Legislative Lowdown-April 18, 2019

Today is Day 101 of the regular session of the 86th Texas Legislature. 39 days to go.

Do Something! To contact your Texas House member on bills that involve a fair shot for working families, go to https://bit.ly/2IvZt7I to send a letter or text FIGHTBACK to 235246.

The Legislature has adjourned until Tuesday, April 23, in celebration of the long Easter (and Passover) weekend. Some have likened this moment to the “seventh-inning stretch” in a baseball game or the start of the 4th quarter in a football game. To use a track-and-field analogy and mix these sports metaphors further, the bell lap is ringing for thousands of bills.

The Texas Senate approved SB 2, a bill that would trigger likely elections when a local governing body raises taxes by more than 3.5 percent (2.5 percent for schools). Current law provides for such rollback elections if the tax hike is 8 percent. Cities view the original 2.5 percent proposal as punitively low and the rollback rate remains the focus of debate. ULLCO OPPOSED the measure, which cities and counties say would force cuts in basic services that local voters strongly support, such as police, protection from fire, EMS services and libraries. All Senate Democrats were joined by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, in opposition.

The 18-13 final vote took place amid a struggle over Senate traditions. Thirteen opponents should be enough to stop legislation under current Senate rules requiring three-fifths of senators to agree to debate any bill. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened an arcane procedural move to get around the three-fifths requirement. Rather than let that precedent occur, Seliger voted to allow the bill to be debated, then voted against it. Seliger told reporters Patrick’s exercise of the “nuclear option” could come back to bite Republicans if Democrats take the Senate majority.

On Twitter, Gov. Greg Abbott declared all property taxes to be immoral. But as Texas Monthly pointed up (see: https://bit.ly/2GiDBsV), Abbott and other state leaders have never done anything to cut property taxes significantly (and SB 2 would not do so either). Moreover, Abbott’s proposal to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar to reduce property taxes would essentially transfer money out of the pockets of poor and working poor Texans to homeowners with incomes of $150,000 or more.

The Texas Senate gave final approval to the last of four bills looking to prevent cities and other local governments from improving workplace benefits. SBs 2485 through 2488 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, break up SB 15, a death-star attack on workplace benefits that was not moving. No matter how the pre-emption bills are sliced, however, they would erase local non-discrimination ordinances. Creighton’s original SB 15 had explicit protection for NDOs, but he has refused to reinsert that language into the newer bills after a Senate committee took it out. The result: powerful opposition from major mainstream corporations like Facebook and Amazon, action against the bills by LGBTQ groups, and suggestions that the measures as currently written could produce boycotts. ULLCO OPPOSES all forms and versions of these bills.

On a purely partisan vote, the Texas Senate approved SB 9, an omnibus election bill by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, that Democrats say could enable voter suppression. ULLCO OPPOSES the measure. Among its provisions: toughening restrictions and even criminalizing efforts to offer rides to get voters to the polls; permission for partisan poll watchers to be at the voting booth when a voter with disabilities is given assistance; a license for law officers to violate election laws while investigating possible crimes; and heightened criminal penalties, even when voter infractions are the product of honest errors.

Regarding SB 9 and several other bills that could suppress votes, the GOP hunt for the snipe of widespread voter fraud has led to rank injustices. From a Houston Chronicle editorial opposing SB 9: “Rosa Ortega, a legal immigrant with a sixth-grade education, was sentenced to eight years in prison for voting illegally in Tarrant County. This was a disproportionately harsh penalty for someone who mistakenly believed she could vote and who, as the facts of the case revealed, could have been informed of her ineligibility by the officials who accepted her registration. In another case, also in Tarrant County, Crystal Mason, a black woman, was sentenced to five years in prison for filling out a provisional ballot without knowing she was ineligible due to a felony conviction.”

HB 701 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, which would discourage call centers from sending jobs overseas, cleared the House Business and Industry Committee following powerful advocacy by the Communications Workers of America. The 6-1 vote endorsed a bill that would maintain a list of vendors that send call center jobs overseas and restrict tax breaks for such companies. Next step for the ULLCO-ENDORSED measure: scheduling for a full House vote.

An effort by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, joined by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, to celebrate passage of a partisan Senate resolution supporting President Trump’s border policy drew welcome static on two fronts. Several state lawmakers, joined by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, held a counter-news conference; and a boisterous protest outside the news conference that drew labor activists created distractions. See video: https://bit.ly/2vamjJj. And photos: https://bit.ly/2IrNwjv

ULLCO Positions on Bills

OPPOSED SB 66 by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound (companion is HB 2759 by Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston), which would set up automatic triggers to reduce the state franchise tax, paid by businesses. Note this is happening at the same time lawmakers are considering a major tax hike on the poor and working poor in Texas;

ENDORSED HB 2960 by Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, which would outlaw covenants not to compete involving low-wage workers. Franchised companies like Jimmy John’s have sought to prevent workers making non-living wages from going to work for competitors, a terrible practice that lies somewhere between a negative benefit and indentured service;

OPPOSED HJR 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, which embodies the state leadership’s plan to raise the state sales tax a full penny on the dollar to pay for a property tax cut;

ENDORSED HB 1152 by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, which would strengthen laws against price gouging following a disaster;

ENDORSED HB 3676 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake (companion is SB 2181 by Sen. Nelson), which would update and improve language in the state Workers’ Compensation law regarding brain injuries;                                            ;

ENDORSED HB 244 by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston (identical to HB 2692 by Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City), which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity;

ENDORSED HB 761 by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, which would establish the Texas Pay Equity Task Force;

ENDORSED HB 1041 by Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, which would require public employers to provide a private place for an employee to express breast milk other than a bathroom;

ENDORSED HB 1183 by Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, which would abolish Confederate Heroes Day as a state holiday in Texas;

OPPOSED HB 1035 by Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, more like a manifesto than a bill, which would broadly allow license-holders and others to discriminate among potential customers based on religious or even moral convictions. Moreover, the measure would subject governments fully to lawsuits by those doing the discriminating;

ENDORSED HBs 4095 and 4096 by Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, which would improve working conditions for school custodians. HB 4095 would require workload plans and set limits on the square footage a custodian is responsible for. HB 4096 would launch a study of the issue of custodian workloads;

OPPOSED HCR 90 by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, which, through advice to Congress, would encourage employers to adopt high-deductible health plans that typically provide limited coverage for employees at an artificially low cost;

OPPOSED SB 1135 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin (companion is HB 2219 by Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin), which would lay out rules for exempting automated buses with connected braking systems from state requirements to maintain a safe following distance on the road;

ENDORSED HB 3811 by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio (companion is SB 167 by Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso), which would conform state law (SB 4) with court rulings to eliminate a provision that would have established penalties for local officials who “endorse” sanctuary cities. The language was found to violate the officials’ First Amendment rights;

ENDORSED HB 3813 by Rep. Martinez Fischer (companion is SB 168 by Sen. Rodriguez), which would repeal another element of SB 4 that subjected local officials to potential removal from office over their actions regarding the federal task of immigration enforcement;

OPPOSED HB 984 by Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound (companion is SB 894 by Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper), which would force cities to jump through a variety of procedural hoops to raise local fees;

OPPOSED SB 1090 by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, an anti-democratic proposal to require a two-thirds vote for local voters to approve bonds;

ENDORSED HB 2743 by Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, which would require state agencies to conduct an annual workplace climate survey on sexual harassment;

ENDORSED HB 3349 by Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, which would prevent state and local governments from requiring drug tests for marijuana as a condition of employment; and

ENDORSED HB 3890 by Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin (companion is SB 2231 by Sen. Watson), which would add paramedics to a tuition and fee exemption available to firefighters studying fire science at a college or university.