Texas Legislature

What to Watch for As Texas Wraps Up Its Legislative Session

The Senate favors using $4 billion of the new education funding to give teachers and staff a $5,000 raise.
The Senate favors using $4 billion of the new education funding to give teachers and staff a $5,000 raise. Wikicommons
There's a little more than two weeks left in Texas' regular legislative session. Dozens of bills will pass the Texas House and Senate and make their way to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk between now and May 27. But thanks to an annual Texas House deadline, hundreds more died as Thursday night faded into Friday morning. No bills that haven't received an initial sign-off will move any further in the House, but the Legislature's business is far from wrapped up.

Here's what you should be watching as the Legislature hits the homestretch:

1. Marijuana reform — The House passed what would be Texas' biggest marijuana-enforcement reform in decades late last month. But the rest of the session figures to be a bummer for those who support reducing criminal penalties for pot possession or comprehensive changes to Texas' medical marijuana policy. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who controls the state Senate's agenda — declared the House's plan to decrease pot possession from a B to C misdemeanor dead on arrival in the Senate.

While Patrick has expressed reticence to sign off on anything he views as a step toward marijuana legalization, there's a chance the Senate could move on two House bills that would expand Texas' compassionate use program to more state residents. Passed in 2015, the program allows those with intractable epilepsy access to low-THC CBD oil. The House bills would allow patients with a wider range of ailments, including muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer's and post-traumatic stress disorder, access to the oils.

2. Abortion rights — While the toughest anti-abortion measures on offer in the House died Thursday, both the House and Senate have passed a so-called "born alive" bill, which would create civil and criminal penalties for doctors who fail to care for babies born after attempted abortions.

While Patrick claims the bills are intended to stop "infanticide," the Texas Department of Health and Human Services says no live births following abortion were reported in Texas from 2013 to 2016, the last year for which complete records are available. If such a birth were to occur — an event that is especially unlikely, given that Texas already bans abortions from being performed more than 20 weeks after conception, in most cases — both state and federal laws provide protections for the person being born.

Once a conference committee irons out the small differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, it will go to Abbott's desk. Abbott is expected to sign it.

Two other abortion bills, one that would ban abortions of non-viable fetuses occurring more than 20 weeks after conception and another that would prohibit municipalities from partnering with abortion providers, even if the partnership has nothing to do with abortion, have already passed the Senate as well.

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The Texas Legislature is getting close to a school finance compromise.
manopjk / iStock
3. School financing — Both the House and Senate have passed versions of House Bill 3, which addresses Texas' school finance crisis, one of the biggest priorities for Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Patrick and Abbott this session.

The bills are similar, but there are several significant differences to be ironed out in committee. The Senate version calls for a $5,000 raise for all Texas public school teachers and counselors, while the House version calls for a $1,388 average raise to be given to all school employees, with additional money to be given to school districts to pay bonuses at their discretion.

One thing that's seemingly no longer on the table is raising Texas' sales tax to help pay for the proposed raises and increase in per student funding. Last week, Democrats united in the House to force Republicans to stop any debate over a potential sales tax hike until 2021.

4. State income tax — Plano Republican Rep. Jeff Leach's proposal for a state constitutional amendment banning any potential state income tax sneaked in under the House wire Thursday night. If it gets a two-thirds vote in the Senate, Texas voters will get to decide whether it should go on the books in November.

5. Drivers Responsibility Program and red light cameras — Two things hated by drivers across Texas, the Drivers Responsibility Program and red light cameras, are on the chopping block thanks to the House. With approval from the Senate and Abbott, cities would be allowed to ride out their current red light camera contracts but wouldn't be able to enter into new ones. The Drivers Responsibility Program — which imposes surcharges on those drivers who do things like driving without a licence or driving under the influence, leading to millions of Texans being unable to renew their licenses — would die a quicker death, taking all the fines and fees Texans owe because of the program along with it. 
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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