Legislative Update - March 26, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

March 26, 2021 — #12
66 Days to Go in Regular Session

“Backward is just not a natural direction for Americans to look — historical ignorance remains a national characteristic.”

—Larry McMurtry, from Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846–1890. The iconic Academy Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winning Texas author died Thursday at age 84. You can’t think about mythical Texas on the page or on film without thinking about Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment and other McMurtry works.

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GOP Bears Down on Voting — The Texas AFL-CIO stood with progressives and Democrats in criticizing major bills that would make it harder for Texans to vote. Part of a national Republican plan of response to the giant turnout in the 2020 elections and a rising tide of progress, SB 7 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and HB 6 by Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, each got off to rocky starts this week. SB 7 was “tagged” by several senators, postponing a hearing from Monday until today. Cain cut off HB 6’s hearing abruptly after hundreds of opponents showed up.

Labor Fights Back — The Texas AFL-CIO said SB 7 and HB 6 would renew voter suppression tactics of the Jim Crow era. The Secretary of State would have new power to cull voter lists — a tactic that has a history of disqualifying eligible and disproportionately minority voters rather than finding ineligible ones. The bills would elevate the status of partisan “poll watchers,” in one case making it all but impossible, under criminal penalty, to expel a watcher who misbehaves. Voter fraud is rare, and the so-called “election integrity” bills are not really about fraud. “On a false pretext, bills like SB 7 and HB 6 aim a cannon at a flea, with all the accompanying damage to the surroundings,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy and Secretary-Treasurer Leonard Aguilar said in a statement. https://bit.ly/31muHWk and https://bit.ly/2QytUPO

AG Voter Fraud Efforts Focus on People of Color — The election bills would provide new avenues for Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate and prosecute criminal allegations. So far, such probes have been problematic, the Houston Chronicle reports, with at least 72 percent of Paxton’s election cases targeting Black or Latino voters, most of them women. Voter fraud cases are rare, though the AG’s office is jacking with numbers to suggest otherwise. An AG’s rep testified in a hearing that the agency had pursued 500 cases, but it came out the real number is 43 cases, with a total of 500 counts. See: https://bit.ly/3ffY18Y

Locally Enacted Workplace Benefits Under Attack — SB 14 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, which would end the ability of local governments to enact rules requiring minimum workplace benefits, received a friendly hearing from the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. Not without resistance, though. Among opponents: Texas AFL-CIO Legislative Director René Lara, who said the pandemic and winter storms have only highlighted the need for basic workplace standards. “Workers are down, and SB 14 will make matters worse,” Lara said. The bill  would eliminate local provisions like rest breaks for construction workers, notice of scheduling by large businesses and fair hiring rules. Also under threat: non-discrimination ordinances and collectively bargained contracts. 

A Win for Unemployed Texans — The American Rescue Plan delivered another win for Texas working people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own in the pandemic: The Texas Workforce Commission sent out notices that such workers can now retain eligibility for company health coverage. ARP authorizes full payment of COBRA premiums through Sept. 30 to keep unemployed Texans covered, expands marketplace subsidies, and provides tax credits to enroll workers in a Silver Plan at zero cost. Before ARP became law, the Texas AFL-CIO had worked with Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, and with our allies at Every Texan on this issue.

ULLCO Criticizes School Property Tax Breaks — In a statement and in opposition to two bills (see “Bill Positions” below), ULLCO criticized Chapter 313 school property tax breaks for companies locating in Texas, saying they create a perverse incentive because while school districts grant the exemptions, the state pays for them. Cost to Texas: $1.9 billion in the upcoming budget cycle, $2.3 billion in 2024-25, and sky’s-the-limit in the future. “Worst of all, some proposals to amend the program as we renew it would deal out working people,” ULLCO stated, pointing to a leading bill that would end oversight of minimum standards for the jobs created.

Sexual Harassment Bill Clears Senate — A bill that would expand protections against sexual harassment in Texas to cover small businesses cleared the Senate on a 29-1 vote. SB 45 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would extend the state’s anti-sexual harassment provisions to firms that have under 15 employees. The lone “no” vote was Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. The ULLCO-backed measure now moves to the Texas House.

Senate Tries Again on Winter Storm Response — After seeing its bill on ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) pricing errors during the winter storms zapped in the House, the Senate approved SB 2154 by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. The measure would expand the Public Utility Commission from three to five members, two of whom would have to have expertise in the utility industry. SB 2154 was introduced and passed within three days. Like the ERCOT bill, the bill does not address factors involving deregulation that caused millions of Texans to freeze in their homes. At the moment, the PUC is vacant, with all three members having resigned in the wake of storms that killed at least 111 Texans and counting (see: https://bit.ly/3feWAYD). 

Houston Firefighters Shine at Hearing — The House Urban Affairs Committee held a friendly hearing on HB 2087 by Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston, which would mandate binding arbitration to settle a multi-year contractual dispute between Fire Fighters in Houston and the City of Houston. All sides agree Fire Fighters in Houston, who have endured a total pay increase of just 3 percent in 10 years, are underpaid. But other paths to a collective bargaining solution have failed. The Houston Professional Firefighters Association got outstanding representation at the hearing from its President, Marty Lancton. Committee Chair Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, said he hopes the Fire Fighters and City can resolve differences before the bill gets to the House floor.

Wrong Priority on COVID-19 Response — It has become clear that the top leadership priority in this legislative session with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic is to immunize businesses from liability. Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy criticized that priority in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in a discussion of SB 6, which ULLCO has opposed. “It seems to me that we should place much more of the emphasis on making sure that people don’t get sick and die, rather than protecting businesses when they fail to take those precautions,” Levy said. Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott is opposing efforts to give front-line workers the benefit of the doubt by establishing a presumption of coverage under workers’ compensation. Read more: http://bit.ly/3vTxZOD

‘Bathroom Bill’ II — A bill that would bar transgender athletes from taking part in school sports based on their gender identity drew opposition from ULLCO, led by the Texas American Federation of Teachers. (ULLCO also opposed the original, and ultimately defeated, “bathroom bill,” another solution in search of a problem that sought to dictate who could use which restrooms.) Ricardo Martinez of Equality Texas told the Austin American-Statesman it is “deeply saddening” to be “going into session after session to defend the humanity of LGBTQ people.” See: https://bit.ly/39dVto4

What’s on Tap — The House will consider a bipartisan package of leadership-backed winter storm bills on Tuesday. Both chambers are nearing consideration of their versions of the appropriations bill (HB 1 and SB 1) for 2022-23. SB 22 (presumption of COVID-19 coverage for public safety employees) will be heard Monday in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

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The Basics

What is tagging?

In the Texas Senate, any member has the power to postpone committee consideration of a bill for 48 hours by applying a “tag”. Formal reason for slowing progress: a senator needs additional time to consider the bill. This week, SB 7, an omnibus voter suppression bill, was tagged by five senators on Monday just ahead of a major hearing and was rescheduled for Friday.

Can a group of Senators use a series of tags to postpone a bill even longer?

No. Bills may only be tagged once.

Can tags always be used to postpone action?

No. Several devices are available to avoid tags. For example, committee chairs may post bills for 72 hours, a period that must include at least one meeting of the Senate, to avoid tags.

Can the full Senate stop tags? 

Yes. The Senate voted to waive the tag rule on more than one occasion during a 2017 special session to uphold a leadership schedule for bills. This was the first break from the “tag” since the rule was implemented in 1939.

What’s the point of a 48-hour postponement in a 140-day legislative session?

As the session progresses, a crunch of thousands of proposed bills makes every day count. Tags can be lethal as the session deadline approaches.

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Positions on Bills

This week, ULLCO: 

ENDORSED HB 783 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, which would extend a state preference for using domestic iron and steel to higher education projects. The United Steelworkers, which worked to establish the preference for other construction projects in past sessions, is a leading backer of this measure, which received a friendly committee hearing this week;

OPPOSED HB 2374 by Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney (companion is SB 1577 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham), which would insert language conducive to privatization in law affecting efficiency audits of the Department of Family and Protective Services;

OPPOSED SB 14 by Creighton, which would erase the ability of local governments to enact ordinances and other rules that improve workplace benefits. This is a particularly broad version of “preemption” — going well beyond recent battles over paid sick leave — that has been granted a priority bill number in the Senate;

OPPOSED HB 610 by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, which would allow workers to go to court to challenge local licensing requirements if they go beyond state requirements. Some local governments have enacted licensing ordinances to provide an added layer of safety for the public;

OPPOSED SB 6 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills (companion is HB 3659 by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano), which would eliminate liability for health care providers, businesses and schools that were negligent in protecting customers or workers from COVID-19. Lawsuits could go forward only in the most egregious cases of intentional harm or reckless disregard. The high priority accorded this bill is a major example of how pandemic (and winter storm) response is focusing on matters that do little or nothing for working people;

OPPOSED SB 23 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, which would force an election any time a local government reduces its budget for law enforcement. The bill would even require an election if the local government seeks to reduce the amount of overtime. Voters already have direct control of local budget policies through election of their local officials. This is an attempt to take over one of the most fundamental things a city or county does: approve a budget;

ENDORSED HB 1759 by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, which would clarify safety rules at railroad grade crossings to account for on-track vehicles other than trains;

ENDORSED HB 1596 by Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, this session’s edition of a long-sought bill that would require railroad companies to have at least two persons on each train crew;

ENDORSED HB 3954 by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, a bill that would improve railroad safety standards;

OPPOSED SB 28 By Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston (companion is HB 3279 by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston), which would take away local authority to regulate charter schools and set rules that would ease expansion of charters;

OPPOSED SB 1365 by Bettencourt (companion is HB 3270 by Dutton), a bill that would hand significantly more power to the education commissioner regarding management of public schools.

ENDORSED HB 2087 by Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston, which would mandate binding arbitration to settle a multi-year contractual dispute between Fire Fighters in Houston and the City of Houston. 

OPPOSED HB 1556 by Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, and the similar SB 1255 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Waco, which would extend school property tax exemptions for companies locating in Texas while doing even less to make certain that promised jobs pay good wages and have good benefits. ULLCO had previously issued a statement on these “Chapter 313” agreements, which are costing the state billions of dollars without much regulation of the quality of jobs;

OPPOSED SB 29 by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and the similar HB 4042 by Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, which would require high school athletes to participate in sports based on the sex noted on their birth certificates. The Texas American Federation of Teachers is leading labor’s opposition to this discriminatory mandate; and

OPPOSED a set of three bills that seek to punish local governments if they reduce a budget for law enforcement, including even failing to keep up with the inflation rate: HB 1900 by Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, an omnibus bill that, among other things, would freeze a local government’s tax rate; HB 1950 by Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, letting the Governor create a law enforcement and safety zone funded by local taxpayers; and HB 2362 by Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, which would freeze spending.