Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | December 21, 2016
Jan. 10 marks the start of the 85th legislative session in Texas, but hundreds of bills have already been filed, and many are quickly making headlines. Among them: a bill doubling down on a controversial state rule that would force health facilities that provide abortions to bury or cremate fetal remains, which is already the subject of a lawsuit.
How early a bill is filed has nothing to do with its success later on, and in fact, early bill filing is often ripe with symbolic gestures and not necessarily a ton of substance. The regular legislative session will likely take up thorny issues like property taxes and education funding, but you might also see some of these items below. With a few exceptions, lawmakers must introduce their bills within the first 60 days of the legislative session, meaning there’s a March 10, 2017 deadline.
In Texas, early bill filing began in November, and lawmakers were quick to add their names to high-profile causes. But only a few will actually make it through committee, get votes from both chambers, and end up on the Governor’s desk. You remember the Schoolhouse Rock song, right? That applied to Congress, but it’s pretty much how things work in the state legislature too.
Here’s a look at some of the most interesting bills singing that tune in Austin.
From pre-K to higher-ed, there are several noteworthy items filed so far, including a bill that would make textbooks tax-free for college students during parts of August and January (Senate Bill 48), and one that would put a cap on tuition costs for public colleges in the state (House Bill 112). According to the Texas Tribune, though, tuition caps could face resistance in the legislature. “Bills in the 2015 session to re-regulate tuition costs were unsuccessful,” the publication reported. “Universities oppose tuition regulation, in part because state funding now covers a smaller share of their budgets.”
A bill for universal pre-kindergarten looks to expand on a pilot, grant-based program started last session that got off to a lackluster start when the actual grants school districts received were well below levels that had been promised (Senate Bill 35). And Texas could finally do away with corporal punishment in schools, which is still legal and used in a large number of districts across the state (House Bill 166). Previous efforts to do away with corporal punishment failed, and instead parents were given the option to sign a waiver to exempt their child on an individual basis in districts where corporal punishment is still used.
Texas has earned a reputation as a death penalty-loving state. But, as use of the punishment dips nationally, Texas has also seen a decline in the number of executions in recent years. Meanwhile, in the state’s largest city, public support for the death penalty (tracked in the Kinder Houston Area Survey) has dropped over the years as well. Now, a bill looks to take it off the table completely (House Bill 64).
The “ban the box” effort is giving it another go in the legislature with House Bill 548. Earlier this year, Austin prohibited private employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications, delaying the question for later in the interview process.
And keep your eyes on House Bill 418, which looks to, “in consultation with interested parties,” establish “reasonable rules” for the transportation of inmates by private companies. It follows a recent investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project into private prisoner transportation companies revealed “a pattern of prisoner abuse and neglect in an industry that operates with almost no oversight.”
There are also several items relating to marijuana that have been filed, including a joint resolution (no pun intended) to put the decision to legalize marijuana on the ballot. One bill would decriminalize its use and possession up to an ounce (House Bill 81) and another would create a special court, or a “first chance intervention program,” for first-time offenders (House Bill 58).
Gender and Sexual Orientation
There are several bills meant to address discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A bill would repeal a state law still on the books that makes “homosexual conduct” a crime (House Bill 96). Though the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Lawrence vs. Texas deemed the state’s sodomy law unconstitutional, it’s still on the books.
Lawmakers are taking another swing at adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of things employers cannot discriminate against (House Bill 225). On the flip side, Senate Bill 92 would look to overturn any local non-discrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation and gender identity or anything else not specified in state law. Even though Houston’s own efforts to pass such an ordinance failed recently, there was still broad public support in surveys, and several other Texas cities have passed them. Another bill would require equal pay for equal work regardless of sex and would do away with job application questions about wage history (House Bill 290).
After the state’s voter ID law was struck down as discriminatory and a last-minute deal was reached to allow people to vote without a photo ID in November, voting remains a hot issue in Texas. One bill looks to allow voters to apply online to vote by mail (House Bill 48). Another wants to create a voter education program for high school seniors that would cover everything from early voting to how to find the right polling place and would also help eligible students register to vote (House Bill 266). And the state could look into a single uniform voting day in November if a bill authorizing a study into how that might affect voter turnout and costs gets approved (House Bill 365).
A couple bills have been filed to ban texting while driving (House Bill 62, Senate Bill 31), but as the Texas Tribune points out: “Similar texting-while-driving bans have routinely failed at the Capitol, including once being vetoed by former Gov. Rick Perry in 2011.” And Austin could be in a show-down with the state if a bill that seeks to take away local governments’ ability to regulate companies like Uber and Lyft as well as taxi companies gets through (Senate Bill 113).
Several minimum wage bills have failed to make it into law in recent years, but it’s getting another go this session with a bill that would raise the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour, or more if the federal minimum wage — currently at $7.25 — ever gets higher than that (House Bill 285). That would be big news in a state with hundreds of thousands of workers are earning the federal minimum wage.
Other legislation would entitle some parent and grandparents who work as non-exempt employees to “certain leave to participate in academic, disciplinary, and other activities of a child or grandchild” (Senate Bill 19), but employers could require that they use vacation or sick time to take that leave. There are exceptions for businesses for whom an employee’s leave would cause “undue hardship.”
When it comes to taxes, there are a handful of bipartisan bills looking to make tampons tax-exempt, including House Bill 410, and, if approved, Texas would be the first state in the South to do so, according to the Texas Tribune. Another bill would also make child and adult diapers tax exempt (House Bill 221).
Several bills take aim at the state’s property tax system, including one that would lower the annual amount by which a local government could increase residents’ property tax rate before requiring a vote from residents from 8 percent to 4 percent (Senate Bill 2).
At the neighborhood level, House Bill 164 would establish the Texas Grocery Access Investment Fund, a statewide fund to help provide for the construction and rehabilitation of grocery stores in low- and moderate-income areas.
And just for fun…
Juneteenth and Labor Day could be added to the list of holidays around which businesses can sell fireworks, thanks to a couple of bills in the House (House Bill 41, House Bill 554). Last session, the legislature approved additional sale days for Texas Independence Day, San Jacinto Day and Memorial Day, it but left it up to the counties to decide if they wanted to take advantage of them or not.