Legislative Update - April 1, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature
Early Edition!

April 1, 2021 — #13
60 Days to Go in Regular Session

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose plus.” (“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”)

—Attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, French journalist, novelist and critic. The epigram first appeared in Karr’s journal, known as Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”).

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

—Last line of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

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Voter Suppression Blasted — The Texas AFL-CIO ripped SB 7 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, an elections bill approved on a pure party-line 18-13 vote of the Texas Senate. The state federation said provisions in the bill would lead to voter purges and intimidation by providing new powers to poll watchers, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General. “Jim Crow is alive and kicking in Texas,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy and Secretary-Treasurer Leonard Aguilar said. “Adopting Donald Trump’s playbook, the Texas Senate majority today voted to diminish voting rights and make it harder for people of color to vote in our state.” The measure now moves to the Texas House, where the House Elections Committee today was separately hearing the similar HB 6 by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park. See earlier HB 6 statement: https://bit.ly/2QytUPO

Winter Storm Bills Travel Different Paths — Within a day of each other, the House and Senate passed major bills that take aim at poor preparation for the devastating February winter storms, but the approaches are different. The House approved six discrete bills that require utilities to weatherize, bar electric plans that charge customers based on changing wholesale energy prices, overhaul the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and insist that Texas residents sit on its board, establish a new Energy Disaster Reliability Council, and improve disaster communications so the public is alerted more promptly to dangerous weather. The Senate unanimously approved SB 3, an omnibus bill that does many of the same things. It’s not clear how the differing approaches will be reconciled. (See “The Basics.”)

Running Broadband Jump — The Senate unanimously approved SB 5 by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, a broadband bill that ultimately is more about planning than execution. Texas, the only state without a broadband expansion plan, would produce one within a year. The bill would also set up an advisory group and a few parameters for what needs to be done to connect Texans to what has become an essential service. The Communications Workers of America have taken the lead on the issue in the labor movement.

Racism in Property Deeds — SB 30 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, also passed by the Senate unanimously, would set in motion a process for homeowners whose deeds or other property records contain racial restrictions to have them removed. The racial clauses no longer have any legal effect, but remain a harmful and commonplace legacy attached to properties across Texas.

Facebook Bill — The Senate approved SB 12 by Hughes, which would attempt to regulate Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites with 100 million or more users (the far-right Parler not included, for example) as “common carriers.” Opponents hastened to point up that no court has found Facebook to fall into that category. The measure would require such companies to reveal aspects of their business plans and take other steps toward transparency, and in most cases would severely limit the ability to censor posts and mandate specific remedies for users. Looming quietly over the debate: Ex-President Trump’s expulsion from Twitter.

‘Bathroom Bill II’ — The Texas AFL-CIO blasted SB 29, a bill pending in the Texas Senate that would require public school students to take part in school sports based on the gender listed on their birth certificate. The measure is reminiscent of the infamous, ultimately failed 2017 “bathroom bill” that sought to dictate who could enter which school bathroom. Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy and Secretary-Treasurer Leonard Aguilar said SB 29, like the original, manufactures a problem that doesn’t exist. “Why on earth are we doing this again?” they asked. “Why is SB 29 moving through the Senate as a top-level priority?” The state labor federation said if the bill passes, it “will cost Texas dearly across the nation.” https://bit.ly/3wh5omM

Take a Deep Breath — The Legislature is taking its traditional Easter break, having adjourned until Tuesday, April 6. Next week, the gallop to an end-of-May deadline accelerates. The Senate is set to take up SB 1, the appropriations bill for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, on Tuesday. The Senate Local Government Committee will take up ULLCO-opposed SB 10 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, which would outlaw the hiring of lobbyists by local governments using taxpayer funds.

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The Basics    

How do differing House and Senate bills get reconciled?

The answer to this question varies but is critical to whether a bill becomes law. Usually, the House or Senate will pass a bill by an author (original writer(s) of the bill) and send it to the other chamber, where a sponsor will shepherd the bill on its path, potentially to the Governor’s desk for signature. But sometimes, there might be a House bill and a Senate bill on the same subject: two authors, but only one can get top billing.

Examples?

Some major topics in 2021 are in this boat. Two examples: The House and Senate are proceeding with winter storm bills and (bad) election bills that have House and Senate numbers. Often but not always, the protocol is that the chamber that passes a bill first retains its number on the ultimate bill. Sometimes the leadership of the chambers will informally negotiate other arrangements.

What typically happens to combine ideas into one bill? 

If, say, the House receives a Senate bill, the author of a measure on the same topic in the House will often substitute the Senate bill for his or her House bill and proceed. If the bill remains identical to the Senate version and wins passage, it goes straight to the Governor’s desk. If the House amends the bill, it returns to the Senate, which may either accept the amendments or call for a conference committee — five members from the House and five from the Senate — to negotiate differences and arrive at a final version that requires approval by both chambers.

What happens if the House and Senate disagree on authorship?

For substantive or political reasons, the House or Senate might want their bill versions to proceed. As the deadline for the legislative session nears, that either produces an agreement on which bill proceeds or, in some cases, dooms the topic altogether.

Isn’t this awfully complicated?

Yes. The reconciliation of bills is just one of the many points in which human factors enter the fray during a legislative session. An old saw at the  Texas Legislature: The process is designed to kill bills, not pass them.

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Positions on Bills

This week, ULLCO:

   OPPOSED SB 1529 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, which would create a new elected appeals court in Texas to hear all appeals by and against the state, a state agency or a state officer. Currently, such cases are appealed to regional appeals courts and, ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court;

  OPPOSED HB 1502 by Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont (companion is SB 144 by Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, and HB 778 by Rep. Jose Lozano, R-Kingsville, is identical), which would extend fiscally inefficient Chapter 313 school property tax breaks for big businesses for another 10 years. Cost are growing into the billions of dollars per biennium with questionable benefits that are, in any event, unevenly distributed but paid for by the state. This version of the bill makes no changes in monitoring of whether the tax breaks produce the number of jobs promised or whether the jobs meet minimal standards. Another version that ULLCO also OPPOSES would curtail such oversight;

  OPPOSED HR 247 by Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Mineola, and HR 333 by Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, which would deactivate safety-related rules adopted by the Texas House to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The consensus of medical experts is that it’s not time yet to let down our guard and, fortunately, a House panel chose to postpone action on these items;

  ENDORSED SB 22 by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster (companion is HB 4321 by Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview), a low-number version of several similar measures that would establish a presumption that police, firefighters or EMS workers who contracted COVID-19 did so on the job. This benefit of the doubt — rebuttable if the evidence shows otherwise — would make it much easier to obtain Workers’ Compensation benefits. ULLCO has endorsed similar bills that would apply to a larger cross-section of front-line workers;

  ENDORSED HB 776 by Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston (companion is SB 305 by Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin), which would require Workers’ Compensation coverage for construction workers in Texas. Texas is the only state that does not require workers’ comp for virtually all workers. The building trades category, where workplace danger is statistically higher, would be a good place to start;

  ENDORSED HB 1752 by Oliverson, which would permit benefit review conferences in the Workers’ Compensation system to take place via videoconferencing;

  OPPOSED SB 207 by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown (companion is HB 1617 by Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood), which would impose a schedule of medical expenses that can be recovered in a civil lawsuit that is not necessarily the actual cost of those expenses. This has the potential to harm injured workers; 

  OPPOSED SB 1409 by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, and the similar HB 3803 by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, which would eliminate or undermine current plumbing codes that provide safety in the plumbing. The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters is taking the lead in opposing these measures;

  ENDORSED HB 195 by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, which would strengthen civil liability provisions applying to substandard facilities used to house migrant workers. Years ago, reports surfaced of workers being housed in shipping containers, among other atrocious excuses for housing;

  ENDORSED HB 862 by Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, which would require licensing and inspection of migrant worker housing facilities;

  ENDORSED HB 2869 by Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, a statewide bill that would establish binding arbitration for firefighters and police if a contract negotiation reaches an impasse or if a local government fails to approve a negotiated agreement within 60 days;

   ENDORSED HB 392 by Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Rowlett, which would bar discrimination based on hair texture or protective hairstyle based on race. The measure specifically applies to public schools, public colleges and universities and places of employment (including labor unions);

   ENDORSED HB 1300 by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, which would permit children under age 18 to accompany a parent in the voting booth and read or mark the ballot at the direction of the parent without committing unlawful voter assistance;

  OPPOSED HB 2092 by Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, which would require candidates for municipal office to declare a party affiliation that would appear on the ballot. The measure would end nonpartisan local elections that, by and large, have served cities well; and

  OPPOSED HB 3269 by Rep. Candy Noble, R-Lucas, which would relay to the Texas Secretary of State a log, including signatures, of mail-in votes that have been canceled by voters. Sometimes voters who order a mail-in ballot will return it to election officials and instead vote in person to make sure their votes are counted. In the pandemic conditions of 2020, the number of returned ballots rose dramatically. Sending signatures and other information to the Secretary of State appears calculated to set up investigations where there is no evidence of wrongdoing.