Matthew Busch

The Lege This Week: For Whom the Bill Tolls

The Texas House reached a critical deadline in rather anticlimactic fashion as dozens of bills hit the killing floor. But Republicans have already got most of what they wanted this session.

by

Welcome to the 87th Legislative Session. Since the last session came to a close in June 2019, Texas has been hit by an unrestrained pandemic and a crippling economic crisis—and now the fallout from deadly blackouts. Under unprecedented circumstances, lawmakers are faced with a number of urgent challenges. The Texas Observer is following along every step of the way. 

Go here for last week’s dispatch from the state Capitol.

What We’re Following:

Last Call in the Texas House

Dozens of bills met their maker last night when the clock struck midnight, the deadline for consideration of House bills for the 2021 session. In past sessions, the final push to vote on bills has been highly contentious, especially when Democratic legislators have tried to delay the proceedings in order to kill certain GOP priorities. However, there were little fireworks this session. 

That’s largely because Republicans already secured most of their top priorities, passing a range of bills that restrict voting access, create a near-total ban on abortions, and punish cities that cut their police budgets, among a slate of other measures. The GOP’s legislation to allow the permitless carry of handguns is being ironed out by House and Senate leaders behind closed doors and is likely headed to Governor Abbott’s desk. 

One conservative priority that died was House Bill 1399, which would have banned trans kids from receiving gender-affirming health care. However, LGBTQ advocates aren’t celebrating yet, since there’s still a chance that similar Senate legislation could pass both chambers and become law. Another measure that died Thursday night was House Bill 1171, which would have allowed judges to appoint an attorney to represent fetuses in abortion cases. On the other side of the aisle, top Democratic priorities also withered, including hopes of Medicaid expansion, an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program, key components of the George Floyd Act, a package of policing reforms, as well as a slew of proposals to reform the state’s electrical grid and enhance energy efficiency. 

Less than an hour before midnight, the House approved a bipartisan bill known as “Bo’s Law,” named for Botham Jean, who was killed in his own home by an off-duty Dallas police officer, who was later convicted of murder. The bill sets new standards for when body cams can be turned off during investigations, clarifies the state’s “Castle Doctrine,” and eliminates the “mistake of fact” legal defense, which the officer used when she claimed that she believed she had entered her own apartment. The House also advanced legislation that would require all Texas prisons to be air-conditioned within the next seven years; currently 70 percent of the state’s prison facilities do not have air conditioning. Still, the state prison agency doesn’t have to follow the law unless the Legislature specifically allocates funds to pay for the cooling, which it hasn’t done yet. The measure now moves on to the Senate. —Justin Miller

Renter Reforms? 

Eviction was a crisis in Texas long before COVID-19 arrived and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, forcing them to choose between paying rent and buying food. Before the pandemic, in 2019, Texas landlords filed for eviction roughly 260,000 times, according to data from the state’s Office of Court Administration. About 82,000 of those evictions—or roughly one-third of them—were dismissed.

“Those eviction filings will follow them for years,” said state Representative Armando Walle, a Houston Democrat, as he introduced House Bill 1647 in March. The bill would seal evictions filed during the pandemic that didn’t result in a judgment against the tenant. 

When someone applies for an apartment, a landlord will usually run a background check through a tenant screening company, which provides a detailed report about a renter’s history, including past evictions. But as the Observer has previously reported, many landlords don’t distinguish between an eviction filing and an eviction judgment. That means that if someone was unable to pay rent because of COVID-19 but was able to access rental assistance before being evicted, they might still be denied future housing based on the filing.

Despite federal protections, landlords have continued to file for eviction throughout the pandemic. In Harris County alone, 30,000 evictions have been filed since March 2020. The Eviction Diversion Program already requires the local officials who oversee eviction proceedings to make all case information confidential when landlords and tenants agree to participate in the program, which provides up to a year of past due rent to landlords who agree to participate. But it’s unclear whether that’s actually been happening, says Christina Rosales, deputy director at Texas Housers, an affordable housing advocacy organization. HB 1647 would protect the more than 68,000 households who had their eviction cases dismissed or abated in 2020. 

More than double the number of tenant’s rights bills have been filed this session than in average sessions, Rosales says. “The pandemic has magnified housing insecurity and housing inequality in Texas, and it’s opened the door for us to have a conversation about solutions,” she says. “Tenant protections are a major solution to helping people hang on to housing and stay secure and stable in their housing.”

Yet, for all the new pro-tenant legislation this session, only Walle’s bill looks to have even a slight chance. The House passed the measure late last month, though it has yet to be assigned to a Senate committee. Megan Kimble

 

What We’re Reading:

Governor Greg Abbott  Sam DeGrave

Texas House OKs bill that would curb the governor and local leaders’ power in a pandemic

After Governor Greg Abbott solely reigned over the state for the first year of the pandemic, the GOP-controlled House voted Tuesday to curb the governor’s power during a pandemic and to limit both state and local leaders’ ability to close businesses and mandate face coverings. / Dallas Morning News 

Push to bring casinos to Texas appears headed for defeat this session despite high-profile campaign

A high-profile push by the gaming empire Las Vegas Sands to bring casinos to Texas appears doomed at the state Capitol as this year’s legislative session begins to wind down. / Texas Tribune 

Facing questions after 2021 power crisis, Texas natural gas industry opposes new protective measures

The gas industry’s main lobbying force, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, has been aiming to blunt protective measures in the Legislature that might include wells and pipelines statewide, along with power plants and related infrastructure, in potential new winterization regulations. So far, the industry has succeeded. / Austin American-Statesman 

Medicaid expansion for uninsured Texans had bipartisan support, but lawmakers won’t pass it this session

Nothing is truly dead until the session ends. But committee chairs in both chambers have blocked bills from getting hearings, and supporters have dim hopes that Republican leaders will revive it in time. / Texas Tribune


All Hat, No Cattle

The Texas Legislature is known for its outlandish members, ludicrous antics, and right-wing flare-ups. Here’s your weekly dose.

Republicans may have all the power, but by no means do they have a monopoly on outlandish—and downright vindictive—behavior. Last Thursday night, Houston Democrat and chair of the Public Education Committee, Harold Dutton, brought a bill to the floor that would give the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) the explicit authority to take over school districts that have failed to meet state accountability standards. This controversial measure has been a top priority for Dutton this session, but it’s drawn staunch opposition from his fellow Democrats, who united to help vote down the bill. 

Dutton, one of the longest-serving members in the chamber, was furious and sought retribution. According to the Texas Tribune, Dutton walked to the back of the chamber and reportedly told Alma Allen, a fellow Houston Democrat who opposed the bill, that “because of what you did, SB 29 is coming back up.”

Dutton was referring to a bill passed by the Senate that would restrict transgender students from competing in school sports—one of the many GOP bills attacking transgender Texans. The Public Education Committee chair had helped block the measure from passing out of his committee earlier that week. On Friday morning, Dutton made good on his threat when he brought up Senate Bill 29 during the committee meeting and joined seven Republicans in voting the measure out. “The bill that was killed last night affected far more children than this bill ever will. So as a consequence, the chair moves that Senate Bill 29 as substituted be reported favorably to the full House with the recommendation that it do pass,” he said. His fellow Democrats and LGBTQ advocates have forcefully condemned Dutton. 

In Texas, it seems using vulnerable people as political pawns is a bipartisan affair.—Justin Miller