What to Brace for as Texas Embarks on Another Season of Legislative Lunacy

by and


Texas is so ‘meh’ about governing that state lawmakers here only meet for 140 days of breakneck-speed legislatin’ — every other year.

Which means that when the 181 voting members of the Texas Legislature gather this week, things could get real weird real fast. Like on the very first day of the 2015 session, when die-hard Second Amendment buffs spilled into one Democrat lawmaker’s office, argued with him over his resistance to “constitutional carry” (the open carrying of firearms in public without even obtaining a license, an issue lawmakers are trying to revive this session), and refused to leave, triggering a new panic-button policy for lawmakers’ capitol offices.

Regardless of whether lawmakers kick things off with a similar bang this year, in some ways the 2017 legislature already looks like it could be a repeat of last session, when lawmakers cut millions from therapy services for poor and disabled kids, passed even more abortion restrictions, implemented billions in tax cuts, and put guns in public college and university classrooms.

That’s because, even though the state has less money to work with this time around (thanks to a decline in oil and gas markets, about $4 billion short of what experts say the state needs to maintain current services and keep up with the state's population growth), the power dynamics under the pink-hued dome of the state capitol building haven’t really changed much since 2015. On the eve of this year’s session, Gov. Greg Abbott (still, relatively speaking, a legislative newbie) has played the part of quiet-but-determined right-wing ideologue – one who seems most concerned with his long-shot idea (and, just so happens, his corresponding book) calling for a constitutional convention so states can seize power from a federal government “run amok.”

And while the Texas Senate was traditionally the more deliberative of state’s two legislative bodies, that changed last session once Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick seized the reins and suspended chamber’s longstanding rule that two-thirds of senators have to approve a bill for floor debate — a rule that had for years kept a bunch of right-wing crazy from bubbling to the surface. Ahead of this year’s session, Patrick has already announced a series of legislative priorities that call for, among other things, cracking down on “sanctuary cities,” nullifying local equal rights ordinances and passing even more abortion restrictions.

Meanwhile, San Antonio Republican Joe Straus seems to be sitting pretty for yet another round in the House Speaker’s chair, where he’ll likely continue to face more opposition from the hardliners within his own party than from lawmakers across the aisle, almost like a Tea Party gatekeeper.

Straus’ priorities for the session? Who can say. During a Texas Tribune symposium previewing the legislative session late last year, Straus was asked which state-funded services might face cuts, where he stood on the growing debate over so-called “sanctuary cities,” and whether he’d try to block Patrick’s anti-trans bill from moving through the House. His answers ranged from the super-assuring “we’ll see” to some awkward joke about House members birthing bills that die on the House floor being the reason the chamber got new carpet last year (ew).

As for lawmakers’ decision to slash millions in funding for in-home therapy for poor, disabled children last year, Straus at least conceded that “maybe” that was a mistake. Whether they embark upon more “maybe” mistakes in a more tightfisted session is something budget hawks, progressives and advocacy groups will be earnestly watching.

And so to kick off the session this week, we’ve rounded up some of the dominant, weird, and remarkably awful issues we’ve got our eye on at the start of this year’s legislative shitshow. — Michael Barajas


“Texas Transgender Oppression Act”

Last week, Lieutenant Gov. Patrick began his press conference introducing a bill that would segregate transgender people from the general public by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter.”

Neither Patrick nor GOP state Sen. Louis Kolkhorst, who’s decided to carry Patrick’s legislative priority through the Texas Senate, mentioned upfront the community that would be targeted by their bill: transgender people. Rather, they’ve decided to market Senate Bill 6 as the “Privacy Protection Act.”

State media have settled on the equally obnoxious “Bathroom Bill,” while equal rights activists and trans bloggers, like Houston’s Monica Roberts, have bluntly called it the “Texas Transgender Oppression Act.” That’s because the legislation would ban transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity in public buildings (libraries, schools, city offices, etc.). Private businesses could decide on their own whether to refuse bathroom access to a trans customer because of their gender identity.

That’s not all. It appears SB 6 would also nullify trans protections in local equal rights ordinances that cities, like San Antonio, have enacted to protect the community from discrimination. While Patrick and Kolkhorst say the bill is about “privacy,” both said the inspiration and model for SB 6 came from the successful local repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) last year, when religious-right conservatives drummed up unfounded fears over bathroom privacy in order to sway voters. In fact, upon announcing the bill, Patrick echoed the anti-HERO rallying cry (“No Men in Women’s Restrooms”) when he said, “This bill stops local cities from passing policies that allow men in ladies’ rooms.”

Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, called the filing of SB 6 “simply unacceptable,” saying, “As folks get to know transgender Texans, you’ll find that they care about privacy and safety just like everyone else, and simply want to be able to go to school, work, out to dinner, and provide for their families.”

The bill’s many opponents include trans advocates, civil rights lawyers and business owners who fear the bill could scare business away from the state. One Texas business advocacy group estimates the state could lose out on $8 billion a year if the bill passes. San Antonio business owners are particularly worried about the NCAA pulling the 2018 Men's Final Four out of San Antonio should Patrick’s bill pass — something the NCAA did to North Carolina after the state passed a similar anti-trans bill last year. Studies have estimated that North Carolina has already lost nearly $400 million in business revenue and 1,000 jobs since the law went into place.

Patrick’s response? All of those concerns and questions over SB 6, what restrictions it would place on the state’s transgender community, and how it could impact the Texas economy? It’s actually just “fake news.” — Alex Zielinski


The Family That Stays Together…

Texas State Rep. Matt Krause says he isn’t trying to deter divorce. He’s only filing bills to make divorce more expensive, more time-consuming, and much more complicated to get in Texas.

The Fort Worth Republican has already filed two divorce-related bills for the session: One that more than doubles the amount of time a couple must wait to finalize a divorce, and another to repeal a person’s right to divorce for non-criminal reasons. Krause said he filed these bills in hopes of giving children a better future — and preserving the sanctity of marriage. Apparently lost on Krause, and what domestic violence prevention workers fear, is that taking away Texans’ freedom to divorce without cause could actually worsen a child’s wellbeing, lock abused spouses into violent relationships, and essentially make divorce a privilege of the wealthy.

This all stems from Krause’s dislike for “no fault” divorces — ones that are simply rooted in a couple’s unresolvable differences. Such “no fault” divorces have only been legal in Texas since 1970; up until then, a person had to prove in court that their spouse was “at fault,” meaning they were either cruel, adulterous, a felon, had intentionally abandoned them, moved away, or lived in a mental hospital. 

After such laws swept the country in the 70s, social scientists found that states who allowed “no fault” divorce laws saw a 8-16 percent decline in female suicide, a 30 percent decline in domestic violence for both men and women, and a 10 percent decline in women murdered by their partners. As marriage rates declined in America, so did the rates domestic abuse. Krause’s bills could unravel this work, and endanger the children he’s hoping to protect.

“Living in an abusive home, even if it’s just two or three years, can do irreparable damage to a child,” said Patricia Castillo, director of the local nonprofit PEACE Initiative, a domestic violence awareness organization. “So many of those kids end up in our state’s foster care system, juvenile justice system, or homeless.”

And few victims of domestic violence actually report their abuser to law enforcement — or even a close friend — out of denial or fear of retaliation. According to Marta Pelaez, president of San Antonio’s Family Violence Prevention Services, an abuse victim’s risk of harm is actually greatest when the victim decides to leave or get a divorce. Plus, Pelaez told the Current, if a spouse is being abused by their partner, it’s likely that their child is being abused, too. Krause said he doesn’t want to endanger victims, but he’s “not sure” what he can do to protect them. 

Another unknown is what Krause’s bills might do to low-income people seeking a divorce. In most cases, no fault divorces are far less expensive than fault divorces. Again, Krause told the Current he hasn’t put much thought into resolving this inequity. 

If Krause gets his way this year (bills like his have failed in previous sessions), Texas would be the first state to repeal no fault divorce. — AZ


Ahead of the session, a pair of San Antonio politicians vowed to crack down on the universally agreed-upon menace of cyberbullying with a new state law. But with a major focus on incarceration, and the potential to violate free speech rights, some children’s advocacy groups say the bill could do kids more harm than good.

“David’s Law,” filed by local Democratic lawmakers   and Rep. Ina Minjarez, is named after David Molak, a 16-year-old San Antonian who took his own life last year after months of relentless cyberbullying. It’s not just that the law would make it illegal to “electronically harass or bully” anyone under the age 18 — but in order to find the culprits, the law would direct school districts to collaborate with law enforcement to investigate off-campus cyberbullying, giving police the subpoena power to unveil anonymous social media bullies.

Menendez told us that currently, law enforcement doesn’t have the tools to do anything about cyberbullying — and schools are hesitant to interfere. “I don’t feel it’s right for school districts to wash their hands of this problem just because it didn’t happen on school grounds,” Menendez said. “They should help parents and law enforcement get to the bottom of these incidents.” That may include hiring a staff member whose specific job is monitoring (and understanding) social media platforms. Menendez says he also wants districts to install a hotline for students or parents to anonymously report bullying. Law enforcement would then investigate further. 

But Will Francis, the government relations director for Texas’ National Association of Social Workers, doesn’t necessarily think schools should be working so closely with the police. Instead, he said, the bill should focus on improving mental health resources in schools to address bullying before it becomes criminal. “My concern is that we’ll just be sticking more kids with felonies,” said Francis, who says he’s been advising Menendez on the bill’s focus. “I worry we’ll see more schools in poorer, non-white areas using hard and fast punitive criminal justice as a solution.” 

Which is already a problem. There’s currently about one campus police officer for every 250 public school students in Texas — but one school counselor for every 470 students. Francis said that expanding the number of school counselors and other mental health staffers on campus could help victims of bullying, and their bullies, without having to get law enforcement involved.

Meanwhile David Greene, a senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says law enforcement would be violating students’ First Amendment rights if they arrest kids for what they write about online. “We believe — and most courts agree — that schools are very limited when it comes to punishing off-campus student speech,” Greene said. Schools are free to investigate online bullying to determine how or if it bleeds onto campus, he added, but prosecuting or disciplining a kid for bullying speech online is a whole different matter. — AZ

No Sanctuary

The supposed threat posed by so-called “sanctuary cities” is one of those zombie issues that seems to come back from the dead each time politicians head back to Austin for their biennial Lege Fest.

This year’s iteration is once again filed by state Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, and premised on the confused notion that, in the state’s left-leaning urban areas, law enforcement officials are openly thumbing their nose at federal immigration law.

Sure, police in major metros across the state, including San Antonio, have implemented what have in the past been called “sanctuary cities” policies by people like Perry. But that's because the term, as it’s been thrown around by politicians like Gov. Greg Abbott, has been wiggly and ill-defined. While Abbott told Fox News late last year that he’s “used my powers as governor of Texas to withhold funds to cities or counties that are declaring themselves to be sanctuary cities,” Abbott’s office later clarified that it hasn’t actually blocked any state funds over the issue. (Wait, so does that mean there are no “sanctuary cities” then?)

Indeed, Abbott seems to have a new red-line distinction for what makes you a sanctuary city – that is, if you don’t honor U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to keep people in custody, even when charges have been dismissed. Funny thing is: pretty much every jail in Texas currently honors these so-called ICE detainers.

According to this definition, San Antonio is decidedly not a sanctuary city, because if you’re booked in jail here, cops will still run your fingerprints through a federal database that will alert ICE if you’ve got a dubious immigration status. After that, it’s ICE’s call whether or not to pick you up. When ICE flags someone, some counties will hold them for a couple days – even if the person has made bail, their term of incarceration is over, or charges have been dismissed. Some county jails will hold you for weeks. Bexar County has been accused of holding people for months who wouldn’t be in jail if not for ICE’s request.

And yet still, rallying against “sanctuary cities” became a sort of cause célèbre among right-leaning politicians even before the session even started this year – perhaps the result of anti-immigrant rhetoric blaring out of the Donald Trump campaign.

The real problem is that the anti-sanctuary cities legislation Perry has filed goes way beyond ICE detainers and would seem to conflict with the kind of policies supported by many police chiefs – the kind that explicitly tell local cops that federal immigration enforcement is not their job. While the San Antonio Police Department and Bexar County Sheriff’s Office don’t consider themselves “sanctuary” departments, both have similar guidelines prohibiting officers from asking about immigration status in routine police encounters. Perry’s bill could render those policies unenforceable, because it would punish any agency that “prohibits or discourages” any cop, corrections officer or booking clerk from assisting in immigration enforcement.

And beyond “sanctuary cities,” Abbott has even gone after what he now calls “sanctuary campuses,” saying he’ll cut funding to any college or university that “establishes sanctuary status.” Of course, we don’t exactly know what Abbott means by “sanctuary campus” (go figure his office hasn’t clarified or defined the term), but if that means state conservatives now want to add Perry-style legislation to public schools and university campuses, the “sanctuary” issue just got a whole lot bigger this session. — MB

Getting Schooled

Cutting kids out of special education. Financing charter schools. Changing the state’s grading system.

There are sweeping, large-scale education issues expected to take center stage this session — enough to overwhelm any state legislator. That’s why state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat from San Antonio, decided to spend 2016 taking a more granular look at the education system within the manageable boundaries of his own San Antonio district.

After visiting each of the 55 public schools in his largely-northside district — home to San Antonio ISD, North East ISD and Northside ISD — Bernal kept running into a few unique issues. They’ve inspired a bill to make it easier for hungry kids to access leftover cafeteria food, one that would allow school districts the option of using leftover textbook funds on new tutor hires, and another that would stop forcing special education students to retake standardized tests after failing the first time.

While these are obviously minor fixes eclipsed by the state’s looming public school woes, Bernal says the point is that he’s confident each of his education bills will attract bipartisan support — which is key to passing anything in the majority-conservative chamber. “The only way Democrats can pass anything in the House is to convince 26 Representatives to join them,” he said. “The great thing about education is that it’s about kids. Everyone wants to fight for kids.”
Which doesn’t mean Bernal doesn’t have a pie-in-the-sky progressive bill.

Bernal’s House Bill 353 would guarantee behavioral health counseling to any school where 50 percent or more of its students are “socially or economic disadvantaged, in the foster care system, or homeless.” While Bernal’s doubtful his conservative counterparts will want to use the state budget on new counselors, he knows it’s financially possible. “The money is there,” he said.

“The budget is just a list of priorities. And this isn’t a priority for many Republicans.”

As for the bigger education issues on the docket, Bernal said he’s waiting until legislators can realistically get involved. The state battle over school funding has done little to address the gaping financial inequities between schools located in wealthy and lower-income areas. Lawmakers had been waiting to see if the Texas Supreme Court might force reforms; instead, the justices punted, admitting the state’s public school finance system desperately needs “top-to-bottom reforms” but is nonetheless constitutional.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Gov. Patrick has made clear his intention to move public school dollars to semi-private charter schools this coming session — “school choice,” as advocates call it, that Patrick says will give poorer kids the opportunity to attend higher-performing private schools.

Bernal says he’s planning on helping other lawmakers push certain bills that have broad public support – like making sure the state education agency, as recently discovered by a searing Houston Chronicle investigation, can never again arbitrarily kick tens of thousands of disabled kids out of state public school special ed programs. Otherwise, he says he’s intent on pushing small-scale, local issues where teachers’ opinions take precedent.

“I want to focus on what our educators are saying, what they’re concerned about,” he said. “Not what political parties are saying.” — AZ

Social Distortion

It seems two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions made since Texas’ last session — on marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights — only inflamed some of Texas’ social conservative culture warriors ahead of the 2017 session.

Yes, this year some state GOP leaders intend on rolling back local nondiscrimination ordinances, allowing health providers to turn away transgender patients, and further punishing doctors who perform abortions.

Expect state Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, to be in the middle of the fight. Campbell, has never hid her far-right wing perspective on state social issues since she joined the legislature in 2013. In fact, Campbell, an ER doctor, was the local cheerleader for House Bill 2, a law that shuttered dozens of the state’s abortion clinics with burdensome, medically-unnecessary regulations that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in June.

And while she’s kept relatively quiet about the state’s fetal burial rule — a law forcing abortion clinics to cremate and bury fetal remains, which is now facing a lawsuit — Campbell has filed a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks fertilization based on a non-medical belief that fetuses can feel pain by that point. Other legislation on her list would force people applying for unemployment benefits to take a drug test, allow people to bring a handgun to church or an amusement park, and block doctors who work at abortion facilities from teaching sex education courses.

She’s also resurrecting a 2013 bill to ban the use of foreign laws in Texas courts, yet another thinly-veiled anti-Sharia law. The author of her bill’s House counterpart, Republican Dan Flynn of Canton, has made clear the legislation is meant to protect Christian Texans, telling his supporters it will stop the liberal crusade to turn the country into “an amorphous multicultural society.” These bills join several other GOP efforts to blur the line between church and state. Another Senate bill would block the state from doing business with any company or group that's pledged to divest from and boycott Israeli companies over the government's treatment of Palestinians — because, according to the bill's author, the country helped create Christianity.

Campbell has also used “religious freedom” as an excuse to support Lieutenant Gov. Patrick’s “privacy bill” that would block trans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. To Campbell, it’s all about “keep[ing] men out of safe spaces for girls.” She doesn’t care that many in the local tourism industry are terrified by the North Carolina-style bill, which could ultimately cost San Antonio the 2018 NCAA Final Four.

“I’d like to see Texas values not be hijacked for the sake of football or basketball,” she told the Texas Tribune in December. “I’m not worried about that.” — AZ

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