Legislative Update - Jan. 29, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel 

Jan. 29, 2021 — #4
122 Days to Go in Regular Session

[E]qual pay is by no means just a women's issue – it's a family issue. It's about parents who find themselves with less money for tuition or child care; couples who wind up with less to retire on; households where, when one breadwinner is paid less than she deserves, that's the difference between affording the mortgage – or not; between keeping the heat on, or paying the doctor's bills – or not. And in this economy, when so many folks are already working harder for less and struggling to get by, the last thing they can afford is losing part of each month's paycheck to simple discrimination.

—President Barack Obama, speaking on this day in 2009 after signing his first bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Eleven years later, as women continue to find out, often too late to file lawsuits, that they have been suffered discrimination in their paychecks, the Texas AFL-CIO has continued to support a parallel bill at the state level. Obama's full statement: http://bit.ly/3opAZNW

***

Another Quick Week — The Senate met Monday, formally referred SB 1, the budget bill, to the Senate Finance Committee, and adjourned until Tuesday, Feb. 9. The House met briefly Monday and Tuesday, then also adjourned until Feb. 9. The ceremonial activities that normally characterize the first month of a legislative session have all but vanished in the pandemic. When lawmakers return, the Senate will refer bills to committees in preparation for hearings. The House will likely announce committee assignments next week.

State of the State — Normally, the State of the State address takes place every two years before a packed Texas House. Because of the pandemic, this year’s speech by Gov. Greg Abbott will instead originate as a television address. You can tune in at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1. Check your local stations or the Internet.

Why It Matters — The State of the State speech emphasizes leadership priorities for the legislative session and will inform the major bills that the House and Senate consider. A flurry of major bill introductions is on the way in coming weeks.

What to Expect — COVID, COVID, COVID. The pandemic infuses everything the Legislature is doing this session. As the state looks for better ways to roll out vaccines and defeat the coronavirus, news reports suggest Abbott will focus on shoring up businesses through protections against liability, on keeping public schools physically open and funded, and on asserting state power over cities with regard to law enforcement, policy toward homeless persons and other local matters. Most every State of the State speech also contains a surprise or two.

Fair Shot — The labor movement has countered with a Fair Shot Agenda seeking to improve the lives of working families who have suffered greatly in the pandemic. (See: https://www.texasaflcio.org/fair-shot-agenda). 

Special Session Ahead — Late-arriving population numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau are going to require a special legislative session that may not start until after Labor Day, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told the Texas Lyceum. The Bureau announced that the details of the population count that lawmakers need to redraw political boundaries will not be available until after July 30. Texas still appears to be on track to gain three congressional seats when the Bureau releases total state population numbers at the end of April.

Plumbers Board — A KWTX (Waco) overview of HB 636, which would extend the life of the State Board of Plumbing Examiners, features. Leonard Aguilar of the Southwest Pipe Trades Association and Chap Thornton, Business Manager of United Association of Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 286. Public safety remains at stake as lawmakers continue a sunset process that had to be held over to this year after the board nearly perished in 2019.

Minimum Wage — While the pathetically low $7.25 an hour state minimum wage is once again not on the leadership agenda in Texas, there is new hope in Washington, D.C. The Texas Tribune posted a fine article on the subject featuring two low-wage workers who do a little better than the bare minimum in part because they are union members with the Service Employees International Union. See: http://bit.ly/2L6ZTV6

* *

The Basics — “Readings”

What are “readings” of bills?

To understand the answer to this question, you will have to forget your everyday definition of “reading” and even of “day.”

The Texas Constitution says that to become a law, every bill must be “read on three several days in each House” unless four-fifths of lawmakers vote to suspend the requirement.

Do the amazing secretaries and clerks who keep the legislative machinery going have to actually read whole bills for them to be considered? 

Thank heavens, no. Some bills are hundreds of pages long. Instead, the “reading” takes in just the caption of the bill, which states the subject of the proposal. Usually, those are just the equivalent of one sentence.

When do “readings” occur?

For a bill to get to the Governor’s desk, it must go through three readings in each chamber. Most every bill gets a “first reading” not long after a lawmaker files the measure. First readings are usually done in clusters and are accompanied by referral to a committee of the House or Senate. 

For bills that survive the committee process, “second readings” start debate and possibly amendments in the full House or Senate. If the bill wins majority approval, it moves on to a “third reading”; after discussion and debate, a third reading can lead to final passage. 

Why does the Texas Senate seem to ignore the rule about reading on three “several days”?

Senators follow the rule, but in their peculiar way. When a routine bill survives the Senate’s procedural vote to come up for debate on second reading, senators usually vote to suspend the constitutional rule and move forward with third reading and final passage on the same day. 

If the Senate is divided on a bill, does it  always take two days to debate and pass a measure?

It depends on how you define “day.” Later in the legislative session, the Senate will often recess rather than adjourn from one day to the next. So while you and I have gone from, say, Tuesday to Wednesday, the Senate starts Wednesday as if it was still Tuesday, i.e., they are on the same “legislative day.” The Senate can then pass bills on second reading, adjourn in the middle of its session, and reconvene minutes later for a new legislative day so they can pass the same bills on third reading. This way, the Senate satisfies the “several days” requirement of the Constitution while taking action on a bill during one calendar day.

What about the House?

By and large, the House does less time-bending and will normally consider second and third readings of bills on separate days. Suspending the three-day rule or using mid-day adjournments to speed passage happens on occasion but is considered unusual. Exception: The House routinely uses a Senate-style recess-and-adjourn process for its Local and Consent Calendar, allowing scores of non-controversial bills to be considered in one calendar day.

 * *

ULLCO Bill Positions

ULLCO took positions this week on the following bills:

ENDORSED HB 396 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and SB 433 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo (SB 439 by Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, is identical), which would establish a presumption that nurses who contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic got it on the job. That would make many nurses eligible for Workers’ Compensation coverage. (Sadly, it wouldn’t reach all nurses because some hospitals in Texas don’t carry Workers’ Comp — the only state where that is possible.) See Texas AFL-CIO news release: http://bit.ly/3afXBvh;

ENDORSED HB 636 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, which would continue the Texas Board of Plumbing Examiners. As discussed above, union plumbers have made a powerful case that the regulatory board’s standards have protected public safety at home, in commercial buildings and in hospitals and other health facilities;

ENDORSED HB 863 by Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, which would impose penalties under the prevailing wage law if a business improperly classifies workers as independent contractors; 

OPPOSED HB 633 by Rep. Geannie Morrison, R-Victoria, which would change rules on how prevailing wage is calculated in a way that would reduce regional wage floors for some construction workers; and

ENDORSED HB 145 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, which would eliminate the one-week waiting period before unemployed Texas workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own can begin collecting Unemployment Insurance benefits. The measure is part of the Texas AFL-CIO’s 10-point plan on UI: http://bit.ly/2ND7gUX