14 other issues for the Texas Legislature
After an influx of Central American families and unaccompanied migrant children in 2014 and amid claims that the Obama administration wasn't doing enough to secure the border, the Legislature the next year directed $800 million over two years for border security. Even as President Donald Trump took office in 2017, making border security a centerpiece of his agenda, the Legislature again spent big on border operations conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
DPS, as it seeks another massive outlay for border security this year, likely will be scrutinized for how it measures its success.
The American-Statesman reported in October that the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the effectiveness and efficiency of state agencies, concluded that the border security data DPS shares publicly does “not provide sufficient information to policymakers or the public about the return on investment for border security funds.” According to the commission, border security went from being part of DPS's major responsibilities to its “own distinct mission.”
The conversations this coming legislative session about how to fund border security operations also could be colored by Trump's crusade for a wall along the southern border and his administration's family separations practice in 2018, which came to a head last summer and led to thousands of migrant children being taken away from their parents or guardians and placed in facilities throughout the state and country. Some of those children are still not reunited with their parents.
Austin’s ordinance requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to workers has never taken effect and recently was dealt a potentially fatal blow by the courts, but that doesn’t mean state lawmakers are going to forgo their chance to take a swing at it.
Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has introduced a bill prohibiting such sick-leave ordinances, saying the effort is necessary to ensure cities “can’t even attempt to do that.” Krause said he expects the measure — House Bill 222 — to garner substantial support from conservatives and business groups.
The state’s 3rd Court of Appeals struck down Austin’s ordinance in November, ruling that it counteracts an existing state law barring municipalities from regulating private wages. Austin officials have said they’re reviewing their legal options.
Despite the court decision, Krause said lawmakers must underline for cities around the state that regulating private sick leave oversteps their authority. San Antonio, for instance, approved a similar sick-leave ordinance last summer, although it hasn’t taken effect, and Dallas has flirted with one.
“We want to make sure no business is ever subject to them,” Krause said.
Spurred by the #MeToo movement, several bills have been filed to address sexual assault and harassment, with more to come.
Senate Bill 159 would prohibit companies from enforcing nondisclosure agreements that bar employees from publicly discussing or reporting claims of sexual assault or harassment in the workplace — a situation that has allowed serial harassers and abusers to remain in leadership positions, free to target additional victims.
Another bill would ask voters to approve an amendment to the Texas Constitution to create the Sexual Harassment Oversight Commission, which would create a standard sexual harassment policy for the Legislature and recommend minimum standards to state agencies, investigate harassment complaints and issue “appropriate sanctions” against those who violate the policy.
A third bill would require all Texas lawmakers and staff to attend sexual harassment training.
A potential complication is the aftermath of the rocky confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, with polls showing general Republican disenchantment with the #MeToo movement as a result.
An unsuccessful effort to ban transgender-friendly bathroom policies in public schools and government buildings was among the most controversial endeavors of the 2017 regular and special sessions, spurring several all-night hearings and frequent protests and rallies at the Capitol.
Supporters of the “bathroom bills,” particularly religious and social conservatives, are pressing to renew the fight this year, but it’s unclear whether lawmakers are ready to expend the needed effort during a session with several difficult and time-consuming tasks on hand, including school finance, property taxes and budget issues.
Union dues deductions
Popular with some Republicans, bills to block automatic payroll deductions for some union members are expected to return next session.
Supporters say government should not be involved in collecting dues for certain unions, while opponents — mostly Democrats — say the effort is an attempt to weaken unions, particularly those representing teachers, that oppose some GOP priorities.
Bills to limit collecting union dues for teachers, jailers and Child Protective Services workers — but not police and firefighters — passed the Senate in the past two sessions but were not acted on by the House.
Health insurance will be in the spotlight during the upcoming session after a federal judge struck down the Affordable Care Act, leaving the fate of the law that provides coverage to about 1 million Texans uncertain pending appeal.
Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican and a longtime opponent of the Affordable Care Act, said Texas “will begin the process of reforming state regulations and proposing changes to (state) laws” in the wake of the ruling, with the aim of reducing costs and ensuring people still will have access to health insurance with coverage for preexisting conditions.
“Texas will be ready with replacement health care insurance that includes coverage for preexisting conditions” if the ruling stands, Abbott added in a tweet.
Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, already has filed a bill that would expand eligibility for Medicaid in Texas and codify insurance protections outlined in the Affordable Care Act into state law. In the past, however, Abbott and other Texas Republicans have resisted expansion of Medicaid and derided the Affordable Care Act, so Coleman’s plan may be a nonstarter.
Several conservative Republicans will continue fighting for “constitutional carry,” allowing legal gun owners to carry weapons concealed or in holsters without obtaining a state-issued license to carry.
Democrats will push for a red flag law that would allow family members and law officers to petition a court for the removal of guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
Supporters say the court orders are common-sense public safety measures with built-in checks to avoid abusing the process. Gun rights advocates say such a law would unnecessarily duplicate existing Texas laws and improperly limit the right to bear arms, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has declared red flag bills dead on arrival in the Senate.
More than 36,000 retired teachers and their dependents have dropped out the state health insurance system created for them after lawmakers last session increased premiums and deductibles to avoid a $1 billion budget shortfall.
Faced with a $410 million shortfall next budget cycle, Patrick has alerted the Legislature to try to find a way to put more money into the Teacher Retirement System, which administers pensions and health coverage for retired teachers.
Patrick made the commitment as system officials over the summer were contemplating whether to increase premiums for retirees under the age of 65. Officials backed off on the proposal.
Lawmakers this coming session could restrict lobbying opportunities for recent former members of the Legislature and force local jurisdictions to report lobbying activities.
A bill by Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, would prevent former lawmakers from lobbying until after the end of the second regular legislative session after they cease serving as a lawmaker. Former members who violate the rules would face up to a year in jail, a $4,000 fine or both. Button's bill would not apply to former lawmakers who communicate directly with someone in the legislative or executive branch "on behalf of a nonprofit organization, an individual, a group of low-income individuals or a group of individuals with disabilities" and isn't paid for it.
Another bill, by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, would require a "political subdivision that imposes a tax" or "regional mobility, toll road authority or transit authority" to disclose in financial reports if it used public money to "directly or indirectly influence or attempt to influence" any pending legislation. The entities would be required to document how much was spent and identify lobbyists used to influence or attempt to influence legislation.
Last session, several transparency bills filed or supported by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, passed the Senate but were thwarted in the House by Rep. Gary Elkins, the Republican chairman of the Government Transparency and Operation Committee.
Elkins was defeated in the November election, however, and Watson plans to try again to increase access to government information, including billing records that were blocked by a Texas Supreme Court decision.
A plaque near the Capitol rotunda honoring the Confederacy states that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.” Most historians call that analysis inaccurate.
Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, called in 2017 for the plaque's removal. More than 40 lawmakers have called for its removal, including retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and his presumptive successor, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.
Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a November opinion that the plaque can be removed by the Capitol curator, the State Preservation Board, Texas Historical Commission or by an act of the Legislature.
Abbott, who also said the plaque should be removed, claiming historical inaccuracy, has said it's up to the Legislature to remove it because an act of the Legislature in 1959 authorized its installation. However, in December, Abbott called a Jan. 11 meeting of the Preservation Board, in which the group is expected to take up the issue.
The managed care system, which has resulted in shoddy health coverage for Texans with disabilities, is expected to be scrutinized.
Under managed care, the state hands over the administration of Medicaid services, including decision making on what kinds of services an individual receives, to private insurance companies. The move is meant to save the state money as well as improve the quality of services by spreading the responsibilities to more companies.
Over the summer, the state’s foster care system administrators complained that the insurance companies are requiring extra information to approve services and denying services despite doctors’ orders.
The state's public institutions of higher education are seeking more money for basic operations, financial aid, capital projects and other purposes. Prospects are uncertain given that many lawmakers are emphasizing appropriations for K-12 education.
Other issues likely to be debated include hinging part of universities' basic funding on the number of students who earn degrees, rules regarding free speech on campus, Abbott's fund for recruiting top-flight researchers, streamlining credit-transfer policies for community college students enrolling at universities and the future of Austin's Lions Municipal Golf Course, which sits on land owned by the University of Texas.
Local tree rules
Efforts to loosen environmental regulations, especially those enacted by progressive-minded cities, are a favorite pastime of lawmakers descending on Austin from more conservative parts of the state. In the 2015 legislative session, for example, lawmakers passed a measure overriding the city of Denton's voter-approved ban on hydraulic fracturing, a type of gas drilling.
Lawmakers are likely to make another run at regulations that limit the ability of property owners to cut down large trees on their property. Abbott asked the Legislature to pass a bill during the 2017 special session prohibiting cities from restricting tree removal on private property, but he got instead a watered-down bill that didn't affect most tree ordinances. He signed it anyway.
Some Republicans say such rules trample property rights; leaders in cities such as Austin say the rules have a variety of environmental merits and, besides, that the Legislature should stay out of their business.
Roughly 50 Texas cities have tree protection ordinances, including Austin, Round Rock, Pflugerville, Sunset Valley, Lockhart and West Lake Hills, according to the Texas Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture.