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:
After several hours of debate on the floor, the Texas House passed legislation that would allow almost anyone to carry handguns without a permit. House Bill 1927, authored by Tyler Republican Matt Schaefer, would permit all Texans over the age of 21 to carry a handgun—openly or concealed—so long as they are not otherwise prohibited from doing so under current state or federal law. While the bill would exempt members of a “criminal street gang,” Republicans voted down Democrats’ amendments that would also ban domestic terrorists and white supremacists from carrying unlicensed handguns. The controversial measure—known as “constitutional carry” among gun-rights advocates—passed on a 84-56 vote Thursday.
The House passage of permitless carry comes less than one week after a mass shooting in Bryan that killed one person and wounded five, the latest mass shooting in a state where mass gun violence has been increasingly common.
Despite its reputation as a haven for gun owners, Texas lawmakers have long hesitated to embrace constitutional carry legislation, which has faced staunch opposition from gun-control groups and raised concerns from law enforcement officials.
But that changed this session, which gun advocates see as their best shot at getting the bill passed. Notably, the new House Speaker, Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, is seen by gun advocates as a stronger Second Amendment proponent than past House leaders. While similar measures have been proposed in previous sessions, this is the first time that a constitutional carry bill has reached the House floor for a vote and passed.
It’s still not clear whether the bill will pass, or even get a vote, in the Texas Senate. But Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has been pushing hard for more expansive gun-rights legislation this session, despite saying in the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa that he would support strengthening background check requirements for gun purchases.
Patrick has sounded hesitant about permitless carry in the past, echoing police concerns. “I think with all the police violence today we have in our state … law enforcement does not like the idea of anyone being able to walk down the street with a gun and they don’t know if they have a permit or not,” he said in 2017.
GOP Attacks on Trans Texans
Texas Republicans continued their relentless attacks on the rights of trans people in the Lone Star State, with the Texas Senate passing a bill Thursday that would ban transgender students from competing on school sports teams based on their gender identity. As the Texas Tribune reported, the measure would prohibit students from playing on a sports team that is “designated for the biological sex opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth” and would require students to prove their “biological sex” by showing their birth certificate.
House and Senate committees also heard testimony on a number of other anti-trans bills, including House Bill 1399, which would discourage doctors from covering transition-related healthcare by prohibiting professional liability insurance, and Senate Bill 1646, which would place administering or supplying transition-related health care under the statutory definition of “child abuse.”
This is the latest iteration of the GOP’s anti-trans crusade, having moved on from the bathroom bill battles of 2017 that stoked massive public backlash. At least 20 other state legislatures are considering similar legislation that targets transgender students.
What We’re Reading:
“The White House cites Texas’ deadly power outages as a key selling point for a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, leaving a clear—but potentially misleading—implication that Texas would get the billions needed to avert such catastrophes in the future. … But the plan doesn’t specify any funds for the Texas grid.” / Dallas Morning News
The casino giant Las Vegas Sands is preparing to spend millions on a TV and radio ad blitz aimed at raising public pressure on legislators to approve a constitutional amendment that would create a limited number of “destination resorts” with casinos in Texas. This is the latest phase of the company’s heavy-handed campaign to legalize gambling in the state. / Texas Tribune
The Texas Legislature wants the state agency handling federal rent relief distribution to figure out how to halt eviction proceedings while it also works through a backlog of requested relief payments. The call comes after a House committee report found that the agency had issued just 1 percent of the state’s billion-dollar rent relief fund. / Dallas Morning News
Next March’s primary elections could be pushed back to April or May, thanks to the delayed release of Census data that in turn is creating significant delays in the redistricting process. / Houston Chronicle
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.
Since he removed all statewide COVID-19 restrictions last month, Governor Greg Abbott has been touting the state’s vaccination efforts. This is despite the fact that Texas still lags behind most states on most vaccination metrics; just 20 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, the sixth worst rate in the country. In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, he pointed to the vaccination rates among older Texans in particular: “When you look at the senior population, for example, more than 70 percent of our seniors have received a vaccine shot, more than 50 percent of those who are 50 to 65 have received a vaccine shot.”
Wallace asked Abbott why the state’s COVID-19 case counts, hospitalization rates, and death rates have been lower than other states—even after Texas threw open the gates. Abbott responded by saying that Texas may be on the verge of herd immunity for the coronavirus—which public health experts have estimated will require immunity in 70 to 90 percent of the population—while also acknowledging he does not know what it means. “I don’t know what herd immunity is, but when you add that to the people who have acquired immunity, it looks like it could be very close to herd immunity.”
Abbott’s divorced-from-reality interview drew criticism from public health officials, including University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who told the New York Times: “There is no way on God’s green earth that Texas is anywhere even close to herd immunity.”