On to the home stretch

Dear Friend:

It was Easter last week, and Passover until tomorrow; it is a special time of year. Many of us observe at church or synagogue and at home; students enjoy a few well-deserved days of rest; and families come together. We have a chance to gather our energy, which we’ll need for the next several weeks to finish the work of nurturing and growing the seeds we planted coming out of winter and into spring. Summer is coming.

The 85th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature is no different. We began Jan. 10, and we’ve been at work since. Beginning today, we have six weeks left, after which the session will end with a set of laws that will govern Texas for the next two years.

Most of the laws will be to adjust what needs adjusting in the existing mechanics of governance, and some will be to address new or evolving issues.

Nothing has passed both chambers, and it takes that, plus the Governor’s approval, for a bill to become law. Further, if there are outstanding issues upon which the House and Senate cannot agree, and they are pressing enough, the Governor could call a Special Session.

By the numbers

As of last Thursday (April 12, 2017), 6,741 bills and joint resolutions were filed in the House, which has 150 members, and the Senate, which has 31, for the 85th Legislative Session. That number increases to 6,889 if we include concurrent resolutions, which some times can generate the same amount of debate as a bill.

Things picked up quite a bit in March, and they won’t slow down. As the committee action continues, more and more bills will be on the floor of the respective Chambers.

The House had 175 committee meetings in March, and 99 so far in April (give or take a couple in each month). There are 32 committee meetings scheduled for next week. The Senate had 87 meetings (give or take a couple); in April, the number so far is 34, with 13 coming up this week.

It’s not only the number of committee meetings that picks up in March and April. It’s also the number of bills heard at each meeting, which means that lawmakers not only are busier with their own committees, but more of their bills are being heard by other committees.

We already have put in, cumulatively, thousands of hours, and there is a lot of work to complete in the last six weeks of this session!

By the issues

The committees that meet most, especially in the early part of the session, are Appropriations in the House and Finance in the Senate. That is because crafting a budget is the major responsibility of the Legislature.

This session, the state budget is less than bare bones. We have the means but not the will to fund education and health care, but we choose instead to cut taxes and expand the state police on the border based on the false pretense of a public safety crisis emanating from communities like mine, which is among the safest in the country.

Part and parcel of that misplaced priority is yet another round of attacks on immigrants and immigrant communities – forcing local police to take part in complex immigration law decisions that hamper due process rights, all under the guise of “public safety” despite the fact that most police chiefs don’t want this role forced upon them because it is counterproductive to their successful policing strategies.

We have spent inordinate time on divisive social issues, such as figuring out how to police bathrooms, based on disapproval of transgendered men, women, and even children; the Senate has passed a bill that allows public employees – county clerks – who don’t approve of gay marriage to pass off their job duties to someone else.

The Senate also has targeted teacher unions by voting to eliminate automatic dues deductions even though it’s available to many other unions and for many other purposes, women’s health by continuing to get between doctors and patients when it comes to personal decisions involving abortion, and low-income voters by assigning a felony charge to mistakes made on a type of voter form. It has voted to put public school money into private schools that have little accountability and get to pick and choose their students.

Texas is a great state. We want it to be great for everyone. Cutting our commitments to the future residents and workers of the state, making public policy based on prejudices and fears, and targeting certain groups for discrimination – whether it’s allowing public workers not to do their jobs or not allowing others to continue a practice of paycheck deductions – diminishes us.

Bills heard last week

I filed SB 473, which was heard in committee Tuesday, as a simple and fair proposal to keep Texas construction workers safe. The bill would require all construction workers in the state to be provided a 15-minute rest break for every four hours of work. A 2013 study by Workers Defense Project, in collaboration with UT Austin, found that 41 percent of construction workers surveyed do not receive such rest breaks. With Texas’ tremendous summer heat, denying regular breaks can be deadly. In fiscal year 2016 alone, at least four Texas workers died on the job due to heat-related illnesses.

Also heard in committee Tuesday was SB 568, which requires the Texas Railroad Commission of Texas to publicly post information about oil spills. SB 568 would require the RRC develop a searchable internet database where the public can search for violations, inspection reports, enforcement actions, and complaints. In 2016, Sunset Commission staff reported extensively on the RRC’s challenges with data collection, concluding that nearly 40,000 actionable spills were not referred for enforcement. The Senate budget gives the RRC more than $3 million for upgrading its information technology for this purpose. Surely with these upgrades forthcoming, the RRC can also provide inspection and enforcement information online to the public.

On Wednesday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee heard SB 919, which I filed to allow advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants to sign death certificates for their patients, removing significant delays for patients’ families during an emotionally difficult time.

Also last week, I offered an amendment on SB 522, which allows county clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, to ensure any cost for hiring an outside certifying official comes from the county clerk’s pay, so taxpayers don’t pay twice for work the clerk should have done. Kathy Miller, of Texas Freedom Network, described the bill this way in a news article: “The Texas Senate today said it has no problem with public officials picking and choosing which taxpayers they will serve. This bill opens the door to taxpayer-funded discrimination against virtually anyone who doesn’t meet a public official’s personal moral standards.”

As said before, there are six weeks left in session. But it is in the next three weeks that bills will really have a chance to live or die. And I have to add one caveat to the legislative calendar – it ends in six weeks only if there is no Special Session, which can be called by the Governor if there is unfinished business of significance.

As always, I encourage your letters, emails, and phone calls. You can contact my office by clicking here.


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