Legislative Update - May 28, 2021

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

May 29, 2021 — #21 - 3 Days to Go in Regular Session

Closing time, open all the doors
And let you out into the world
Closing time, turn all of the lights on
Over every boy and every girl
Closing time, one last call for alcohol
So, finish your whiskey or beer
Closing time, you don't have to go home
But you can't stay here

—From “Closing Time,” by Semisonic. https://bit.ly/3fMpduP

The party's over
It's time to call it a day
They've burst your pretty balloon
And taken the moon away
It's time to wind up the masquerade
Just make your mind up the piper must be paid

—From “The Party’s Over” by Jule Styne, Betty Comden & Adolph Green. (This is not the Willie Nelson song of the same title, which is the version former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith used to sing when a team sealed the win in a Monday Night Football game.) Shirley Bassey, who has never needed a microphone, sang it as well as anyone ever has: https://bit.ly/3fjPl11

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Midnight Striketh — The biggest midnight deadline of the session for the Texas House killed at least three ULLCO-opposed bills at once. SB 29, on trans-gender student participation in scholastic sports, was next up for debate and perished. And SB 518, a bill that would have produced a low-wage option for calculation of prevailing wages, was being debated as the clock struck. The labor movement rose up among many organizations helping the LGBTQ community fight SB 29. And on SB 518, the Texas Building & Construction Trades Council joined allies in doing battle against what would have amounted to a drop in the minimum wage for construction workers on publicly funded projects. Also dead on the wrong side of the Calendar: ULLCO-opposed SB 10, which would have prevented local governments from hiring lobbyists to pursue local goals at the Legislature. 

Brinksmanship Update — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for a June special session, lamenting the deaths of bills on trans-gender student participation in sports, lobbying by cities, and social media policies. Gov. Greg Abbott called the notion “pretty goofy,” and he wasn’t invoking a Disney character. Abbott said (and he’s correct), “Only I have that ability and only I will execute that authority. And here's the way that it works. Not only am I the only one with the authority to call a special session, I get to decide when and I get to decide what will be on that special session.” That June special session now looks highly unlikely, but one this fall is all but certain because lawmakers plan to redraw political maps. 

Local Workplace Protections in Jeopardy — SB 14, the “death star” attack on locally-enacted workplace protections, cleared the Texas House, but not before Democratic representatives added amendments to preserve power to enact local ordinances on construction worker rest/water breaks, fair chance hiring, and anti-discrimination. Added labor-backed ingredient: an amendment allowing local CROWN Acts, which could outlaw workplace discrimination against hair texture or protective hairstyle associated with race. Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said while labor would continue to oppose a bill that cuts off a path to local workplace protections, SB 14 was “vastly improved” thanks to the work of union members, union allies, and legislative champions. The House and Senate versions now move into the reconciliation phase. 

Die Was Cast on Bad Pension Bill — SB 321, introduced suddenly and fueled with momentum from the very top of state leadership, moved to the brink of Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk after a perfunctory House debate in which Democratic efforts to amend or stop the bill fell short on votes. The measure will inaugurate a cheaper “cash balance” pension under the Employees Retirement System for future state employees. The Texas State Employees Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees fought valiantly and on short notice to stop the bill, but could not overcome a concerted leadership campaign. More bad news: SB 321 could serve as precedent for other pension systems in Texas to move away from defined-benefit status, in which workers are promised retirement payments that they can plan for.

Budget on Track — SB 1, the $248 billion appropriations bill for the 2022-23 biennium, has been sent to Gov. Greg Abbott following overwhelming approval of a  House-Senate conference committee report. The only bill that must pass under the Texas Constitution accompanies an agreement between lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott that the Legislature will participate in allocating federal pandemic relief funds when it returns for a fall special session on redistricting.

Voter Suppression — A final version of SB 7, the omnibus election bill that has drawn national attention as a vehicle for voter suppression, was being negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee at this writing. The Texas Tribune highlighted a piece of the Senate version of the bill that, in the five largest counties, would reduce the number of polling places in minority, mainly Democratic House districts while increasing them in Republican House districts. See: https://bit.ly/3hOz3Pt. Wherever SB 7 lands, take note that election proposals that could reduce voter participation appear in other pieces of legislation that remain alive. For example, HB 3920, which would limit the ability of voters to request mail ballots based on illness or disability, remains in play. HB 2283, which would strongly discourage private donations to help administer elections, is also nearing final passage.

Dictating History — ULLCO-opposed HB 3979, a bill that would dictate inclusion of chosen highlights while outlawing critical race theory and other approaches that place slavery and race at the center of U.S. history, passed the Senate along party lines. Three key quotes from the debate from Democratic opponents: Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas said, “Your bill is half the story”; Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said, “We need to stop living a lie”; and Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said, “We’re telling teachers and school communities we don’t trust them.” The House and Senate must agree to matching versions of the highly controversial and nationally noticed bill before it can go to the Governor’s desk. 

Fight to Stop Sexual Harassment Progresses — HB 21, a bill strongly supported by ULLCO for years, has gone to the Governor’s desk. This year’s version of the bill by Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, sponsored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would extend the statute of limitations for victims of sexual harassment to file a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission under the Labor Code to 300 days. SB 2233, which would require lobbyists to undergo training in prevention of sexual harassment, has cleared both the House and Senate but in differing forms, meaning weekend work is ahead.

Last Senate Bill a Good One — The session’s final bill debated initially on the Senate floor, around 3 a.m. Thursday, was SB 133, a much-lauded extension of Medicaid eligibility for women who give birth. The bill would extend Medicaid coverage for those eligible beyond 60 days. The Senate version would stretch the coverage to six months; the House version is one year. The differing versions must be reconciled.

Leave a Message; What a Concept — After millions of Texans spent days or weeks unable to reach the Texas Workforce Commission during the pandemic to file for Unemployment Insurance benefits, lawmakers have approved SB 2099 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, sponsored in the House by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, which would require the Texas Workforce Commission to provide means for callers to leave a message, either by phone or computer, in the event they are not able to reach a commission representative. The bill is now on the Governor’s desk.

Offensive Texas Place Names May Be on Way Out — SCR 29, which aims to get the federal government to approve removal of offensive geographical place names in Texas, is on the Governor’s desk. Passed unanimously in both chambers, the measure by Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, sponsored by Rep. James White, R-Hillister, would remove place names that contain the word “Negro.” Some of those place names contained the N-word until the government made changes in 1963. The Texas Tribune reports the state thought it had taken care of this 30 years ago, but a glitch in communications with the federal government left the names  in place. See: https://bit.ly/3bWpYAq.

Another Win for ‘Buy American’ — SB 783, a ULLCO-backed bill extending a state preference for buying American iron and steel to college and university building projects, made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. The House approved the ULLCO-backed measure by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, sponsored by Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, on a 142-0 vote, matching the unanimity in the Texas Senate. The bill is part of a legislative session in which “Buy American” and “Buy Texan” proposals made new strides in the wake of the pandemic. For example, other bills giving preferences to government purchases of. American flags and voting machines are alive and well.

Next Up — The Legislature will work through Memorial Day weekend to finish the job. Practical deadline for passing bills, absent extraordinary majority votes, is midnight Sunday. The last day of the legislative session on Monday will feature a salute to those who have died in service to the U.S. The ULLCO Sentinel will publish a brief recap next Thursday, then go into hibernation until the Legislature returns.

The Basics

A bill has passed both the House and Senate. Gov. Greg Abbott supports it. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. We are now in a curious legislative period that amounts to a final vetting of bills by the Legislature. If one legislative chamber doesn’t like the way another amended its bill, the Grim Reaper is at the ready.

Okay. What are the mechanisms?

If the House and Senate passed the same bill language, the bill goes straight to the Governor’s desk. Much of the time, if not most of it, an amendment in the second chamber is either worked out with or not opposed by the bill author; it takes one vote in the chamber where the bill originated to accept the amendment and send the bill to the Governor. When an author disagrees with an amendment, he or she will usually (but not always) request a House-Senate conference committee to try to work out differences.

Do all conference committees reach agreement?

No. Sometimes the differences are too great to be resolved in the few days remaining in the legislative session.

What are the deadlines?

On paper, votes accepting amendments or approving conference committee reports can take place until midnight Sunday. But for practical purposes, a conference committee report must be completed much sooner because the report must “lay out” — an advance notice period — for 24 hours. Because of the possibility of a filibuster in the Texas Senate, the most controversial bills may become vulnerable if they do not get reported out of a conference committee by, say, noon Saturday. The clock is ticking loudly as you read this.

Who keeps track of all this?

That’s a leadership job. The “Big Three” — Governor, Lieutenant Governor and House Speaker — will take notice of bills they consider priorities and help steer lawmakers toward agreement on those bills. Other bills can be subject to strange happenings. As Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby used to say about things the Legislature didn’t absolutely have to do, “The rest is poetry.”