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Legislature is gone (for now). Here's what it did, and left undone, in the session

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman

Before leaving Austin, the Legislature approved almost 1,100 new laws for Gov. Greg Abbott's consideration and eight amendments to the Texas Constitution for the approval of voters in November.

Here's a look at what passed and, just as important, what didn't pass during the 87th regular session.

There is, however, an asterisk attached to many of the issues that were left undone because Abbott has promised to call a special session to include priority items that were not passed in the regular session. Thus far, he's listed only two of those issues: changes to election law and to the bail system.

The governor also has 10 days (not counting Sundays) after receiving approved legislation to veto, sign into law or let measures take effect without his signature.

Election law fight blows up the session

No issue generated more heat, headlines or partisan rancor than the Republican-led effort that produced Senate Bill 7, a comprehensive measure that GOP leaders said was needed to bolster flagging confidence in election results.

Democrats, calling SB 7 a product of the "big lie" that Donald Trump lost reelection due to fraud, focused on the bill's restrictions — no 24-hour voting, no drive-thru voting and new ID requirements for mail-in ballots — as well as new crimes targeting election workers and provisions designed to protect access for partisan poll watchers.

When the final version of SB 7 emerged in the session's closing days after being negotiated in private by GOP lawmakers, two additions stood out — no early voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays, hampering "Souls to the Polls" events popular in Black churches, and a provision making it easier to overturn election results that are challenged by the losing candidate. 

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and other Brown and Black Democratic lawmakers talk to the press on the final day of the 87th Legislature. The group led Sunday's walkout in the House that stalled Senate Bill 7.

Democrats vowed to fight, but plans for a Senate filibuster fizzled when Republicans rushed SB 7 to the floor, leading to a 6 a.m. vote May 30, the final day for passage.

House Democrats succeeded in blocking it — but it took a quorum-busting exodus from the Capitol that forced the House to adjourn before SB 7 got a vote ahead of the midnight deadline.

Abbott moved quickly to deflate the Democratic victory, announcing that efforts to improve "election integrity" will return when he calls a special session.

Bail changes blocked, for now

Though not one of the session's most-watched issues, bail reform was designated as a priority by Abbott, who said the issue will return in a special session after a GOP-led bill also died in the walkout by House Democrats.

House Bill 20 would have denied personal bonds, which do not require cash, for those charged with violent or sexual crimes and those charged with a felony while free on bond. It also would have required judges to be informed about a defendant's criminal history, and take that information into account, before setting bail.

Many Democrats were happy to see HB 20 blocked, arguing that it would criminalize poverty by allowing freedom only for those who could afford a money bond.

Tough restrictions on abortion

Abbott has signed into law one of the most restrictive abortion limits in the country, banning the procedure after about the sixth week of pregnancy by prohibiting abortions once a "fetal heartbeat" can be detected.

Anti-abortion demonstrators gather in the Capitol Rotunda while the Senate debated abortion restrictions on March 30.

SB 8 will be challenged in court before taking affect Sept. 1. Federal judges have blocked similar laws in other states, but the Texas restriction adds a new wrinkle, leaving enforcement to any private citizen who could sue abortion providers.

Lawmakers also passed a "trigger bill" that would let Texas ban or limit abortion to the extent allowed by any future ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, without the Legislature needing to take action. 

The power grid, post-freeze

When deadly winter storms and statewide power outages struck Texas in February, the legislative session was already underway and lawmakers were focused on the pandemic and other key issues.

But shoring up the state’s power grid and reforming the oversight agencies responsible for its operation quickly became a top priority. 

Lawmakers left the Capitol after passing a sweeping bill to require certain power generation facilities to prepare to operate during weather emergencies and broaden the oversight responsibilities of state regulators. 

They also opted to make big changes at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s electric grid, by reducing the number of seats on ERCOT’s board of directors from 16 to 11, with the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker responsible for appointing a selection committee to name members.

Mixed response to George Floyd

The death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer last year led to sweeping reforms introduced by Democrats, but only parts of the George Floyd Act made it to Abbott's desk.

Both chambers approved bills to ban police chokeholds, require law officers to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force and require police to call for immediate medical help if a suspect is injured.

Opposition from police unions and others, however, blocked efforts to limit the immunity that protects law officers from lawsuits for using of excessive force. Other blocked items would have required every law enforcement agency in Texas to emphasize conflict de-escalation, allowed deadly force only as a last resort and required officers to issue a warning before using force.

Attacking efforts to 'defund the police'

Abbott has signed into law the session's two leading bills aimed at curtailing "defund the police" efforts:

HB 1900 creates harsh punishments for cities with more than 250,000 residents that are deemed by the governor's office to have cut police budgets from the previous year. Such cities would lose the power to annex for at least 10 years and be required to hold disannexation elections in every area added in the previous 30 years. The cities also would lose sales tax revenue and be required to freeze rates at city-owned utilities.

SB 23 will require counties of more than 1 million residents to seek voter approval before cutting law enforcement budgets.

Both bills were in reaction to the Austin City Council's decision to reduce funding and reallocate many responsibilities from the Austin Police Department in response to protests after Floyd's in-custody death.

Guns shoot to the forefront

In previous sessions, hardcore gun advocates tried without success to pass laws allowing handguns to be carried in public without obtaining a state-issued license. But under the leadership of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, permitless gun carry passed the House in mid-April.

Sharon Lundgren, left, and Angelica Halphen, both from Houston, wait in line at Capitol on April 29 to get into a Senate hearing about a bill to allow carrying handguns without permits. Halphen shows photos of her son, Harrison Schmidt, who was shot and killed at age 18 in a road rage incident in Houston in 2019.

Some Republicans senators were still leery of the change, but a public pressure campaign — and amendments to increase penalties for armed felons and protect victims of domestic violence — won them over, and HB 1927 passed on a party-line vote.

Other approved bills will allow school marshals to carry concealed guns instead of keeping them locked away, let hotel guests bring guns to their rooms, remove sales taxes for firearm safety equipment and lift Texas-made firearm silencers from the state’s list of prohibited weapons.

Responding to the pandemic

Bills to limit the governor's power to suspend laws and issue executive orders did not make it to the finish line.

The House backed creating a legislative oversight committee to review, and potentially terminate, a governor-issued pandemic disaster declaration in place beyond 30 days. The Senate supported a ban on disaster orders that close businesses or limit occupancy and hours of operation, reserving that power for the Legislature.

In the end, the two chambers couldn't agree on an approach.

The Legislature did pass measures to keep houses of worship and gun stores open despite disaster declarations and approved a measure giving families access to residents in nursing homes and long-term care.

Lawmakers also approved protection from pandemic-related lawsuits for businesses, schools at all levels and health care workers.

Social media censorship bill stumbles

Another Abbott-favored measure that didn't win passage, SB 12 addressed Republican complaints that Twitter, Facebook and other large social media sites were blocking conservative speech.

SB 12 would have let Texans sue if they were kicked off a social media site based on their speech. The companies also would have been required to explain why a user was removed, create an appeals process for blocked users and address their complaints within 14 days.

The attorney general also would have been given authority to sue social media companies, which insisted that they do not target conservatives or political speech but merely enforce standards against those who promote violence, hatred, exploitation or illegal acts.

Limiting instruction on racism

It took unusual intervention by the Senate, but a Republican bill to limit how public schools handle discussions of race and racism was sent to Abbott in the session's closing days.

HB 3979 requires teachers to explore current events and public policy issues from "diverse and contending perspectives" and bans policies that force educators to teach that people are inherently racist or that people bear responsibility for past actions by members of their race or sex.

The bill also prevents schools from giving class credit for students' work with political advocacy groups, and it bans accepting private money or materials for required social studies courses.

Republicans said the changes were needed in response to "critical race theory," which explores how racism shaped America but which many conservatives see as divisive, driving a wedge between people of color and white Americans.

Democrats, teacher groups and many academics were opposed, calling it an effort to "whitewash" history that would endanger an honest assessment of the nation's struggles with racism.

Teaching Texas values, patriotism

HB 2497 establishes an advisory committee to promote "patriotic education" and awareness of Texas values. The effort, called the Texas 1836 Project in a nod to the New York Times' 1619 Project — which explored the way slavery shaped America in ways many Republicans see as skewed — would be led by committee members selected by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.

The bill's Republican authors assured Democrats that the 1836 Project would encompass all of Texas' history, including historically marginalized groups.

In related legislation, the Senate did not act on a House-passed bill that would have granted high school social studies credit for state-approved electives on African American and Mexican American studies.

Another history bill, SB 1776, would have required public high schools to offer an elective civics course focused on the founding principles of the United States, but it fell short.

Targeting transgender Texans

Efforts directed at young transgender Texans generated much heat but no resolution, though Republican supporters are pushing to try again in a special session.

Several efforts sought to deny gender-affirming medical care to those under 18, including access to puberty blockers, reversible medications that delay body changes to give transgender youths time to decide whether to take more permanent steps, as well as hormone therapy (available in the later teens) and surgery (generally not available to those under 18).

Kay Deyer-Hill of Pflugerville holds a sign as transgender youths, parents and several lawmakers rally in April at the south steps of the Capitol.

GOP bills also sought to block transgender girls from competing in girls sports by requiring student athletes to be classified according to the gender on their original birth certificates. Democratic delaying tactics in the House killed that effort as well.

Granting relief from STAAR tests 

High school seniors who passed their classes but have struggled to pass up to five required standardized tests can now petition to graduate, thanks to a new law that took effect immediately

The law temporarily expands the petition option for current high school seniors because of learning difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally, only students who fail up to two State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness can petition a committee to graduate by showing their mastery of a subject through alternative work.

The committees, created in 2015 and set to expire in 2023, were made permanent by another bill overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature. The bill also authorized the Texas education commissioner to investigate schools when 10% or more of students in a graduating class receive a degree through the committee process.

Meanwhile, HB 4545 allows for fifth and eighth graders to move up even if they fail a STAAR test, directing schools to place those students in accelerated learning or instructional programs for at least 30 hours.

$248.6 billion state budget

The only bill lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass during each regular session is the state’s two-year budget to fund public programs using state and federal dollars. After some compromises made behind closed doors, this year’s $248.6 billion budget made it to Abbott’s desk — where he promptly vowed to veto money for the Legislature and associated agencies in retaliation for House Democrats breaking quorum.

Lawmakers will have more budget work to do in a special session, when they allocate $16 billion in federal pandemic relief

Not the year for Medicaid expansion

Advocates hoped this would be the year that Texas joined almost every other state in expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income adults.

Texas continues to lead the nation in the number of uninsured residents, and expanding the program could have given Texas access to billions of dollars in federal incentives, but it was not to be.

Instead, lawmakers made changes to coverage for pregnant women and children and expanded Medicaid coverage to eligible low-income women for six months after giving birth or experiencing a miscarriage, up from 60 days.

They also passed a bill to prevent eligible children from being removed from Medicaid by ensuring they had coverage for six months at a time and by making changes to how the state checks for eligibility.

Limits on tax-funded lobbying falter

SB 10, a Republican priority bill targeting taxpayer-funded lobbying, failed to get a floor vote before a pivotal House deadline, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listed the issue as unfinished business that should be addressed in a special session.

The version of SB 10 that cleared the Senate would have prevented all government agencies and government-run utilities from spending public money on lobbyists.

In the House, however, the bill was watered down to prevent cities, counties and other local governments from hiring lobbyists to address property tax cap laws. It also barred government lobbyists from spending money on food, drink and entertainment in lobbying efforts.

Corporate tax break expiring

A state program that has given billions of dollars in tax breaks to entice businesses to relocate to Texas or expand here is set to expire because lawmakers didn’t extend it this year.

The Chapter 313 program — named for the section of the tax code in which it appears — has been praised for luring jobs and investment to Texas and criticized as a publicly funded giveaway to corporations.

With the next regular session beginning in January 2023 and the program expiring Dec. 31, 2022, Abbott has been silent about whether the incentive program would be addressed in a special session.

Medical marijuana sees small advance

HB 1535 expands the state's limited medical marijuana program by making cancer patients and people with post-traumatic stress disorder eligible for marijuana treatment. The bill originally was aimed at making medical marijuana available to anyone experiencing chronic pain before it was stripped down by the Senate. 

A dozen other marijuana-related bills failed to reach Abbott's desk, however, including legislation that would have reduced criminal penalties for the possession of tetrahydrocannabinol extracts, the psychoactive element of cannabis commonly used in edibles.

Other notable actions

• Unless blocked by Abbott, stores will be able to sell beer and wine starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays instead of noon beginning Sept. 1.

• To counter soaring insulin prices, lawmakers capped health plan co-pays at $25 for a one-month supply.

• Property owners will have an easier time removing discriminatory language from deeds under SB 30.

• The Vanessa Guillén Act, named in honor of the Fort Hood soldier slain last year, improves protections for members of the military who report sexual harassment and assault.

• Efforts to limit no-knock entry by police, criticized as dangerous to residents and officers, fell short.

• The Texas Active Shooter Alert System, similar to Amber Alerts, will begin Sept. 1 to publicize a shooter's last-known location and description.

• Legislation protecting Confederate monuments and place names failed to get a floor vote in either chamber, while efforts to abolish Confederate Heroes Day as a state holiday fell short as well.

• Because it's never too early to plan a big party, lawmakers created a committee to start working on how to celebrate Texas' 200th birthday in 2036.

Staff writers Nicole Cobler, Philip Jankowski, Madlin Mekelburg, María Méndez and Bob Sechler contributed to this report.