With the top half of the hourglass emptying on the legislative clock, the House and Senate have settled into a familiar pattern where work slows and accelerates in the chambers in large part according to the action or inaction of the other. Sometimes the reasons are stated by a legislator directly and for all to hear, but typically, observers must decipher their intent from vote counts on the bills, amendments, and even amendments to amendments.
As action occurs in fits and starts between now and the May 31 end to the 87th Texas Legislative Session, there will be much to cover. Last week we reported the first signing of a bill into law, this week Gov. Greg Abbott so far has added 65 to that number, and a sharp increase in that total is expected next week. Please read on for a summary of this week’s action important to Texas counties and count on a dense report in next week’s Week in Review.
Senate Local Government
The Senate Committee on Local Government took up House Bill 1869 on Monday. Chairman and Senate sponsor Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) laid out the bill, and explained to the committee that the bill builds on the transparency reports from last session’s Senate Bill 2. Decrying the expanded use of certificates of obligation, more so by municipalities than by counties, and of regional exceptions added by amendment, Bettencourt presented a committee substitute that removes all but two of the 10 amendments adopted by the House. As substituted, HB 1869 would require inclusion of certificates of obligation as debt in the calculation of the rollback rate, with two important exceptions: those issued for refunding previously issued certificates, and those funding specified “designated infrastructure,” a group that includes many important infrastructure projects and capital expenditures. On hand to testify on the bill was Anderson County Judge Robert D. Johnston.
SB 7 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), relating to election integrity and security, was received in the Senate with House amendments. On May 17, the Senate refused to concur with the amendments made in the House and the bill is now in conference committee. The conferees appointed in the Senate are Hughes, Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway), Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Sen. Beverly Powell (D-Burleson) and Sen. Lois Kolkorst (R-Brenham). The House conferees are Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth), Rep. Jacey Jetton (R-Sugar Land) and Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg).
The House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence met on May 19 and heard SB 41 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), relating to the consolidation of civil court costs and fees. The bill was substituted in committee, adding the consolidation of fees for probate, mental health and guardianship cases including the repealing of old fees. The bill as substituted was voted favorably out of committee.
Also considered was HB 1382 by Rep. John Bucy (D-Austin), requiring the secretary of state to develop an online tracking system to enable a voter to check the status of their application for a ballot by mail and completed and cast ballot by mail on the secretary of state’s website. The bill was laid out for consideration in the Senate and was amended. The amendment added language requiring the same search capabilities to be available to a voter on a county’s website if the county maintains a website. HB 1382 further requires that an application for a ballot to be voted by mail be assigned a unique bar code that is readable by an electronic device that may be used to authenticate a voter’s ballot. The bill was sent back to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.
HB 1831 by Rep. Glenn Rogers (R-Graford) allows a county or district clerk to carry over not more than 10 educational hours from the current calendar year to the following year that exceed the 20 annual hours required by statute. Gov. Abbott signed the bill on May 15 and it became effective immediately.
Judge Lynn Holt, Bandera County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 4, testified Thursday on behalf of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas in support of HB 1159 by Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction) and HB 2430, also by Murr, which are priorities for the association. The Senate Jurisprudence Committee passed both bills and recommended them for the local and uncontested calendar. Additionally, Judge Holt provided written testimony in support of House Joint Resolution 4 by Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-College Station), which Senate Jurisprudence passed and recommended for the Senate calendar.
Senate Criminal Justice Meets to Consider House Bills
The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice met on May 19 to consider 33 House bills after revising the original posting multiple times. We have reached that point of the legislative session where committees will revise their postings several times to add more bills in an effort to avoid further hearings. One of the bills heard was HB 686 by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), which provides for a second look at early parole eligibility for certain inmates who were convicted of an offense when they were younger than 18. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville), who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, laid out a committee substitute that made several changes – one of which would make the bill prospective only.
Several bills involving writs of habeas corpus were heard including HB 225 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston); HB 187, also by Thompson; HB 275 by Moody; HB 1126 by Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas); and HB 1127, also by Anchia.
Also, of note was HB 2781 by Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston), which gives prosecutors another tool to prosecute mass shooters. Currently, in a mass shooting incident in which four or more people are targeted or injured, but do not die, the charges are limited to assault with a deadly weapon and these offenses cannot be “stacked,” meaning that a judge cannot order that an offender serve the sentences consecutively when the offenses arose from the same criminal episode. HB 2781 helps to address this by defining a mass shooting, increasing the penalty for this conduct to a first-degree felony, and allowing for stacking of sentences.
House County Affairs
The House Committee on County Affairs heard testimony on SB 1169 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), which prohibits a county, notwithstanding any other law, from requiring a building permit to construct, improve or occupy a structure used for not more than 60 days. County representatives testified against the bill, citing public safety concerns as this bill would significantly lessen the standards portable fireworks stands would be required to meet. The bill was left pending.
Senate Finance Committee Adopts a Substitute for HB 2
The Senate Finance Committee today adopted their substitute for HB 2 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee. HB 2, the supplemental appropriations bill for fiscal year 2021, is intended to balance the books on the current two-year budget that ends Aug. 31, 2021. HB 2, as substituted, eliminates the $946 million budget deficit Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimated for the current two-year budget by enacting general revenue-related cost savings. Most of the general revenue-related cost savings are due to the replacement of general revenue by COVID-19 federal fiscal relief funds, the 5% reductions leadership required of most state agencies in May 2020, and a lower state share of school finance costs due to property value growth, lower daily attendance rates and federal relief for school districts. In addition to these general revenue savings, the substitute provides funding for the following items of importance to counties:
- $25 million out of the Economic Stabilization Fund for courthouse preservation grants.
- $3.4 million in general revenue for food bank programs and home-delivered meals.
- $321.3 million out of the Economic Stabilization Fund, including $276.5 million to complete replacement of campuses at the Austin and San Antonio State Mental Health Hospitals and $44.8 million to begin efforts to build new state hospitals in the Dallas area.
- $1 billion for the Property Tax Relief Fund to support the Foundation School Program in the 2022-23 biennium.
For more details on the Senate Finance Committee’s substitute for HB 2 see this infographic.
Mask Mandate Update
On Tuesday, Gov. Abbott issued an Executive Order prohibiting governmental entities, including cities, counties, school districts, public health authorities or government officials, from requiring or mandating mask wearing. Starting today, local governments that attempt to impose a mask mandate are subject to a fine of up to $1,000. State-supported living centers, government-owned or -operated hospitals, Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities, Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities, and county and municipal jails are exempt from the order. An explanatory press release is available here.