Texas lawmakers return to Austin for another session

Jan. 10, 2016

Here are other issues to watch as the 85th session begins:

Women's Health 
Texas legislators have already filed a number of abortion-related bills, including proposals that would require the burial of fetal remains, end insurance coverage for abortion and ban "dismemberment abortions," a procedure anti-abortion advocates say involves removing an unborn baby from the womb limb by limb. The state is in court this month for a final decision on its already existing fetal remains burial rule and for a hearing in a lawsuit over whether it can kick Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. 

Department of Family and Protective Services

Amid continued fallout from a 2015 ruling by a federal judge that Texas' foster care system violated children's constitutional rights, lawmakers in December have already authorized a $150 million infusion for the Department of Family and Protective Services to hire 829 new caseworkers and give $12,000 raises to current staff. And in November, court-appointed special masters released a report recommending an overhaul of CPS work culture, including decreased caseloads and more training and mentorship to help new hires. In addition to funding, lawmakers will have to keep an eye on the ongoing federal court battle.

Hailstorm lawsuit reform

Patrick also has named hailstorm lawsuit reform a top priority, targeting wealthy trial lawyers such as Steve Mostyn who bankroll Democratic campaigns. The influential tort reform group Texans for Lawsuit Reform claims that law firms including Mostyn's prey on hail-ravaged neighborhoods and offer to help residents milk more money from their insurance companies by filing lawsuits in bulk.  

Property tax 

SB 2 would probably bring cheers from homeowners in urban and suburban areas, who have seen their tax bills rise alongside their property values. But cities and school districts are expected to oppose the move, which they see as state lawmakers capping the revenues they need to keep up with everything from road maintenance to police officer and firefighter salary increases. Lowering the threshold for an election could score lawmakers political points from constituents whose annual tax bills keep rising — and since property taxes don't go to the state, the coffers the Legislature is responsible for won't be affected.

Criminal justice

Texans can expect a lot of attention on criminal justice issues to revolve around interactions with law enforcement. Some proposals include making it a hate crime to attack or kill a police officer, requiring schools to teach ninth-graders about how to interact with police and punishing law enforcement agencies that do not properly report officer-involved shootings. Patrick in particular has been outspoken about providing more support to Texas’ law enforcement officials, especially after a shooting last year in Dallas that killed five police officers and wounded seven others. He now wants the state to pay for all officers on patrol to have bulletproof vests that can withstand rounds from rifles.  

Ethics reform

Patrick has listed ethics reform as a top priority for the 85th session, and Abbott has told The Texas Tribune he wants lawmakers to enact "significant reforms into law this year." Abbott fast-tracked consideration of ethics reform two years ago and called on legislators to dedicate that session to the issue — only to see it crash and burn in the waning hours. Proposals this year include increasing transparency of lobbyist wining and dining, denying state pensions to legislator felons and requiring retiring lawmakers to sit out a full session before becoming lobbyists.

Energy and water

State lawmakers will again attempt to pass a bill reforming the Railroad Commission of Texas, the 125-year-old state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry. They have twice now failed to pass such legislation amid objections from the agency’s three elected commissioners — who watchdog groups and consumer advocates believe are too cozy with the oil and gas industry that largely bankrolled their campaigns. That has required the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission of Texas to review the agency repeatedly since 2010. The Sunset commission approved several noncontroversial overhaul recommendations in early November, passing on many changes that staffers had said would improve transparency and environmental oversight. Railroad commissioners and industry largely endorsed the ones they did approve.

With drought mostly in the rearview mirror, no major water legislation is expected, but some lawmakers are seeking significant tweaks to the state’s water planning and permitting processes.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush has said that rallying support for a coastal barrier protection system to guard against monster hurricanes will be among his top legislative priorities. 

Gun rights

Texas took two big steps forward for gun rights last session when lawmakers passed both open carry and campus carry legislation. Some conservative lawmakers are pushing for the state to go even further this session and pass "constitutional carry," which would give all Texans the right to openly carry a firearm — with or without a permit. While Patrick said Monday he does not know whether there is enough support for such a measure, he is prioritizing a bill that would reduce fees for carry licenses.

Border security

The Department of Public Safety wants almost $1 billion to beef up border security, but uncertainty surrounds how much the Trump administration's early moves will impact the need for that money. What's more clear when it comes to border issues heading into this session is that both chambers will take up "sanctuary cities" legislation, though the scope of those bills remains to be seen amid concerns about profiling. And conservative lawmakers will again push to get rid of in-state tuition for undocumented students, but that's another issue where Abbott, Patrick and Straus find themselves in different corners.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This story can be found here: https://www.texastribune.org/2017/01/10/lawmaker-set-return-austin-another-session/


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