Legislative Update - April 17, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

April 17, 2021 — #15

44 Days to Go in Regular Session

  “We’re trying to be the boss of everybody.”

—Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, alluding to several major bills that would limit the authority of local governments while discussing a ULLCO-opposed bill to stop cities from hiring lobbyists at the Texas Legislature. 

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  Police Reform — Setting a precedent, ULLCO ENDORSED six policing reform bills authored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. “The ongoing run of tragic deaths and other mistreatment of persons of color at the hands of law officers must end,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said. “The time for continued mourning and vague promises of reform is over. Texas needs to act.” The bills take aim at preventing repeats of sickening and preventable deaths that have taken place in Texas and across the nation, including the choking death of Houstonian George Floyd in Minnesota. The bills endorsed by ULLCO are noted in the “Bill Positions” section below.

   Police Micromanagement — The full Senate has yet to consider a major policing reform bill, but it approved SB 23 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, which would require an approval election when a local government reduces law enforcement funding. The bill won final approval 28-2. 

  The Devil Loses Again — Texas has a law protecting farm workers from being forced to use short-handled hoes, which require a worker to stoop while working. The hoes, known for decades among farm workers as El Brazo del Diablo (“the arm of the devil”) were outlawed in California some 40 years ago after a historic struggle led by United Farms Workers co-founders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. A Texas law banning mandatory use of the tools passed here in 1993. For the second session in a row, a bill that aims to remove or alter non-Penal Code criminal offenses (HB 816 by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth) included a provision to repeal the history-making law. This time, the Texas AFL-CIO notified the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which rushed into action and obtained an amendment to fix the problem before the bill won House approval. The worker victory is more than symbolic. While the short-handled law is rarely if ever enforced, it serves as a deterrent to any employer who might consider requiring the back-breaking devices. Another nickname for the short-handled hoes: "El Cortito" (the short one).

  Telemedicine — The pandemic has been awful, but out of necessity it has delivered innovations. One of them is the increased use of telemedicine. The Texas House unanimously approved HB 4 by Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, which would expand virtual meetings with doctors in Medicaid and other state health care programs. This is one of several bills the House is working on to expand access to health care, with more votes ahead.

  Local Government Handcuffs, Part I — The Senate approved SB 14, which forbids cities and other local governments from requiring workplace benefits at private businesses. The bill threatens local rules on paid sick leave, rest breaks for construction workers, fair hiring rules and other benefits the state does not provide. “The Texas Senate today gave license to low-road employers to deny basic workplace benefits that make jobs safer, protect public health, and enable working people to support their families,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy and Secretary-Treasurer Leonard Aguilar said in a statement. If it becomes law, SB 14 could also create a new path for right-wing attacks on non-discrimination ordinances. The vote was 19-12, with Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, joining all the Republicans in the majority. The bill now moves to the Texas House.

   Local Government Handcuffs, Part 2 — The Texas Senate approved ULLCO-opposed SB 10 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, which would prevent cities and other local governments from using taxpayer dollars to hire lobbyists to represent the interests of constituents at the Texas Legislature. Bettencourt said city opposition to last session’s law placing a low ceiling on property tax increases prompted him to pursue the measure. An amendment by Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, allowed an exception if the city is lobbying on issues involving military bases. If the bill becomes law, local governments would have to use or hire employees to advocate at the Capitol. The final vote saw all Democrats, along with Republican Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, in opposition. SB 10 now moves to the Texas House.

  Chartering the Wrong Path — ULLCO-opposed SB 28 by Bettencourt, which makes it easier for taxpayer-funded charter schools to expand in Texas, eked out final passage in the Senate on a 16-14 vote. The bill would require a super-majority of nine votes for the State Board of Education to override the Education Commissioner’s approval of new charters and would otherwise give charter school companies an easier path to expand. Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said the performance of charter schools is mixed at best and often worse than public schools, but charter schools are being subsidized by taxpayers to compete in some cases across the street from successful schools. The vote saw Republican Sens. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville and Kel Seliger of Amarillo join all Democrats who were present. SB 28 now moves to the House. 

  Courting Disaster — Along party lines, the Senate approved SB 1529 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, which would create a new statewide intermediate appeals court to hear cases brought against state agencies, constitutional cases and a few other categories. Appeals courts are geographically based, and the one in Austin (3rd Court of Appeals) tends to get many of these types of cases. The 3rd Court is now dominated by Democrats, while all statewide elected offices, including judgeships, are held by Republicans. Some Democratic senators suggested Republicans are trying to rig court jurisdictions based on partisan considerations and that the proposed court may be unconstitutional.

  Preparing for Disaster — The Legislature would always be called to the Capitol during long-term disasters under a proposed constitutional amendment and legislation approved by the Senate. SJR 45 and SB 1025 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would require the Governor to call the Legislature into town in long-term disaster circumstances and would give the power to renew disaster declarations to lawmakers. Bipartisan support came amid recognition that the Texas Legislature was the last legislative body in the nation to have a chance to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

   Nurses Score Win — Nurses who have taken outsized risks during the pandemic saw a bill that would honor that bravery advance from the House Business and Industry Committee. HB 396 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would establish a presumption that nurses who contracted COVID-19 did so in the workplace. It is usually hard to prove exactly where someone contracted the coronavirus and that, in turn, makes it hard for workers to qualify for insurance that covers workplace illnesses. The bill, which could work its way to the House floor, is modeled after work by the National Nurses Union and AFL-CIO.

  Senate Votes to Exert Downward Pressure on Texas Construction Wages — The Senate approved, on a party-line vote, SB 518 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, which would provide a new — and cheaper — calculation for prevailing wage rates on publicly funded construction projects in many Texas counties. ULLCO opposed the bill, arguing it would take money directly out of the pockets of construction workers.

  ‘Bathroom Bill II’ — The Senate approved, again entirely along party lines, SB 29 by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, which requires youths to participate in school sports based on the gender listed on the birth certificate generated on or around their births (or a substitute document if no birth certificate is available). The only specific example of a sports issue cited by proponents during the debate took place in Connecticut. The Texas AFL-CIO has blasted the measure as a solution in search of a problem. The Texas American Federation of Teachers points up in addition to the potential for stepped-up discrimination against trans-gender students, the bill fails to protect teachers or other school officials from lawsuits arising from how they address the subject.

  Unemployment Insurance Bills Are Seen and Heard — No fewer than nine ULLCO-backed bills that would improve a system of Unemployment Insurance benefits that has seen more than 4 million Texans file claims during the pandemic received a hearing Tuesday in the House Business and Industry Committee. Many of the topics are also part of a 10-Point Plan for reforms that the Texas AFL-CIO published early this year. (See: https://www.texasaflcio.org/10-point-plan). Committee Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, presided over the hearing, which included HB 3620, his omnibus bill incorporating several of the ideas. The common themes: broadening eligibility for benefits and making it easier for Texans who lose their jobs through no fault of their own to collect benefits promptly. One of the apparent points of agreement: The existing shared-work program, which provides employers an opportunity to reduce work hours without losing employees who in turn can collect partial benefits, has been dramatically under-promoted.

  Plumbing Bill Flows Through House — On a bipartisan basis, the Texas House approved HB 636 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, which would extend the life of the Board of Plumbing Examiners. The agency, which sets safety standards that can affect the life and health of every homeowner, every person who enters a commercial or government building, and anyone being treated in a hospital, nearly died in 2019. The vote was 140-6. An amendment by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, would permit public schools and junior colleges to set up plumber training programs, subject to the rules of the board. 

  Up Next — The Texas House will take up SB 1, the 2022-23 appropriations bill, next Thursday, April 22. Unlike the Senate, which approved its version unanimously without any attempt at amendments, the House will likely consider hundreds of amendments and debate long into the night. Also up on the House floor: HB 2, a narrower bill that deals with spending for the remainder of the current biennium that ends Aug. 31. The Senate State Affairs Committee will consider more election-related bills on Monday, including SB 1589 by Bettencourt, which would create a system of “State Election Marshals” to enforce election laws regionally. On the same day, the Senate Finance Committee will consider bills related to the Employees Retirement System of Texas. 

  The Basics

   How do I get access to a bill that I’m interested in?

  The bills considered by the Texas Legislature are public documents. If you want to read any of the bills we discuss in the ULLCO Sentinel, go to Texas Legislature Online at this link: https://capitol.texas.gov/Home.aspx

   Okay, I’m there. Where do I find the text?

  In the center column, click on “Bill Lookup.” Select “Bill Number” and enter the number of the bill (for example, SB 5, HB 10, HJR 30) in the space to the left of “Go”. You will see the author, the bill history and, if you click on “text,” the full text at each stage of the bill’s progression.

   How can I check on how my representative voted?

  Click on “View Votes.” Then enter the bill number. You will see a readout of every record vote that has been taken on the bill and on proposed amendments to the bill.

   Wow! What else can I do on this website?

  All sorts of research. The database has information on bills going back to 1989. To see bills from earlier legislative sessions, just click on “Legislature” under the red “Search Legislation” sign. To find bills that contain particular text (for example, “labor unions”), click on “Text Search.” And here’s a really cool one: If you want to see every bill filed by your representative or every bill heard in a particular committee, click on “Reports,” select the information you want at the appropriate buttons, click on “Go” and your report will be generated instantaneously.

   This is overwhelming. Where do I begin?

  The ULLCO Sentinel has included labor’s positions on hundreds of bills affecting working families. The ones you care about most can serve as a starting point. Also, check out the links on the home page, each of which transports you to a new avenue. As you build familiarity with TLO, you can even set alerts for when anything happens on a bill you are following. In short, the website has the power to accommodate everyone from the mildly curious to true legislative mavens.

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  Positions on Bills

  The United Labor Legislative Committee this week: 

  OPPOSED HB 4469 by Rep. Cecil Bell Jr, R-Magnolia, which would enable employers to offer a hybrid of workers’ compensation and health insurance in a “packaged plan.” The two types of insurance differ in important ways and it’s far from clear that combining them would produce efficiencies that outweigh the potential to reduce overall coverage;

  ENDORSED HB 2063 by Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, D-El Paso, which would establish a state employee family leave pool;

  ENDORSED HB 3656 by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, which would attack misclassification of construction workers as independent contractors in the context of Unemployment Insurance;

  ENDORSED HB 2810 by Turner, which would make employees who are off work because of a strike taking place outside Texas eligible for Unemployment Insurance. An example: Sometimes members of the United Auto Workers have been idled by a strike in plants outside Texas that rendered the Arlington plant unable to operate;

  ENDORSED HB 3620 by Turner, an omnibus bill that would generally expand eligibility for Unemployment Insurance benefits;

    ENDORSED HB 206 by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, which would adopt city payday and auto-title loan ordinances — which exist in 46 cities — into state law;

  ENDORSED HB 417 by Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, which would outlaw the practice of some lenders to file or threaten criminal charges for non-payment when no evidence of a crime exists;

  ENDORSED HB 1937 by Rep. Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, which would limit payday loan interest rates to 36 percent (while that sounds high, interest rates on such loans can run much higher under current law);

   OPPOSED HB 2432 by Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction (companion is SB 1089 by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, which would let lenders charge an effective annual percentage rate of more than 79 percent, up from about 35 percent, for Texas loans between $1,500 and $2,100. Interest rates have been at historic lows, the pandemic has resulted in four million Unemployment Insurance claims in Texas, and working people, who sometimes resort to high-interest loans, are at the mercy of the terms that the Legislature permits. This bill would harm working families;

  ENDORSED HB 2624 by Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, D-El Paso, which would install a rate cap of 30 percent on payday loans during a disaster and two years afterward;

  ENDORSED HB 2813 by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, which would provide a 36 percent interest-rate limit on payday and auto-title loans, with various fees, which often run high, considered part of the interest rate;

  ENDORSED HB 3391 by Turner, which would close a loophole that allows high fees to be charged when third parties charge a mandatory fee to assist a borrower;

  ENDORSED HB 4116 by Turner, which would effectively limit third-party “credit service organizations” to payday and auto-title loans, barring creation of new categories of high-interest loans;

  ENDORSED HB 3158 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, which would add parents to the list of survivors who may be eligible to recover exemplary damages under Workers’ Compensation when a death occurs on the job. Some victims of gross negligence are single and have no children, leaving no one eligible to recover such damages under current law;

  ENDORSED HB 3460 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, which would create a grant program for victims of the February winter storms that harmed families across Texas.

  OPPOSED SB 27 by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, which would amend the state virtual school network in a manner that Texas AFT reports amounts to a back-door voucher program, potentially providing taxpayer funding to private schools instead of neighborhood public schools;

  OPPOSED HB 3302 by Rep.  Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, which would change rules on the order of candidates’ names on election ballots and give the Secretary of State more power to oversee the rules;

  OPPOSED HB 3920 by Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, which, although the caption is about signature verification, actually restricts ability to use mail ballots because of disabilities;

  OPPOSED HB 3970 by Rep. Cody Vasut, R-Angleton, which would add requirements for acceptance and counting of mail ballots;

  OPPOSED HB 4498 by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, which would make voter registration tougher;

  OPPOSED HB 895 by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, which would let election officers photograph voters and copy their documentation;

  OPPOSED HB 3341 by Swanson, proposing a pilot program for video recording of ballot counting;

  OPPOSED HB 3303 by Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, which would bar any alterations by election officials of voting, even in an emergency, pandemic or other exigency;

  ENDORSED six bills by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, that would take steps toward reforming police practices and preventing misconduct of the type that led to the deaths of George Floyd and other persons of color. The bills include:

  HB 829 — Establishing a progressive disciplinary matrix for police officer misconduct in certain municipalities;

  HB 830 — Changing police policy on handling fine-only misdemeanors;

  HB 831 — Prohibiting choke-holds and other dangerous techniques as first resorts during arrests;

  HB 832 — Regarding duties and powers of peace officers;

  HB 833 — Enacting de-escalation policies to avoid dangerous use of force; and

  HB 834 — Requiring corroboration of testimony in undercover drug cases.

  ENDORSED HB 1394 by Rep. James White, R-Hillister, which would establish automatic orders for nondisclosure of criminal history information if a misdemeanor defendant meets certain requirements