Legislative Update - April 24, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

April 24, 2021 — #16
37 Days to Go in Regular Session

  “Money is a good soldier, sir, and will on.”

—Sir John Falstaff, in The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, suggesting semi-verblessly that money will grow if you put it to work. Falstaff had little of it but provides comic relief, mainly as the guy everyone loves to have a beer with at the Boar’s Head Inn, in three Shakespeare plays and in a fourth during which he is eulogized. Today is the day many celebrate as Shakespeare’s birthday — the exact date in 1564 is unclear — and it is known to be the day Shakespeare died 505 years ago. The man still rocks.

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  Money Makes the World Go Round — The Texas House’s unanimous approval of SB 1, a $246 billion budget for 2022-23, came after lawmakers spent hours covering broad debate grounds on some 245 proposed amendments. As usual, most of the amendments were dropped or rejected, and the ones that latched onto the bill could later disappear when a House-Senate conference committee reconciles differing versions of the bill. The conference committee report is a final version that is voted up or down some time in May.

  Health Coverage Disappointment — Despite advance indicators that a majority had formed to recommend expansion of Medicaid to another million or so Texas residents under the Affordable Care Act, a carefully constructed budget amendment by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, went down to defeat by an 80-68 vote, largely along partisan lines. Coleman has tried valiantly for much of his career to expand health coverage to working poor Texans, and despite the defeat he might be closer to the goal than ever. That’s because the White House recently told Texas the waiver of ACA provisions it had hurriedly negotiated late in the previous presidency is being withdrawn. Meanwhile, the status quo does not change: Texas continues to lead the charge to try to kill ACA for everyone else at the U.S. Supreme Court and the working families of the Texas AFL-CIO continue to pursue expansion of coverage.

  Education Elation — An amendment by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, that would quickly move $17.9 billion in federal pandemic aid to public schools won approval — part of a larger theme in which House members demanded more hands-on participation in major decisions involving disasters. The Texas American Federation of Teachers has led labor’s fight to “Stop the Swap,” or prevent state leaders from letting federal funds intended for public schools merely substitute for state-appropriated ones. Bonus points: The House voted by a bipartisan 115-29 margin to bar state spending on vouchers that would siphon money from neighborhood public schools in favor of unaccountable private schools.

  No State Employee Pay Raise — The Texas State Employees Union’s effort to get an across-the-board pay raise for state employees has not borne fruit in either the House or Senate budget. Moreover, Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, sought raises for employees at State Hospitals and State-Supported Living Centers but withdrew her amendment after it became clear that taking those funds from the state’s unnecessary border patrol operation was not going to fly. The quest for decent pay — and less turnover — for state employees continues.

  Remember His Name — The Senate approved two bills that address police misconduct, but even the authors acknowledged the package does not merit being named after George Floyd, the Houstonian killed during a police stop in Minnesota. SB 2212 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and SB 68 by Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, would prescribe police duties with regard to injured persons (West) or use of excessive force by a colleague (Miles). Just two days after a law officer was convicted of multiple counts in connection with Floyd’s death, the only two Black senators said the bills are the only proposals that can clear the Senate at this time. Votes were unanimous, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said all 31 senators had worked on the legislation. The House is considering other bills, including a ULLCO-endorsed package by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

  Forget These Names — After a Texas Republican Party official testified in a Senate committee against a resolution that would ask the federal government to approve removal of geographical place names in Texas that once used the N-word, all 18 Republican Texas senators signed on as co-sponsors of SCR 29 by Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. The place names currently contain the word “Negro.” The State GOP walked back the testimony shortly after blowback began (though the party still supports protecting Confederate monuments). The Austin American-Statesman quoted Miles: “No Texan, regardless of race, should have to drive by Negrohead Lake or see a sign for Negrohead Creek.” Read more: https://bit.ly/3xk4ztX

  COVID-19 Presumption for First Responders — The Senate unanimously approved SB 22 by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, which would establish a presumption that police, firefighters, EMTs and “detention officers” who contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic did so on the job. That means if persons in the categories apply for important workplace benefits, they would not have to prove the virus was caught on the job. Amendments establish some time limits for making claims. ULLCO strongly supports the presumptions and backed proposals to include other public and essential workers. A similar bill, HB 541 by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, has been placed on the House Calendar for Monday.

  College Football Emergency — The Senate approved SB 1385 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, which would provide a framework for payments to Texas college athletes for use of their names, images and likenesses. For practical purposes, the bill would enable superstar athletes — some of the “one-and-done” variety who turn pro after their freshman years — to collect substantial sums to take part in college sports. Creighton said he has long opposed the concept but changed his mind after Alabama, Florida, California and other states passed similar legislation, raising competitive recruiting concerns in the absence of either federal legislation or NCAA regulations. The bill permits players to have agents to negotiate fees. It prevents promotion of gambling, tobacco, liquor and like topics. Labor Relevance: The measure specifically states college athletes are not employees. Under current federal law (cue the PRO Act), that would prevent the vast majority of athletes who cannot command pay from bargaining collectively for benefits. SB 1395 passed 28-2, with one abstention, and now moves to the Texas House. Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, one of the opponents, cited the “death of an American treasure” — amateurism in college sports.

  On Tap —  The House Calendar for next week includes measures that would prohibit camping in public places (HB 1925 by Capriglione), create a state utilities reliability fund in the wake of horrendous and preventable winter storm damage (HJR 2 by Huberty), expand post-conviction DNA testing (HB 217 by Senfronia Thompson), and raise Employees Retirement System contributions (HB 3397 by Murphy). The Senate has approved almost all its priority legislation and will soon make the transition to consideration of more House bills. Next Wednesday is Workers Memorial Day; once again, proposals to provide any state oversight of workplace safety have not moved in the Legislature. Also ahead: A national AFL-CIO drive to get the U.S. Senate to debate and pass the PRO Act. 

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The Basics

  When do bills really die?

  Great question. The 140-day regular session of the Texas Legislature ends at midnight on Monday, May 31st, but for practical purposes most bills have already expired well before then. Remember the old adage: The process is designed to kill bills, not pass them.

  Okay, so what is the life expectancy of remaining bills?

  With well over 7,000 pieces of legislation in play, the House and Senate rules set up a calendar of deadlines for keeping bills alive. At midnight Monday, May 10th, any House bill that is still in committee may not literally turn into a pumpkin, but it won’t become law under that number. Just three days later, on May 13th, any House bill that hasn’t been debated on the floor (and passed a day later, on May 14th) is also a goner. At that point, the House turns to Senate bills, which have similar deadlines for floor passage on May 25th and 26th. Death is orderly in the Legislature.

  What about the Senate?

  The Senate is more flexible until the end is nigh. All bills expire if not debated on the Senate floor by midnight, May 26th. At that point, both the House and Senate must devote all their time to reconciling bills if they want them to go to Gov. Greg Abbott for consideration. That happens one of two ways: One chamber accepts the other chamber’s amendments; or each chamber adopts a conference committee report that works out differences in the bills.

  Is there any way around these deadlines?

  Yes, but passing a bill after a deadline requires a super-majority and, for practical purposes, the blessings of state leadership. It is theoretically possible in one day for a bill to be introduced, considered in committee, passed on both floors and sent to the Governor, but that requires near-unanimity. Another way back: Dead bills — aka “zombie bills” — are attached to other legislation as amendments, either on the floor or in conference committee.

  So when do bills really go on life support?

  That’s the subject of some debate. Unless a bill is late-breaking for a good reason and the leadership loves it, it may well be too late right now for most bills if they have not at least cleared a committee. The dreaded bottleneck has begun in the Texas House, and debate could slow dramatically as lawmakers try to avoid bills they do not want to see. The clock never stops, and did we say the process is designed to kill bills rather than pass them?

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Bill Positions

  ULLCO:

  ENDORSED HB 582 by Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, which would exempt paramedics from paying tuition and fees for courses that are part of an EMS curriculum, a move that will elevate the careers of Emergency Medical Technicians who have served heroically during the pandemic. Police and Fire Fighters have a similar benefit. The measure has cleared the House Higher Education Committee and is eligible for placement on the House’s calendar;

  OPPOSED SB 1716 by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, which would provide supplemental materials to students receiving special education services. Problem is that it would use tax dollars to pay for private provision of such services, amounting to a back-door school voucher program;

   OPPOSED HB 3909 by Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, which would eliminate the ability of local governments to enact occupational licensing requirements. The bill adds to a long list of measures that aim to stop cities and counties from adopting local rules that further safety.

  ENDORSED SB 2099 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would require the Texas Workforce Commission to enable a person who files for Unemployment Insurance benefits to leave a phone message and receive a return phone call or email response regarding the status of a claim. Information on how to do this would need to be included on the TWC website. Notoriously, in the unprecedented rush of more than 4 million applications for Unemployment Insurance benefits during the pandemic, workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own could not reach the agency, either by phone or online, for days or even weeks. As we have said repeatedly, this was not the fault of workers at the agency, but rather of long-term legislative neglect that had deployed a 1980s-era computer system against a 21st Century crisis. In hindsight, this bill amounts to simple courtesy.

  OPPOSED HB 4138 by Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie (companion is SB 1828 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury), which would enable oversized and overweight trucks to deliver steel products on a specific list of Texas roads. The Teamsters, who have a long history of opposing overweight trucks for safety reasons, is leading labor’s opposition, and the United Steelworkers say the bill appears to be aimed at helping a non-union plant in Midlothian.