Legislative Update - May 1, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature
May 1, 2021 — #17

30 Days to Go in Regular Session

“I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy
Snaggy, shaggy, ratsy, matsy
Oily, greasy, fleecy
Shining, gleaming, streaming
Flaxen, waxen
Knotted, polka-dotted
Twisted, beaded, braided
Powdered, flowered, and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied!”

—From the title song of the 1960s-era musical “Hair.” See “Hair Apparent” item below and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADNbtAID5wM.

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Progress on Police Reform Bills — The Texas House approved three police reform bills to address some weaknesses in state law that connect to the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of law officers. The ULLCO-endorsed measures by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston — HB 829 (progressive disciplinary matrix in certain municipalities); HB 830 (practices regarding fine-only misdemeanors); and HB 834 (corroboration requirements in undercover drug cases) — now move to the Senate, which has approved three more bills related to duties of police and limitations on use of chokeholds. Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy praised the broad consensus on the bills to date and called for lawmakers to work together to get the measures to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. “No Texan should ever face the prospect of dying at the hands of police when deadly force is unnecessary,” Levy said. See: https://bit.ly/3nBAu4L.

Radical Pension Change for New State Employees Advances — New state employees would enter a cheaper “cash balance” pension system within the Employees Retirement System under a ULLCO-opposed bill that passed the Texas Senate. The late-moving SB 321 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, cleared the Senate little more than a week after it suddenly replaced a straightforward bill to shore up ERS. The proposal would not only change the bargain for tens of thousands of future state employees but set a precedent for all public employee unions in Texas who currently have defined-benefit plans in which the state fully assumes the risks of fluctuating markets. “Cash balance” is a complicated hybrid system — somewhat but not completely like a 401(k) in which market risks are borne by employees. The measure won final approval on a 20-11 vote, with Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, joining all Republicans in the majority. The strategy for trying to stop or amend SB 321 now moves to the House, where, signifying momentum, Appropriations Committee Chair Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, is expected to be sponsor.

Tears for Two-Tiers — Huffman said under SB 321 the state will pay $510 million a year calculated to make ERS actuarially sound by 2054. But ERS is not actuarially sound now in large part because the state didn’t fulfill prior funding promises, and this year’s Legislature cannot bind even the next one with regard to payment obligations. Also, the conversion to “cash balance” may be costlier than the state thinks. The AFL-CIO-affiliated Economic Policy Institute posted a research paper finding, among other things, that “cash balance” plans tend to produce more turnover among public employees as benefits accrue more quickly to younger workers and less quickly to older ones: https://bit.ly/3aMeSgH.

Voter Suppression Update — With Georgia and Florida Republicans recently forcing through legislation that could intimidate voters, Texas Republicans are following a similar path to an end-game. After presiding over a chaotic meeting that saw one Democratic lawmaker describe the proceedings as “bull#%@!,” House Elections Committee Chair Briscoe Cain, R-Houston, on Thursday obtained a party-line vote to advance ULLCO-opposed SB 7 out of his committee — refusing along the way to allow amendments by Democrats. In doing so, Cain substituted his own HB 6, also a voter suppression bill, for the Senate’s version. The House and Senate approaches differ significantly, as reported by the Texas Tribune: https://bit.ly/3xDWqAM. After Thursday’s antics, Democrats asked the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor the House Elections Committee for potential violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Another ‘Bathroom Bill’ — Along party lines, the Senate approved SB 1646 by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, which would classify gender-affirming medical procedures conducted on minors as child abuse. The measure was the second of the session affecting trans-gender children to pass the Senate, but unlike SB 29 and its restriction on who can play scholastic sports, this one could impose criminal penalties on parents and physicians trying in good-faith to help children and cause family separations. SB 1646 now moves to the House.

Retiree Representation on ERS Board — Culminating years of effort by public employee unions, the Legislature sent a ULLCO-endorsed bill that would enable a retiree to hold a seat on the Employees Retirement System board to the Governor’s desk. HB 917 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, would allow retirees to run for one of the board seats, all three of which are currently held by active employees. The bill leaves it to members of ERS on whether a retiree should win election to the board.

Free Tuition for EMTs — On a 112-34 vote, the Texas House advanced a bill that would add paramedics to the list of First Responders who may receive free tuition and lab fees for courses that provide professional advancement. HB 582 by Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, now moves to the Senate. Among key supporters of the ULLCO-backed bill: Selena Xie, President of the Austin EMS Association.

Music to Our Ears — A bill that aims to help music venues and festivals decimated by the pandemic cleared the Senate on a 22-9 vote. SB 609 by Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, would offer music businesses rebates from a new fund that will be made up of taxes on alcohol sales at the venues. Among the witnesses testifying for the bill: Aaron Lack, President of the Austin Federation of Musicians.

 Elevator Bill Goes Down — A  long-running ULLCO-backed bill to require licensing of workers who install and maintain elevators in Texas fell to narrow defeat on the House floor. Nevertheless, HB 1485 by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, had a strong run, benefiting from efforts by the International Union of Elevator Constructors and other unions to emphasize the importance of training to maintain elevator safety. Ultimately, the bill ran afoul of forces in a larger debate on licensing that affects all the Building Trades unions. Vote on the bill was 70-74; while the bill had some bipartisan support, all opponents were Republican

Senate Approves Ban on ‘Action Civics’ — A Senate bill that would prohibit credit or extra credit when students engage in curriculum-related activities like protests, strikes or other actions outside the classroom won approval in the Texas Senate. SB 2202 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would bar what Creighton referred to as “action civics” and, he said, would require a “balanced approach” to curriculum. An apparent bugbear: Creighton’s distaste for The 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning take on American history by The New York Times Magazine that places the consequences of slavery at the center of discussion.

Hair Apparent — A ULLCO-backed bill to ban discrimination on the basis of hair texture or protective hairstyle aims to prevent repeats of multiple incidents in which workers or students were punished because of how they wore their hair. HB 392 by Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Rowlett, brought out strong civil rights advocacy, including testimony submitted on behalf of the state labor federation by Texas AFL-CIO Intern Amber Jones, a UT student who has researched the issue and worked the bill from its introduction. “Our definition of ‘professionalism’ in the workplace must change to include broader cultural norms,” Jones wrote. “Hairstyles, for many people, have unique cultural or individual significance, and it is not something you can just change.” More background: https://bit.ly/3t7987u.

House Unmasked — Texas House members will no longer be required to wear masks in committee hearings or on the House floor after voting 99-46 to deactivate the pandemic mask rule. The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, said House members who are still concerned about contracting COVID-19 retain the option newly installed in current House rules of voting remotely. Opponents of the decision pointed out lingering dangers posed by variants of the coronavirus and said some committee hearing rooms make it difficult to maintain spacing. The House also approved on a 100-26 vote a separate resolution by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, restoring floor privileges for accredited media.

Up Next — The House is scheduled to consider on Monday two ULLCO-backed Unemployment Insurance bills: HB 3697 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston (eligibility if one leaves work for necessary child care); and HB 157 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin (promote Shared Work program). The Senate has focused statewide attention on a bill outside ULLCO’s bailiwick on the right to carry guns without a state license. Amid much legislative drama, that bill could arrive on the Senate calendar next week. Also on the calendar: SB 28, a ULLCO-opposed bill that would limit power of the State Board of Education and local school boards to reject new charter schools.

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The Basics 

If my favorite bill or the bill I wish death upon clears the Legislature, is it home free?

Not quite. Gov. Greg Abbott has the power to sign, veto or let into law without his signature all House and Senate bills and concurrent resolutions that reach his desk. Abbott has used the power liberally, vetoing 44, 51 and 58 bills in his three legislative sessions, all of which were dominated by members of his own political party.

Wow. Did Abbott set the record?

Not even close. Then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed 83 bills in his first session in 2001. Perry also holds the career record for Texas governors, with 301 total vetoes over seven regular sessions.

Has the Legislature ever gone a session without a veto?
No, not even in a called 30-day session. The last time only one veto took place in a regular session was under Gov. Francis R. Lubbock (brother of the Lubbock namesake) in 1862.

Can the Legislature do anything about a veto?

Yes and no, but mainly no. If the Governor announces a veto during a session, lawmakers may override the veto with a two-thirds vote. The Legislative Reference Library reports the last time that happened was in connection with a Comal County hunting and fishing bill vetoed by then-Gov. Bill Clements in 1979. Veto overrides are so infrequent that all the ones in Texas history have been compiled on one page: https://lrl.texas.gov/legis/Vetoes/overrides.cfm

Why are gubernatorial vetoes so bullet-proof? 

That’s the product of a part-time Legislature, the crunch of bill-passing at the end of every legislative session, and gubernatorial power to help shape legislation in the first place. The vast majority of vetoes occur after the Legislature leaves town, leaving lawmakers no power to consider an override. Proposals to change that have languished.

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Positions on Bills

The United Labor Legislative Committee: 

OPPOSED SB 321 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, a precedent-setting switch to “cash balance” pension plans for future state employees within the Employees Retirement System. Turnover in state government is already high and is not being helped by the Legislature’s failure to enact across-the-board pay raises in recent years. The proposed change to ERS would dilute the traditional system that has offered state employees a reasonably strong path to retirement. Also, the shift in ERS could eventually undermine all public pension plans in Texas;

ENDORSED SB 609 by Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Senate-approved measure that offers some relief to music venues and festivals that have been decimated by the pandemic (see “Music to Our Ears” above). As approved by the Senate, the bill requires a contract with musicians for the rebates to arrive; and

ENDORSED HB 541 by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, which like other ULLCO-backed billswould establish a presumption for First Responders and corrections employees that COVID-19 was contracted on the job.That presumption would provide a direct path to collect Workers’ Compensation benefits. As amended in the House, the bill would require frontline employees to have been on the job within 14 days of testing positive for the coronavirus. HB 541 won final approval in the Texas House on Tuesday and was sent to the Senate, which has approved similar legislation.