Legislative Update - April 10, 2021

April 10, 2021

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

—The Micawber Principle, named for Wilkins Micawber, a clerk who spends time in Debtor's Prison in the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield. Micawber is also famous for repeatedly uttering the then-original phrase, "Something will turn up."

"A lot of money goes to money-heaven."
—Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson, discussing the 2008-09 Icelandic financial crisis.

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Ignore That Giant Pile of Money on the Table — The Texas Senate unanimously approved a $250 billion-plus budget for the next two fiscal years, but it was what they didn't consider that made headlines. On the plus side for labor, the budget continues school finance reforms from 2019 — a goal that looked to be in jeopardy in the early days of the pandemic. On the debit side, the document lacks funding for expansion of Medicaid (which would draw tens of billions of federal dollars to the state to provide health care to working poor families) or for a general pay raise for state employees. Yet the budget has room for voter suppression programs in SB 7 and continuing to fund to the tune of $767 million a state "border security" operation that has added little to federal oversight beyond a flood of traffic tickets issued to ordinary drivers in the Rio Grande Valley. Under orders from the top, senators did not include some $35 billion in federal relief money in the budget, including $17 billion slated for education, reserving consideration of those funds for after the legislative session is over. The Texas American Federation of Teachers is leading a "Stop the Swap" campaign to make sure federal relief funds for public schools go to the purposes intended, preferably via direct payments to school districts.

Labor Fights for a Better Budget... — The prevailing mood in the Senate was relief that the pandemic (and winter storms) had not busted the budget and produced dramatic cuts. The Texas State Employees Union sought better: the first general pay raise since 2014. TSEU's Lobby Day featured well-organized virtual visits to legislators and car caravans that delivered a message that frozen pay can actually cost more than raises because of high turnover in jobs. State employees are dedicated to public service, but even they have limits as budget after budget fails to offer their families a fairer shot. "Your demands are just," Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy told the union. "Your demands are right."

...And for Good Call Center Jobs — The Communications Workers of America led support for HB 1634 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, a bill to protect Texas call center jobs from off-shoring. CWA was ably represented at a hearing of the House Business and Industry Committee by lobbyist Harrison Hiner, who noted call centers can be the largest employer in small towns, with workers earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year, and Geronimo Guerra of CWA Local 6173, who called out companies that move jobs overseas to cut costs after taking tax subsidies to locate in the U.S. The panel left the measure pending.

Corporations Join Labor in Opposing Voter Suppression... — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick held an angry "How dare they" news conference to blast the growing list of large corporations calling for the defeat of ULLCO-OPPOSED SB 7, HB 6 and other bills that would make it more difficult to vote in Texas. That followed Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to decline to throw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers season opener after Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game out of Atlanta because Georgia approved similar election legislation. In Texas, a growing consensus that voter suppression is bad for business prompted American Airlines, Michael Dell, Microsoft and a list of corporate entities under the Civic Alliance umbrella (see: https://bit.ly/3s46mj4) to speak out and get under the skin of Patrick, who suggested corporate entities should stay out of politics. If you are reading this, you can almost certainly rattle off a few times when corporations spoke up in agreement with state leaders on politicized matters, drawing not a peep of protest. With a federal Voting Rights Act that has been hollowed out by the Supreme Court and congressional inaction, protests by labor and our progressive allies, along with corporate stands, are among the remaining tools for resisting voter suppression.

...While GOP Already Plans for 'Army' of Poll Watchers in Minority Precincts — Meanwhile, the Washington Post wrote about a video showing a key Harris County Republican calling for a 10,000-person "election integrity brigade" to focus on what the newspaper calls "Houston's dense, racially diverse urban core." Both SB 7 and HB 6 would grant new power to poll watchers, including the authority to make videos inside polling places of voters who need assistance to cast ballots. https://wapo.st/3fRiKQU

A Fluid Election Day — Because U.S. Census numbers have been delayed until at least the end of September, the Legislature doesn't know when primary and runoff elections will take place in 2022. Under SB 1822 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, approved unanimously by the Senate, the dates would depend on when redistricting bills are signed into law (or given a silent pass) by the Governor. Primaries could be in May or even later, instead of early March, with runoffs a couple months after the primaries. Filing deadlines would also be adjusted. On the home front, it is entirely possible the Texas AFL-CIO COPE Convention, locked in for January 2022, will not result in endorsements for statewide, legislative or congressional offices, leaving the matter to the Texas AFL-CIO COPE Committee.

Play Ball! — Oh, say can you see the Texas Senate approved SB 4 by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, which would require pro sports teams that receive public funds to play the Star-Spangled Banner before events. The measure, spurred by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's decision to forego playing the anthem at the start of National Basketball Association games early this season, passed on a 28-2 vote, a level of support that prompted Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to declare surprise. Amid several patriotic speeches, Senators noted that in response to the Mavericks, the NBA ordered all teams to play the anthem.

Without Fanfare, 'Buy American' Bill Flies Through Senate — Among many bills that pass through the legislative process on an expedited — and uncontested — local calendar, ULLCO-ENDORSED SB 783 by Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, a "Buy American" bill, flew straight to the Texas House without the need for floor debate. The measure, championed by the United Steelworkers union, would add colleges and universities to an existing preference for domestic iron and steel. Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, has a companion bill in the House, strengthening the chance that SB 783 will get to the finish line.

Up Next — The Texas Senate is expected to take up SB 14 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, a ULLCO-OPPOSED bill that would prevent cities from enacting any ordinances that grant workplace benefits, early next week. The House is scheduled to take up on Tuesday ULLCO-ENDORSED HB 636 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, which would extend the life of the Board of Plumbing Examiners. Also, HB 1585 by Rep. Stan Lambert, R-Abilene, the Teacher Retirement System sunset bill, is on Tuesday's calendar.

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The Basics

What is the "Calendars Committee rule" for Texas House consideration of the appropriations bill?

Huh?!? This sounds like an arcane point, but bear with us. The House will soon consider SB 1, the 2022-23 appropriations bill, which passed the Senate unanimously earlier this week. It's the only bill the Legislature must pass. Before debating SB 1, the House traditionally adopts a Calendars Committee rule ahead of time.

What does the "Calendars Committee rule" say?

The essential point is that if a House member wants to amend SB 1 by adding dollars for an agency or program, he or she must also propose at least an equal cut to another agency or program.

What is the purpose of the rule?

Because added funding for programs is often substantively smart and politically popular, the rule prevents a free-for-all in which large sums of money are added to the budget. (Lawmakers sometimes say such "everything for everyone" amendments create a "Christmas tree bill.") The Texas Constitution and certain laws place a ceiling on what may be spent in any two-year budget, so the rule guards against rejection of the bill by the State Comptroller, who calculates whether spending limits have been met.

With this rule restriction, are there still ways for House members to advocate for more funding for programs they support?

Yes. House members typically put forward hundreds of amendments to the bill. While most are rejected, they get to make a record that their constituents can see. Another way to advocate: A section of the appropriations bill is reserved for contingent funding, also known as a "wish list." If money becomes available during the two-year budget period, items added to that section may be funded, though getting money to those programs is an uphill climb.

Does the Senate have a similar rule?

We think so, but we forget. It has been a long time since Senate debate on the budget included proposed amendments. In part, the fixed nature of the Senate Finance Committee's budget stems from its membership comprising nearly half the Senate, virtually guaranteeing a broad consensus. The Senate this year took a little over two hours to approve a budget, and that was mainly an explanation by budget-writers of what is in the bill. The House debate usually runs much, much longer.

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Positions on Bills

This week, ULLCO:

OPPOSED HB 3610 by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, which would exempt charter schools from all property taxes, even when they enter into a leasing arrangement for profit once they obtain the exemption;

OPPOSED HB 4545 by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, an omnibus public education bill that would, among other things, place heavy emphasis on standardized tests as a means to calculate funding;

ENDORSED HB 41 by Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, which would limit pre-kindergarten classes to 11 students per certified teacher or teacher's aide;

ENDORSED HB 81 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, a bill enabling campus turnaround plans in which a school operates as a community school;

ENDORSED HB 97 by Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, which would prohibit charter schools from discriminating against students who have had disciplinary issues. Public school must accept such students;

ENDORSED HB 89 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which would include disinfectant cleaning supplies, face masks and disposable gloves in the annual sales tax exemption period;

ENDORSED HB 450 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, which would enact needed additional requirements to establish or expand an open-enrollment charter school;

ENDORSED HB 1249 by Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, a transparency measure that would require open-enrollment charter schools to post online their most recent three annual financial statements;

ENDORSED HB 1504 by Rep. Christina Morales, D-Houston, which would add ethnic studies to the core curriculum in public schools;

OPPOSED HB 2554 by Rep. Gary Gates, R-Richmond, which would establish "joint vocational school districts" devoted entirely to career preparation for 11th and 12th graders while waiving many of the usual high school graduation requirements. In essence, the districts would substitute for vocational programs within existing high schools, creating new bureaucracies in the process;

OPPOSED a list of "single shot" election-related bills, many of which fall within the omnibus voter suppression bills SB 6 and HB 7. The list, all sponsored by Republicans, includes:

—OPPOSED HB 3080 by Rep. Oliverson, R-Cypress, which would criminalize the mailing or provision of unsolicited applications for early voting ballots to encourage turnout among those who are eligible to use the ballots;

—OPPOSED HB 3297 by Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, which would raise penalties to felony levels for a list of election fraud crimes. The bill would also criminalize unintentional false statements on voter registration forms;

—OPPOSED HB 2478 by Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, which would require provision of a voter ID as part of a mail ballot application and reject applications that do not have an ID or a "reasonable impediment" statement. The measure also includes a perjury provision;

—OPPOSED HB 2546 by Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, which would grant the Secretary of State new powers to monitor local election officials. Besides undermining local control of elections, the measure could set up local officials for criminal prosecution;

—OPPOSED HB 4331 by Jetton, which would establish a definition of "paid vote harvesting" so broad that it could criminalize voter turnout activities that both political parties engage in;

—OPPOSED HB 2321 by Jetton, which would step up voter signature comparisons in a way that could invalidate legitimate votes cast by voters whose signatures naturally evolve with age;

—OPPOSED HB 2283 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, which would bar local governments from accepting donations that aim to build voter turnout;

—OPPOSED HB 3281 by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston, which would make deadlines earlier for applying for and receiving votes by mail;

—OPPOSED HB 4369 by Rep. Candy Noble, R-Lucas, which would add additional signature matching requirements for mail-in votes;

—OPPOSED HB 1026 by Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, which would make the Secretary of State the voter registrar for every county, taking away the basis for locally-run elections. The measure also would require the Secretary of State to verify citizenship status for each voter, amid no evidence whatsoever that undocumented immigrants are trying to vote;

—OPPOSED HB 782 by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, which would give the Secretary of State discretion to reject local ballot propositions that he or she does not consider clear enough;

—OPPOSED HB 3276 by Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, which would require video surveillance of voted ballots and licensed law officers to be present when the votes are counted;

OPPOSED HB 2237 by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, an omnibus bill on mechanic's liens that could short-circuit an important method that immigrant workers use to combat wage theft;

ENDORSED HB 2633 by Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, which would set up a state fund to help victims of human trafficking obtain housing and treatment;

OPPOSED SB 10 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, the Senate's priority version of a bill, opposed elsewhere by ULLCO, that would bar local governments from using tax dollars to hire lobbyists at the Texas Legislature. The measure just makes widespread attacks by lawmakers on local initiatives and authority — measures that are opposed by local taxpayers — much more difficult to combat;

ENDORSED HB 2073 by Burrows (companion is SB 1401 by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster), which would require that firefighters, police officers and EMTs who are required to enter quarantine receive paid leave;

OPPOSED SB 1336 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills (companion is HB 3548 by Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood), which would add yet another limit on growth of the state budget — estimated population growth. Several such ceilings already exist and require super-majority votes to overcome;

ENDORSED a group of bills that would reduce criminal penalties for persons who possess small amounts of marijuana without taking a position on what the best approach would be. The bills include:

—ENDORSED HB 169 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, which would reduce criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana to misdemeanor levels;

—ENDORSED HB 439 by Canales, another approach to reducing criminal penalties for marijuana possession;

—ENDORSED HB 441 by Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, which would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor. The bill also eliminates arrests for such an offense and provides for expunction of minor marijuana convictions;

—ENDORSED HB 498 by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, another measure applying to possession of less than an ounce of marijuana;

—ENDORSED HB 2593 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, which would remove Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the state list of controlled substances;

ENDORSED a group of similar House bills that would strengthen the Teacher Retirement System by providing cost of living adjustments to retirees: ENDORSED HB 672 by Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco (HB 625 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, is identical); ENDORSED HB 1124 by Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr., D-Palmview; ENDORSED HB 1846 by Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston; ENDORSED HB 3214 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake; ENDORSED HB 4205 by Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas; and ENDORSED HB 3507 by Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford;

OPPOSED HB 2021 by Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would set up an interim panel, reminiscent of the Legislative Budget Board, to distribute federal relief funds after the state budget is adopted. Senators took note during debate on SB 1 that they had been told not to include federal funding in the budget document. ULLCO believes the Legislature should appropriate the funds during the budget process rather than rely on a subset of legislators to take over decision-making on a $35 billion one-time injection of funds for pandemic relief. Texas AFT has led the way in insisting that the funds flow through to their intended use in its "Stop the Swap!" campaign to make sure $17 billion in education funds go to public schools; and

OPPOSED HB 59 by Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, which would eliminate the maintenance and operations portion of the school property tax. Unless those funds are going to be replaced from other sources, that would place public schools in a major funding bind.