Bill 768 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), which requires all political subdivisions including counties that have a population of 5,000 or more to make audio and video recordings of meetings available on the internet. The companions are Senate Bill 326 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Senate Bill 1070 by Cesar Blanco (D-El Paso), respectively.

Qualified Immunity Legislation Heard in Committee

On Thursday, the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee heard testimony on House Bill 88, the George Floyd Act, by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston). After hours of impassioned testimony by more than 100 individuals and associations, the bill was left pending in committee. The companion is Senate Bill 161 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas).

HB 88 would create a state cause of action against law enforcement officers, remove qualified immunity, narrow Use of Force techniques, ban chokeholds, prevent arrest for fine-only offenses, and establish a disciplinary matrix, among a number of other provisions that multiple law enforcement associations, including the Sheriffs Association of Texas, have expressed grave concern over.

The Sheriffs Association of Texas has supported multiple pieces of legislation on improving the profession of law enforcement but has great concerns over attempts to remove qualified immunity.

“If qualified immunity were to be reduced or eliminated, the negative fiscal impact on, not just Sheriffs and Constables, but every law enforcement agency, would result in a devastating fiscal impact on the local taxpayers,” Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said.

House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence

On Wednesday, March 24, the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence held a public hearing regarding bills important to counties. Travis County Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu testified in support of House Bill 1159 by Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction) on behalf of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas. This bill increases the jurisdictional limit of justice courts for repair of residential rental property cases from $10,000 to $20,000. Passage of the bill would permit all civil cases heard in justice courts in Texas up to a jurisdictional limit of $20,000.

Chambers County District Clerk Patti Henry testified in support of House Bill 1365 by Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) on behalf of the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas (CDCAT). This bill is a priority for CDCAT and would amend sections of the Family and Government codes relating to the transferring of certain cases and proceedings between courts and provides specifications to county and district clerks as to how the cases are to be transferred using the state's e-filing system. The companion is Senate Bill 2027 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe).

Also heard was House Bill 2335 by Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville). This bill would waive sovereign and governmental immunity for prosecutors if they adopted “a formal or informal policy of not prosecuting an individual who engages in criminal conduct as part of a riot.” It would also subject prosecutors to civil liability for any significant physical injury, death or property damage that resulted from criminal conduct during a riot in their jurisdiction.

Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, testified on HB 2335, stating that consequences for prosecutors who refuse to follow the law are already in place and that the preservation of prosecutorial immunity is essential for justice to be achieved. He discussed the fact that prosecutors often have to make tough decisions in the course of their work and that those decisions are often unpopular. Kepple noted that prosecutors must be able to make those tough decisions with courage and without fear of being sued.

Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) also weighed in, stating that “it is a dangerous and slippery slope to start stepping into the purview of what the prosecutors are going to bring forward.”

Senate Transportation Takes Action on Broadband

On March 24, the Senate Transportation Committee voted out the committee substitute to Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), which establishes the State Broadband Development Office under the University of Texas System. Also heard and voted out was Senate Bill 160 by Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), which repeals the mandatory road reports required under Sec. 251.018, Transportation Code, and eliminates the need for the report as a condition for applying for a County Transportation Infrastructure Grant.

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht gives State of the Judiciary Address

On Tuesday, March 23, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht gave his State of the Judiciary address. He emphasized the impact that COVID-19 has had on every court and how they rose to the challenges to provide exceptional services without “risking health for justice.” One of the topics Hecht discussed was bail reform and he urged the Legislature to consider four priorities: 1) Give courts validated, pretrial risk assessment information for all defendants. 2) Ask voters to amend the Texas Constitution to allow denial of bail. 3) Provide pretrial supervision for those released. 4) Collect data to verify that the system is working. Additionally, Hecht urged the Legislature to increase funding for indigent defense and consider filed bills relating to conducting remote court proceedings, juvenile justice and mental health as they are priorities of the Texas judiciary.

A video of Hecht’s State of the Judiciary address can be found on the Texas Supreme Court’s website.

Statistics

Last week we looked at the total number of bills and joint resolutions filed by the 87th Legislature and compared that total to the five preceding sessions, noting the predicted sharp downturn in bill filings due to pandemic interruptions was not realized. Of the 5,476 bills and joint resolutions referred to committee, 178 have been voted out of committee, and 10 have been passed by the House or Senate and referred to the other chamber. No bills have yet been passed by both chambers.