Texas lawmakers end divisive session and prepare for another
AUSTIN — Voting rights, gun rights, critical race theory, and abortion restrictions hit the headlines during the 140-day regular session of the Texas Legislature. But lawmakers have also addressed – or failed to address – a variety of other issues.
Efforts to expand legalized gambling have not gained ground despite intensive and costly lobbying by casino operators, but efforts to extend Medicaid coverage to low-income Texans have failed either.
The contentious session included a walkout from House Democrats who broke the quorum and killed – for now – an election bill labeled “voter suppression” and supporters described as ensuring “electoral integrity.” But in the process, they made a special session virtually certain.
As the House neared the midnight deadline, Democrats left the room and gathered at Mount Zion Baptist Church in East Austin, breaking the quorum and blocking a vote on a bill to limit hours advance polls, restrict mail voting and give more power to poll observers. .
However, Gov. Greg Abbott quickly tweeted that “election integrity”, as well as “bail reform”, were emergency items that will be part of a special session.
“Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a flawed bail system remains an emergency in Texas,” Abbott tweeted. “They will be added to the agenda of the extraordinary session. Lawmakers are expected to have worked out the details when they arrive on Capitol Hill for the special session. “
A special session to deal with redistribution is already planned for the fall. Abbott has pledged to veto the section of the state budget that funds the legislature, making an additional special session likely at the end of the summer.
Hot pimples issues
Michael Evans Jr., director of public policy for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, expressed support for the principle of electoral integrity, but deep concern about specific measures adopted by Texas lawmakers.
“When you look at the language used in this legislation, it is way too close to what we saw in the Jim Crow laws” which restricted the right to vote of black Americans, he said.
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A bill allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license, as well as legislation allowing hotel guests to keep guns in their rooms and granting school trustees the power to bring handguns into classrooms, was passed by the legislature.
Texas lawmakers have passed legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory, which explores systemic racism, and they have placed limits on classroom discussions of current controversial events.
“We need to know our history. Slavery has arrived. Black Americans were denied the right to the quality of life that others enjoyed. … Censoring what teachers may say about it in class is a problem, ”said Evans.
Lawmakers have passed two key laws restricting abortion: a “heartbeat” bill that bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected and a “trigger” bill that would immediately ban abortion. abortion if, and to the extent that, the Supreme Court of the United States overturns Roe vs. Wade.
The heartbeat bill goes into effect on September 1, but abortion rights groups have already pledged to fight the law in court.
Aside from the “hot” issues that have dominated social media, lawmakers also considered other key issues during the regular session.
State budget lawmakers have approved generally sustained funding for public schools at levels reached in 2019, and Texas House has made it clear its opposition to vouchers that would divert funds from public education to private schools.
Texas public schools will directly benefit from $ 7 billion in COVID-19 stimulus funding from the federal government, but the state could have gotten a lot more for public education, said Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for the Children of Texas.
Johnson said the recently concluded legislative session included some of the “worst attacks on public education” he had seen, as “privatization forces” attempted to use the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine public schools.
While critics have claimed that public schools have “failed” students during the pandemic, Johnson insisted that teachers “have shown amazing competence and compassion” during a difficult time.
Lawmakers have rejected an attempt to tie school funding to their performance on standardized tests, an approach that would punish schools with a high percentage of low-income non-English speaking students, he said.
Johnson thanked ministers and concerned church members in Texas for helping defeat or improve several bills that could have hurt public schools.
Earlier this year, pressure from worried Texans prompted Governor Abbott to announce that the state would “keep public schools harmless” rather than penalizing them for declining attendance and enrollment due to the pandemic, and that led to the removal of a good measure of HB 3, the Pandemic Response Bill, Johnson noted.
Texas Pastors for Children and his allies also succeeded in drastically changing SB 1365, which would have initially granted the state education commissioner broad powers to override local school boards, he added. .
At the same time, Johnson expressed disappointment at the failure of lawmakers to pass several measures that would have allowed greater accountability and local control over charter schools.
Bills that would have extended the legalization of gambling in Texas through daily fantasy sports and destination casinos have died in commission, despite support from the state’s major professional sports organizations and lobbying from casino operators. Las Vegas Sands has hired more than 50 lobbyists to lobby for the expansion of gambling in Texas.
“If money was the only deciding factor, we would have had casinos in Texas 20 years ago. At the end of the day, the strong case outweighs the money, and we have a strong case in spades, ”said Rob Kohler, consultant with the Texas Baptist CLC.
In a session where many problems had to be classified as partial wins or losses, efforts to stop the game’s further expansion in Texas represented “a clear victory,” Evans added.
While lawmakers have extended Medicaid coverage for low-income pregnant women from two months after birth to six months, they have rejected efforts to significantly expand Medicaid coverage for uninsured Texans.
“We haven’t done enough to give women of childbearing age access to basic medical care before, during and after pregnancy,” Evans said.
Protections can be built into law to prevent individuals from taking advantage of the system without depriving women who genuinely need health care, he added.
Texas lawmakers have failed to significantly expand health care coverage since the Affordable Care Act came into effect in 2010, he noted.
HB 88 – the George Floyd Act – was not passed. Lawmakers have approved some limited measures related to police procedures, such as a ban on strangulation. Other bills, such as limits on qualified immunity for law enforcement officials, have not been passed.
Evans expressed his hope that the Texas Baptists could model for the state as a whole how to have “tough conversations” across racial lines on issues related to policing practices.
Key elements of the Second Look bill passed by the legislature. The legislation provides early parole to offenders who committed crimes as a teenager but who have served at least 20 years or half of their sentence and have demonstrated good behavior.
Religious freedom and LGBTQ rights
Bills have been introduced that would have punished counselors or therapists for discouraging homosexual behavior; forced Christian employers to provide insurance coverage for spouses of same-sex couples; and amended the property code to create a special class of protection for “sexual orientation”, “gender identity” and “gender expression”. None of these bills was passed in the ordinary legislative session.
“We want the LGBTQ community to enjoy the human rights protections to which they are entitled without violating our First Amendment rights,” Evans said. “This is a problem that is not going to go away.”
Payday loans and auto-title loans
The CLC worked to eliminate the “bad bills” that would have facilitated predatory lending; sought to improve some bills for the benefit of payday lenders who were certain to spend to minimize damage to the poor; and advocated for “good bills” that make it harder for lenders to “take advantage of people’s pain,” Evans said.
“It is a continuous fight and an uphill battle,” he said.