Legislative Lowdown-April 12, 2019

Today is Day 95 of the regular session of the 86th Texas Legislature. 45 days to go.

The Texas Senate Thursday evening passed two bills that would cut off the ability of local governments to improve workplace benefits and destroy anti-discrimination ordinances adopted by a half-dozen cities. SBs 2485 and 2487 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, were taken up for debate without a vote to spare and ultimately each approved 18-12 in purely partisan votes. Democratic resistance focused on practical problems on the employer side: Whether the bills would interfere with a city’s ability to demand minimal worker standards in exchange for tax breaks and whether the bills’ attack on non-discrimination ordinances will cost Texas business  opportunities. 

ULLCO has strongly OPPOSED these and all other bills to cut off local voter power to act on workplace benefits. The bills directly eliminate highly popular existing local benefits like paid sick leave and rest breaks for construction workers, harming tens of thousands of working people.

In related action, the House State Affairs Committee this week approved HB 3899 by Rep. Drew Springer Jr., R-Muenster, a death-star attack on workplace benefits that could swallow a wide variety of other city economic regulation, including such matters as payday lending. All the “pre-emption” bills are a top priority of traditional elements of the Texas business community, BUT mainstream mega-corporations like Facebook, Google and Amazon have argued the bills wrongly undermine equal workplace justice for LGBTQ and other working people.

The focus on what are known as “pre-emption bills” now turns to the Texas House. Do Something! Text “Fight Back” to 235-246 to plug into the effort to stop these bills.

Do Something Else! Per our Brothers and Sisters in the Texas American Federation of Teachers, send a letter to your legislators asking them to OPPOSE rapid expansion of charter schools in Texas. The charter school battle is taking place in several pieces of legislation, Texas AFT reports. Learn more and act in under a minute: https://bit.ly/2UbNAoJ

Speaking of taking away local power, the House and Senate postponed major debates on bills that would limit the ability of local cities and counties to raise property taxes after it became clear that floor fights could blow up the legislation. HB 2 and SB 2 are OPPOSED by ULLCO because they threaten the ability of cities and counties to fund basic services like police, firefighters and libraries. Back-room negotiations among key lawmakers have been extended.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen added a volatile ingredient to the tax debate mix when they endorsed a proposal to raise the state sales tax by a full percentage point to pay for reduced property taxes. The leadership idea drew immediate criticism, because the sales tax is already regressive and raising it by a penny on the dollar would tie Texas with California for the highest rate in the nation – 9.25 percent for most Texans when you count local sales taxes. The proposal effectively asks poor and working poor Texans – who pay the highest percentage of their incomes in sales taxes – to put money in the pockets of the wealthiest homeowners.

The Texas Workforce Commission finalized a rule that defines all workers at digital companies as “independent contractors” who need not receive any workplace benefits. A 2-1 vote set up the rule to take effect by the end of this month. News reports have detailed how Handy, a digital company that sends workers who are not necessarily licensed or regulated into homes, wrote the rule. Protesters from a coalition including the Texas AFL-CIO, Carpenters Union and Workers Defense made their position known at the commission hearing, in one case holding up a sign saying the TWC Chair was “caught with her Handy in the cookie jar.” The rule could deny a rapidly growing segment of the workforce not just Unemployment Insurance, overseen by the agency, but overtime pay, minimum wage, the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare, Workers’ Compensation, health care and other important benefits. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, is asking the Chair questions about how the new rule affects workers.

Small businesses posted objections to the new Workforce Commission rule, the Houston Chronicle reports. They say the competition is unfair if digital companies don’t have to provide benefits. "If they don't have any overhead, they can charge a lower hourly rate, by a lot," said Robert Moser, who owns a maid service franchise in Houston.

The Healthy Texans Act, which aims to bring health coverage to every Texan, received a hearing in the House Insurance Committee this week. That is almost certainly where HB 4127 by Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, will remain, but achieving the public airing for universal coverage was a coup. Hinojosa conceded the measure is “high-concept” and that Texas’s position in opposition to the Affordable Care Act would move in the opposite direction. ULLCO has ENDORSED the bill and Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Montserrat Garibay testified in its favor, arguing the U.S. is at an important disadvantage to countries that provide health care for all.

A ULLCO-ENDORSED bill that would create a state database of companies determined to have engaged in wage theft passed the House this week. HB 48 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, now moves to the Senate. To gain bipartisan support, Gonzalez accepted an amendment that lets companies leave the list upon certain showings of improved behavior or new management.

The Texas Senate approved its $248 billion two-year spending plan for the state, propelling HB 1 toward a House-Senate Conference Committee that will write the final version of the budget. Both the House and Senate versions add around $9 billion to reform the school finance system and reduce property tax burdens. The budget process appears to remain on schedule, but the success of the bill is tied closely to other important legislation that is not as far along.

The Texas State Employees Union held a successful march and rally to seek across-the-board pay raises and pension improvements for state employees. The Dallas Morning News posted an excellent account of the action: https://bit.ly/2P3AxF0

ULLCO Positions on Bills

ULLCO OPPOSED HB 4149 by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano (companion is SB 2259 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola), which would create a separate unelected court system for deep-pocketed businesses, billionaires and others with high-altitude financials. The bill would create a “Business Court” and a “Court of Business Appeals” to address, for example, business cases worth more than $10 million but also sexual harassment claims against CEOs and other upper-echelon company officials.

Texas has other specialty courts for subjects like probate, juvenile justice and family law, but judges in those courts are elected by the people alongside judges in courts with more general jurisdiction. The business court system, on the other hand, would include judges appointed by the Governor from a list of finalists created by another gubernatorially appointed advisory commission. Such courts would raise serious new questions about equal justice in Texas.