Legislative Update - March 20, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel


72 Days to Go in Regular Session

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

—From “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by The Who. https://bit.ly/3s2mTET (End-of-song guitar destruction by Pete Townshend, plus the last live and absolutely joyous performance by drummer Keith Moon.)

* * *

ERCOTgate — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led a crusade to force the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to roll back billions of dollars in overpricing during winter storms that left millions of Texans freezing in their homes and out of tap water. The Senate showed up unannounced on Monday, rescinded its adjournment to Tuesday, and in lightning fashion introduced, heard in committee, debated on the floor and passed on a 27-3 tally SB 2142 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, which would require the Public Utility Commission to order ERCOT to reverse the charges. By Tuesday, Patrick was on the warpath because the House was not jumping to pass the bill and Gov. Greg Abbott had not publicly backed it. In fact, we heard a complaint never uttered by a Lieutenant Governor in our memory — that the Senate had stood up for individuals while “The House stood for big business.” House Speaker Dade Phelan said ERCOT’s pricing actions may have actually saved lives and the consequences of dictating a rollback are not clear. With a reported deadline of today to undo ERCOT pricing, at this writing the bill appears dead, BUT…

Who’s the Boss — Last week, Patrick took the rare step of participating in a committee hearing to roast the last remaining member of the PUC, Arthur D’Andrea. After Texas Monthly broke the news that D’Andrea told out-of-state investors the PUC would work to stop ERCOT repricing, D’Andrea resigned — leaving the major regulatory body without any members. Abbott’s appointments would need confirmation from the Senate — led by Patrick. Patrick also strongly denied any intention to run against Abbott. It needs to be noted that statement is not exactly the same as saying he would not run for Governor in 2022 and that when Patrick ran for Lieutenant Governor it was after saying he would not do so. Scott Braddock of Quorum Report offered the take that whatever the merits of ERCOT repricing and recent resignations by utility regulators, SB 2142 clearly would not address fundamental faults in Texas energy regulation that led to the power grid’s implosion and the suffering in Texas during the winter storms. Those bills — several of which have labor implications — are in the pipeline, no pun intended.

A Constitutional Right to Receive Visitors — The Texas Senate unanimously approved SJR 19 and SB 25 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, which would establish a constitutional right for residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other similar facilities to designate an essential care-giver for in-person visitation. Constituents  have bombarded lawmakers with accounts of being unable to spend in-person time with dying relatives because of pandemic rules. The Senate debate understandably became an emotional acknowledgment that the rules harmed families. Next step: the House. 

Solemn Anniversary — Speaking of the awful consequences of COVID-19, Texas passed the one-year anniversary of the first officially recorded death from the illness. Texas has now passed the 47,000 mark in  deaths, while the nation has seen 539,000 dead. The Texas Tribune posted a poignant timeline: http://bit.ly/3lgOdN8

Capitol Safety — ULLCO lobbyists are reporting their visits to the Capitol to advocate for working families have featured large and growing crowds since Gov. Greg Abbott’s order ending a statewide mask mandate took effect. Plastic barriers have been removed from the Senate floor, and a news conference by Patrick to discuss the ERCOT bill featured senators standing elbow to elbow with only one wearing a mask. The House is considering a resolution to change its rules to end masking requirements in committees and on the House floor. The medical consensus is that dropping mask requirements was premature. Because the Capitol hosts people from all over the state and beyond, its activity has the potential to become a super spreader even though COVID-19 numbers have declined lately. 

‘Ban the Box’ Advances — HB 455 by Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, long supported by ULLCO, won approval in the House Business and Industry Committee. The bill requires employers to refrain from asking about criminal history in an initial application, though the employer is free to use it as a disqualified if the applicant makes the cut and is seriously considered for the job. At least 36 states have similar laws. See: http://bit.ly/3rWFq5k.

Attack on Prevailing Wages — Prevailing wage laws provide a key pay floor for construction workers on government-funded projects. Some contractors with a big voice at the Capitol don’t like them and are trying to create a low-cost alternative calculation of prevailing wages via SB 518 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. Texas AFL-CIO Legislative Director René Lara testified against the bill on behalf of ULLCO, saying, “This is not a good time to make it easier to undercut the wages of building tradesmen and women in Texas. They are literally in the trenches right now. Messing with their wage floors would be demoralizing.”

Senator Explains Medicaid Expansion — Looking for a strong 10-minute presentation on what’s at stake in proposals to expand Medicaid? Sen. Nathan Johnson’s YouTube video is a good place to go. See: https://bit.ly/2PaE48s.

Next Week — The Senate returns 2 p.m. Monday and the House at 4 p.m. Monday. The Senate is expected next week to take up a group of anti-abortion bills. On Monday, the Senate State Affairs Committee will consider election bills, most of which are of the ULLCO-opposed voter-suppression variety. On Tuesday, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee will take up SB 14 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, a ULLCO-opposed bill that would wipe out the power of local government to enact ordinances on workplace benefits of any kind. The House State Affairs Committee will take up four measures filed in response to the winter storms that day. 

* * *

The Basics

If the Texas Constitution is a fundamental document that public officials pledge to uphold, why do so many legislators want to change it?

Because our state Constitution is a hot mess compared to the truly fundamental U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution has been amended only 27 times — with the first 10 that make up the Bill of Rights in one gulp. The Texas Constitution has been amended 507 times in 89 fewer years, rendering it a super-statute as much as a seminal document. People memorize the U.S. Constitution; some of us try to forget portions of the Texas one.

So are we doing any better in 2021? 

Not really. We count 222 proposals — known as House Joint Resolutions and Senate Joint Resolutions — to change the Texas Constitution in the 87th Texas Legislature. 

It’s hard to pass a constitutional amendment, isn’t it?

Yes. The Constitution can only be amended by a two-thirds vote in each of the House and the Senate. And it’s not a cheap two-thirds; it has to be two-thirds of the full memberships  — 100 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate. These days, that means bipartisan consensus. Once a proposed constitutional amendment makes it out of the Legislature, it must also be ratified by a majority in a statewide election. That’s not a slam dunk historically: Voters have rejected 180 proposals.

If it’s so hard to pass a constitutional amendment, why are so many filed?

Because of the potential long-term reward. Laws are repealed or amended all the time. But something in the Texas Constitution — like, say, the ban on a personal income tax — would take extraordinary effort to change, even when the political winds reverse. Another quirk: Unlike the vast majority of bills, approval of the Governor is not necessary to change the Constitution. 

Will the Texas Constitution ever be rewritten?

Lawmakers occasionally propose rewriting the Texas Constitution to distill the essence of state government into a shorter document. But justifiable fear that a constitutional convention would revisit fundamental rights and foment mischief has killed these efforts. The last time lawmakers got through the entire process of rewriting the Texas Constitution, in the 1970s, voters soundly rejected the proposal — in large part because lawmakers tried to enshrine a so-called “right to work” law into the proposed new document. Yes, the Texas AFL-CIO led a campaign against the new constitution, and we have remained suspicious of proposed rewrites ever since.  

* * * 

Positions on Bills

 ULLCO:

OPPOSED HB 1348 by Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, which would eliminate the authority of any elected official to determine where charter schools can locate in our communities. Texas AFT reports that under the bill, a charter school could locate anywhere in a city or county, regardless of community concerns. In contrast, public school siting goes through an elaborate public process;

ENDORSED HB 1330 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which would dramatically limit the ability of employers to use credit reports to deny work to a job applicant;

ENDORSED HB 190 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, which would create a publicly available database of employers who have been formally found to have committed wage theft;

OPPOSED HB 1516 by Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound (companion is SB 657 by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster), which would set up outside third-party audits of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program;

OPPOSED SB 566 by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, which would impose state regulation of City of Austin Utilities rates. The electricity from the publicly owned utility is cheaper than that of the deregulated utilities that just failed spectacularly during our winter storms;

OPPOSED HB 1650 by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, which would dramatically loosen training requirements to obtain a plumber’s license. One way of working toward a license under the measure would be to successfully complete “a coherent sequence of courses in the plumbing trade that are offered through a career and technology education program.” That “coherent sequence of courses” — whatever that means — could be taken in high school. It takes years of guided hands-on experience to become a master plumber, and there is no better way to do it than in a paid, registered union apprenticeship, which offers state-of-the-art training that starts and ends with safety. No doubt Texas can use more plumbers, especially in the wake of winter storms for which our state leadership was so unprepared. But this isn’t the way to get there;

OPPOSED SB 518 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the prevailing wage bill noted above that is the opposite of a fair shot for working people to improve their lives;

ENDORSED HB 1731 by Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, which would require the Public Utility Commission to implement design standards for transmission lines that take into account electromagnetic field levels;

ENDORSED HB 1884 by Rep. Alex Dominguez, D-Brownsville, which would enable the Texas Workforce Commission to develop a grant program to encourage veterans to enter apprenticeship programs;

OPPOSED HB 1873 by Rep. Gary Gates, R-Richmond, which would subject late payment fees charged by municipally owned water utilities to state regulation. Municipally owned utilities, by and large, have distinguished themselves in recent crises, serving the public in ways the state has not;

OPPOSED HB 1942 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, which would create an industry certification charter school program for adults. Better mechanisms for such training are in place; 

ENDORSED HB 1969 by Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-MIssouri City, a Fort Bend County bill that would enable inspection of prevailing wage records;

ENDORSED HB 2581 by Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, which would allow local governments to establish a pre-qualification process that could prevent lowball bids on public works projects by firms that cannot meet minimal standards;

ENDORSED HB 2590 by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano (companion is SB 1947 by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster), which would tighten the time requirements for municipalities to consider building permits; 

ENDORSED SB 877 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills (companion is HB 2548 by Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria), which would qualify additional building inspectors in municipalities when disaster strikes; and

ENDORSED HB 2740 by Rep. Ray Lopez, D-San Antonio, which would require posting of occupational licensing information on the Texas Veterans Portal.

OPPOSED SB 7 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and the similar but not identical HB 6 by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Houston. These are the leadership-backed election omnibus bills carrying provisions that would tend to make it more difficult to vote. ULLCO added that other single-shot bills carrying key elements of these large omnibus bills are also to be considered OPPOSED even if ULLCO has not yet taken a position on them.

OPPOSED HB 25 by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, which would bar public employees from distributing official application forms for early voting;

OPPOSED HB 574 by Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood (companion is SB 1514 by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood), which would expand the definition of “election fraud” and raise the penalty from a Class B misdemeanor to a 2nd-degree felony;

OPPOSED HB 611 by Swanson, which would expand the oath taken by people accompanying voters who need assistance and establish a penalty for violating that oath multiple times to a state jail felony;

OPPOSED HB 1264 by Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney (companion is SB 569 by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster), which would speed the deadline for local registrars to inform election officials of deaths to “as soon as possible” but not later than one day after preparing an abstract of a death certificate;

OPPOSED HB 1724 by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston, which would require placement of election watchers near enough to voting to see and hear election officers. The measure would also entitle the watchers to object to “a procedural mistake that cannot be reversed”;

OPPOSED HB 1725 by Paul, which would prohibit in-person delivery of mail-in ballots, a method accepted in 2020 by some local officials because actions by U.S. Postal Service leadership were threatening the timeliness of mail;

OPPOSED HB 1890 by Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, which would delay primary runoff elections until the fourth Tuesday in May. They are currently held the fourth Tuesday of April. It should be noted that the fourth Tuesday in May is sometimes the day after Memorial Day;

OPPOSED HR 237 by Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, which would urge support for processing all election-related data in the U.S.; and 

ENDORSED HB 1284 by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall (companion is SB 450 by Hancock), which would settle a conflict of jurisdiction between the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with regard to the injection and geological storage of carbon dioxide. The clarification will pave the way for solid middle-class jobs in that arena.