Legislative Update - March 12, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

March 12, 2021 — #10
80 Days to Go in Regular Session

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

—From "The Second Coming" by Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats. Besides winning a Nobel Prize for Literature, Yeats served six years as a Senator of the Irish Free State, composing some of his greatest work during that period and promoting the arts as a major part of his agenda.

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The Game Is Afoot — By close of the clerk's office at 6 p.m. Friday, virtually all the proposed laws in the 87th regular session of the Legislature will have been filed. Though filing started slow in the pandemic and was interrupted further by winter storms, the final bill count is teeming with bills on those subjects and much more, easily breaking the 6,000 mark at this writing. Next week, for the first time, floor sessions of the House are set throughout the week starting Monday. The Senate will pick up its pace dramatically when it returns 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Another Payroll Dues Fight — For the fourth session in a row (along with a special session), a lawmaker has filed a proposal to take away the freedom of public employees to voluntarily pay dues to the labor union or association of their choice through payroll dues deduction. SB 1660 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would exempt police, firefighters and EMS workers from the restriction, but not teachers or other state and local employees. The United Labor Legislative Committee has led in staving off the highly politicized proposal in the past and will certainly keep this measure at the top of the list of bills to fight this session. A large thing about a bill shopped across the nation by billionaire-funded right-wing groups hasn't changed for state and local employees: It's still our money, and our freedom is at stake.

Crackdown on Local Governance — Among many bills that would take away the ability of local governments to make policy, newly filed SB 14 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would preempt the ability of local governments to set any and all policy on employment benefits such as paid sick leave, which has become even more critical during the pandemic. The state requires little in the way of workplace benefits and these bills aim to stop cities from entering that vacuum — even though local government "closest to the people" by and large came through during the pandemic and winter storms while state government floundered.

Labor Wins First Step on Plumbing Safety — A bill that would continue the State Board of Plumbing Examiners after the agency that enforces quality standards for plumbers nearly died in 2019 sailed through a House committee. HB 636 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, won a 10-0 vote in the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, which she chairs. The atmosphere around the sunset bill is different this time, with statewide disasters around COVID-19 and winter storms highlighting the importance of having well-trained plumbers to connect equipment that protects public health and saves lives. Unionized plumbers were leading advocates in the hearing. The measure is now eligible to be set for House floor debate.

Love and Hate Re: Federal Funding — The Texas AFL-CIO loves the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law Thursday by President Biden not just for its manifold programs for pandemic relief but because it has major potential as an engine to reduce poverty, and especially child poverty, dramatically. State leadership loves to hate federal programs, but the ARP is going to deliver budget relief to all states, including Texas to the tune of an estimated $27.6 billion (http://bit.ly/3qHrNWv). How those funds are deployed is going to be a critical topic as lawmakers take up the state budget in coming weeks.

A Shot in the Arm — Texas health officials announced they will extend the next priority for COVID-19 vaccinations starting next Monday to anyone over age 50 rather than the "essential workers" category adopted in a number of other states. Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy criticized the decision in news outlets, noting that younger service workers in supermarkets, on buses, at airlines and elsewhere have taken extra risks and have bravely remained in contact with the public since the dawn of the pandemic. Levy said the Texas AFL-CIO will ask legislators to step in. A saving grace: President Biden announced he will ask states to open vaccinations to everyone by May 1. Levy on TV: http://cbsloc.al/3euuJ6d

Welcoming a New Secretary-Treasurer — Leonard Aguilar, a San Antonio plumber and long-time ULLCO lobbyist, will begin a new job as Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer starting Monday, March 15. Aguilar enters the job with deep working knowledge of the legislative process and how to advocate effectively for working families in the halls of the Capitol. See the Texas AFL-CIO statement: http://bit.ly/3vj5F8b

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The Basics

What is a "sunset bill"?

Under Texas law, on a regular schedule (usually 12 years) lawmakers review every state agency top to bottom and decide whether it should be allowed to continue in existence. If lawmakers do not extend the life of the agency, it dies. The terminology does not, to our knowledge, have a counterpart of "sunrise bill" when an agency is created.

Why are sunset bills important?

Because sunset bills are considered "must pass" for an agency to survive, they offer opportunities for legislators to pursue operational changes, policy initiatives and other matters that might not fly as separate legislation.

Are some agencies too big or important to die?

Most definitely. In fact, the Legislature often provides two-year reprieves for agencies connected to contentious policy matters. The postponements, however, can keep an agency under sunset scrutiny when the Legislature returns. Also, agencies created by the Texas Constitution may not be abolished and in some cases may not be subject to sunset review. All in all, 131 state agencies are currently on the 12-year review calendar.

What prompted the sunset process?

In Texas, the law dates to 1977, following scandals that produced a reform era at the Legislature and led to laws requiring not just detailed public review of state agencies, but open meetings and open records. The Sunset Advisory Commission, which does agency research and makes recommendations for use by lawmakers, notes Texas was the second state, after Colorado, to adopt a sunset law.

Do sunset bills directly affect working families?

Absolutely. One recent example: the struggle of unionized plumbers to maintain strong health and safety standards by preserving the Board of Plumbing Examiners. That legislative effort is tied to sunset legislation that will determine the fate of the agency.

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Positions on Bills

The United Labor Legislative Committee this week:

ENDORSED SB 45 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo (companion is HB 45 by Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood), which would strengthen state law against sexual harassment in the workplace;

ENDORSED HB 390 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston (companion is SB 316 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston), which would step up awareness and recognition of human trafficking by training hotel and motel workers and requiring signage on the premises;

OPPOSED HB 19 by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, which would hold commercial truck drivers — but NOT their companies — liable for accidents they cause;

OPPOSED HB 463 by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, which would disqualify poll watchers if they have ever been convicted of a felony or an election-related misdemeanor;

ENDORSED HB 478 by Rep. Jessica Gonzalez, D-Dallas, which would designate a polling place parking space for voters who are unable to enter a polling place to cast a ballot;

ENDORSED HB 583 by Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin (companions include HB 76 by Rep. Terry Meza, D-Irving, HB 221 by Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, HB 400 by Rep. John Bucy, D-Austin, HB 802 by Rep. Christina Morales, D-Houston, HB 1232 by Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, and SB 95 by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio), which would expand voting by mail;

ENDORSED HB 584 by Cole (companions include HB 111 by Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, HB 124 by Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, and SB 98 by Menéndez), which would provide for automatic voter registration when someone gets a driver license or ID card from DPS;

ENDORSED HB 120 by Reynolds (companions include HB 49 by Rep. Art Fierro, D-El Paso, HB 1175 by Crockett and HB 2871 by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas), which would restore straight-party voting;

ENDORSED HB 123 by Meza (companion is SB 99 by Menéndez), which would expand the countywide polling place program;

ENDORSED HB 134 by Meza (companion is HB 1174 by Crockett), which would enable electronic voter registration;

ENDORSED HB 160 by Zwiener (companion is SB 268 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas), which would allow students to use college IDs to vote;

ENDORSED HB 161 by Thompson (companions are HB 595 by Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto, and SB 187 by Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin), which would expand voting eligibility to felons who have completed their sentences;

ENDORSED HB 230 by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio (companion is SB 100 by Menéndez), which would expand forms of identification that can be used to vote;

OPPOSED HB 329 by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Houston, an "election integrity" omnibus bill that would tend to suppress voting;

OPPOSED HB 330 by Cain, which would require a supermajority to approve a bond issue and step up criminal penalties for certain election offenses;

OPPOSED HB 335 by Cain, which would use list comparisons to exclude persons from voting who appear to have acknowledged they are not citizens. Such matching procedures have sometimes disqualified eligible voters; and

ENDORSED HB 21 by Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, which would extend a statute of limitations for complaints of sexual harassment filed with the Texas Workforce Commission.

ENDORSED HB 1634 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, which would protect call center jobs in Texas. The Communications Workers of America has taken the lead on this measure for several legislative sessions;

ENDORSED HB 263 by Meza, D-Irving, which would require contractors hired with tax dollars to provide at least one 10-minute rest break every four hours;

ENDORSED HB 284 by Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, which would require many employers to provide a baseline amount of paid sick leave. It's not just a benefits issue; it's a public health issue. ULLCO endorsed these similar bills: HB 87 by Reynolds and HB 1298 by Bernal;

ENDORSED HB 344 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which would prevent employers from confiscating any portion of gratuities that go to tipped employees;

ENDORSED HB 401 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, which would require food and retail employers to provide advance notice of work schedules to employees;

ENDORSED HB 405 by Hernandez (companion is SB 57 Zaffirini), which would double to one year the period in which an employee can file a claim for unpaid wages with the Texas Workforce Commission;

ENDORSED HB 619 by Senfronia Thompson, which would develop a strategic plan to support the child-care workforce;

ENDORSED HB 2507 by Senfronia Thompson, which would promote equal pay by broadening what constitutes unlawful employment practices on that subject; and

ENDORSED HB 2614 by Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, which would tighten administrative penalties against employers who habitually fail to pay wages.