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Home | Tag Archives: texas senate (page 3)

Tag Archives: texas senate

Railroad Commission Bill Could Revive Debate on Bathrooms, Immigration

House Republicans will look to force a vote on the regulations in the Senate’s “bathroom bill.” And a Democratic lawmaker has an amendment aimed at forcing the business community to take sides in the sanctuary cities debate.

A Tuesday debate over the future of the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry could instead become a showdown over immigration and where transgender Texans use the bathroom.

House Republicans will look to force a vote on the regulations proposed in the Senate’s controversial “bathroom bill,” which House Speaker Joe Straus has decried as “manufactured and unnecessary.” Tyler Republican Matt Schaefer has filed two amendments that would essentially require the Railroad Commission to enact some of the bathroom-related regulations proposed in Senate Bill 6 — a measure that would require people to use the bathrooms in public schools and government buildings that align with their “biological sex.”

A separate amendment by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, appears to target transgender people by requiring the commission to define women business owners — who can qualify for certain benefits in contracting — on the basis of the “physical condition of being female, as stated on a person’s birth certificate.”

Schaefer and Tinderholt are members of the socially conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, which is expected to repeatedly offer up portions of the “bathroom bill” as amendments to other measures. On just the second day of the legislative session, Schaefer, who leads the caucus, unsuccessfully attempted to amend a routine resolution with language requiring people in the Capitol to use bathrooms corresponding with their biological sex.

On the immigration front, an amendment by state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, would require that a company regulated by or contracting with the Texas Railroad Commission certify that it doesn’t hire undocumented workers and charged with perjury if found to have lied. The amendment would also require the commission to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the local district attorney if a company CEO or supervisor is in violation of the provision.

Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said he has no desire to expand state-based immigration enforcement, and doesn’t expect his fellow Democrats to vote for the amendment. It’s symbolic: He wants businesses to be more vocal against what he called extreme immigration proposals the Legislature is considering this session, specifically Senate Bill 4. That measure, passed by the Senate last month and now pending in a House committee, would ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions in Texas and vastly expand the immigration enforcement powers of local police.

“For Republicans to only demonize immigrants but not talk about the insatiable appetite on the part of businesses for immigrant workers is hypocrisy at its best,” he said.

The state already has a law that requires state agencies and contractors to use E-Verify, the federal electronic verification system that determines whether a worker is eligible for employment. But Anchia’s amendment goes beyond that by including companies that “indirectly” hire unauthorized labor — meaning they use contractors and subcontractors who hire independent laborers that aren’t classified as regular employees.

This won’t be the first time an immigration debate has raged on a seemingly unrelated bill. Anchia took part in a bruising debate earlier this month on a bill to reform the state’s child welfare system. State Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, offered an amendment to withhold monthly payments to undocumented caretakers. It sparked a firestorm of opposition from Democrats and some moderate Republicans.

Anchia said at the time that business leaders have “ceded the field” — and it’s up to Democrats to take extreme measures, like his proposed amendment, to get them back in play.

“The current debate regarding immigrant workers has only focused on the enforcement of immigrants themselves,” he said.

Anchia said just hours after he pre-filed his amendment on Monday, he was approached by an “industry participant” who urged him to keep the bill “clean” – a common term used by stakeholders who don’t want the legislation altered significantly. He said if his amendment passes, it would be up to the oil and gas industry to convince lawmakers to remove the proposal during conference committee discussions, referring to the group of House and Senate members chosen by their respective leaders to iron out the differences in each chambers’ final bill.

Anchia said there will be more opportunities to make his point in the remaining months of the session, citing an upcoming bill on the Texas Department of Transportation as just one example.

Read related coverage:

  • Outnumbered and with time running out, Texas Democrats hoping to kill anti-“sanctuary” legislation are open to shining a spotlight on so-called “sanctuary industries” that often turn a blind eye toward hiring unauthorized labor.
  • The Texas “bathroom bill” has made it to the House but chamber leaders are hinting that the controversial legislation may never reach the chamber’s floor for a vote.

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Authors:  JULIÁN AGUILAR AND ALEXA URA – The Texas Tribune

Texas Senators Weigh Bills that Would Limit College Tuition Growth

Ever since the Texas Legislature gave public universities the right set their own tuition in 2003, there have been attempts by lawmakers to revoke it.

On Wednesday, the Texas Senate began working on this year’s try. The Senate Higher Education Committee considered five bills that would halt, limit or slow tuition increases in the coming years.

Each one’s aim, their authors said, is to get control of fast-rising college costs. Average tuition and fees at public universities have climbed 148 percent in the past 15 years.

Each of the bills — some are written by Democrats, some by Republicans — has a unique plan to address affordability. Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said after the meeting that only one will probably make it through the committee.

“I see no way that you could have two of these in effect,” he said.

No winner was picked Wednesday, however. A vote could come in as soon as a week.

“Something, I think, will probably pass this time,” Seliger said.

Here are the choices the committee is considering:

Performance-based tuition increases:

Seliger’s favorite appears to be Senate Bill 543, which is no surprise as he is the senator who wrote it. The bill would allow universities to raise their tuition only if they meet six of 11 performance metrics set by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Those metrics would touch on schools’ administrative costs, graduation rates and the number of degrees awarded. It’s a slight twist on a coordinating board call for performance-based funding, which would tie state funding to performance metrics.

Tuition increases allowed under the plan would be limited to 1 percent for the first two years, and then 3 percent plus inflation after that.

University leaders appeared most open to that idea, though they asked lawmakers for a role in writing the rules. Texas Tech University System Chancellor Robert Duncan called it an “innovative approach.”

But the concept has drawn skepticism from some higher-education leaders, who have questioned whether tuition increases should be considered an award for good performance. The idea has the interest of some influential lawmakers. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2015, only to die in the House. The chairman of the House Higher Education Committee at the time, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, has since expressed regret that the lower chamber didn’t look more closely at it.

Early in the current session, Zerwas said he’d like another chance to consider the idea. Since then, however, he has transitioned to lead the House Appropriations Committee. The new House Higher Education Committee chairman, state Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, hasn’t publicly weighed in on what the legislature’s role should be in limiting tuition issues.

Seliger was optimistic about its future after Wednesday’s meeting.

“Clearly, the performance-based tuition increase passed last time, and it probably seems to have the broadest appeal both to legislators and institutions,” he said.

Ban tuition increases until 2022:

Another bill by Seliger, Senate Bill 19, will likely get strong consideration, too. It would force universities to charge no more in tuition and fees than they do now for four consecutive school years beginning in the fall of 2018.

Schools could technically increase tuition for next year, but they would then have to lower it back down the year after. It also has the endorsement of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who listed it among his top 25 priorities in the current legislative session.

It’s unclear how the proposal would fare in the House, however, where attempts to freeze tuition have been greeted less favorably in the past.

Ban increases without student or legislative permission:

State Sens. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown and José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, are leaving the door open to future tuition increases, but only with permission. Schwertner, who is perhaps the most outspoken critic of high tuition in the Senate, has proposed a law that would ban tuition increases for one year, and cap them at the rate of inflation after that. He said Wednesday that student fee increases would have to be approved by a student election. Rodriguez’s billwould simply prevent schools from setting tuition at a higher rate than what they charge for 2017-18, unless the Legislature approves it.

Those ideas might be worrisome to universities, which have argued that one of the main reasons they have raised tuition in recent years is to make up for the shrinking per-student state support for higher education. What’s more, universities could be hit with big state funding cuts this year. If it were tougher for those schools to raise tuition, officials there would be limited in the ways they could make up that money.

“Our concern from the University of Houston is that the tuition freezes and limits being imposed might actually hurt the students that they are meant to help,” said UH Chancellor Renu Khator, explaining that an inability to raise revenue through tuition increases might prevent the school from hiring faculty, career advisers and mental health counselors.

Similar bills have been filed in the past, including by Schwertner, but have failed to make it to the governor’s desk.

Only allow tuition increases when state funding falls:

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has proposed a solution that acknowledges university leaders’ concerns. Under Senate Bill 1323, universities would be banned from raising tuition except to “to make up any difference between core operational costs and state formula funding appropriations.” The bill would require the state’s Legislative Budget Board to review universities’ core costs every two years, and then require universities to come up with detailed plans to reduce those costs by 5 percent.

Zaffirini noted that basically the same bill passed the Senate in 2009 but that she wasn’t hopeful for 2017.

“If I thought the bill were going anywhere, I’d have” a few changes to make to it, she told the committee.

Read more about higher education in the Texas Tribune:

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Author:  MATTHEW WATKINS – The Texas Tribune

Senate Passes Property Tax Bill State Leaders Love, Local Officials Oppose

The Senate voted 18-12 in favor of bill that would require an election if a local government entity like a city or county wanted to increase some of its tax collections by 5 percent.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday approved a controversial bill that seeks to curb the growth in property taxes that local government agencies like cities and counties levy on landowners.

Senate Bill 2, which passed in an 18-12 vote, could require taxing entities to hold an election if the amount of operating and maintenance funds they plan to collect from property taxes is, in general, 5 percent more than what they took in the previous year.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s bill has split scores of Texas homeowners and the local officials that they elect. Landowners and some government officials say the bill is needed to slow the increase in property tax bills they must pay every year.

Bettencourt, R-Houston, said from the Senate floor Tuesday that many homeowners are seeing increases of 8 percent to 10 percent in what they pay in property taxes each year. He said commercial property owners are repeatedly seeing 15 percent to 20 percent hikes.

“I for one don’t want to continue to climb the ladder above states like Illinois and New York,” Bettencourt said.

But many local and state officials say the Legislature is sidestepping the real issue that leads to rising tax bills: school districts levying more in property taxes because lawmakers won’t change the state’s system for funding education. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, conceded that point on Tuesday.

“It’s a fine balance between respecting our local elected officials and having an understanding that we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

Critics of the bill say it glosses over the fact that an election could be triggered when the actual tax rate remains flat because rising property values play a major role in calculating the election trigger. Many local officials also say the bill would threaten their ability to hire police officers, build new parks and fill potholes.

Many police and fire chiefs from across the state testified against the bill last week.

“What do I tell them?,” State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said Tuesday morning.

Because Texas has no state income tax, it relies heavily on sales and property taxes. The state and local entities split sales taxes. But only local entities receive property taxes. It’s unconstitutional for the state to levy property taxes, and state lawmakers don’t have the power to set those rates.

The current and proposed thresholds that could allow a rollback election aren’t based entirely on the actual tax rate, which is the amount per $100 of property value that a government entity levies against landowners. Instead, the formulas focus on how much total tax revenue a local entity receives from properties from one year to the next. So a city or county could hit the threshold for an election without changing its tax rate if there was a significant increase in local property values.

Currently, an 8 percent property tax increase or higher allows voters in a city or county to gather signatures to call for an election on the new rate. Bettencourt’s bill would lower that threshold to 5 percent and would require an automatic election.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, has filed companion legislation, Texas House Bill 15, in the lower chamber. No hearing on that bill has been set. That bill has a lower rollback election threshold of 4 percent. That was the same threshold in Bettencourt’s original version of SB 2, but he increased it to 5 percent amid pushback during a Senate committee hearing last week.

Bill proponents say that the automatic election would allow for more local control because it puts more power in the hands of voters. Critics say voters can already oust elected officials for passing local budgets and tax rates they don’t like.

“Do you hold a referendum every time you make a big decision in your role as senator?” State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, asked Bettencourt on Tuesday.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, sought three amendments to the bill. All three were shot down 17-3 by the Senate. One of those amendments would have allowed residents to petition for a rollback election at the 5 percent threshold and only would have required an automatic election if a government entity hit the 8 percent threshold.

Lucio said that even though lawmakers can’t set property tax rates, they can “indirectly” influence them through unfunded mandates, which are constraints or requirements that they pass down to lower levels of government that don’t come with additional funding from the state.

Bettencourt said he’s often requested to see a budget that breaks down how much local governments spend on unfunded mandates from the state, but no one has ever produced one.

“I’m a big believer in what gets measured gets fixed,” Bettencourt said.

Lucio suggested an amendment that would have raised the election threshold to 8 percent during any biennium in which state lawmakers pass any unfunded mandates.

“This amendment will encourage us to take responsibility for our government spending,” Lucio said.

He withdrew the amendment after Bettencourt said he would not entertain it.

Read more of our related coverage:

  • Local governments and school districts battling the Texas Legislature over property taxes have a couple of things in common: They want local control over taxes and a more reliable partner in the state government.
  • Most Texans don’t know the state faces a tight budget, but asked what they’d do in a pinch, many of them say they’d dip into the state’s savings account, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Author:  BRANDON FORMBY – The Texas Tribune

Texas Senate gives Preliminary Approval to Anti-“Sanctuary” Bill

After an afternoon of debate, the Texas Senate late Tuesday voted 20-11 along party lines to advance a controversial immigration measure to ban sanctuary cities in the state.

The Texas Senate late Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a controversial immigration measure to ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions in the state.

Senate Bill 4, filed by state Sen. Charles Perry, would punish local and state government entities and college campuses that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials or enforce immigration laws. The vote was 20-11 along party lines.

It would also punish local governments if their law enforcement agencies fail to honor requests, known as detainers, from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to hand over immigrants in custody for possible deportation. The punishment would be a denial of state grant funds. The bill doesn’t apply to victims of or witnesses to crimes, public schools or hospital districts.

The legislation was listed last month as one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency items, which allows lawmakers to vote on the issue before the traditional 60-day waiting period to hear bills on the floor of either chamber. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also deemed the bill a legislative priority.

The issue garnered national attention after Abbott made good on his promise this month to cut state funding for Travis County after that county’s sheriff, Sally Hernandez, enacted a policy that greatly rolls back her department’s cooperation with ICE.

Like he did during a 16-hour committee hearing on the bill last week, Perry held his ground and pushed back against accusations that his bill was a “deportation” bill after Democrats insisted the policy would cast a wide net and snare people in the country illegally but who are otherwise law abiding.

Perry said it was about the rule of law and making sure every law enforcement agency follows the same procedures. He added that even if a person is in the country illegally, he or she would not have a reason to fear his legislation if they didn’t commit crimes.

“This bill ensures that there is predictability that our laws are applied without prejudice” no matter who is in custody, he said. He also added that if a local government loses money because it adopted a “sanctuary” policy, the blame is on them.

The vote came after Perry added tough civil and criminal penalties for entities that don’t comply with the bill’s provisions. One amendment would make a department head whose agency violates the provisions of SB 4 subject to criminal prosecution in the form of a class A misdemeanor. Another added a provision that would subject the local agency to civil penalties, including a fine at least $1,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for each subsequent violation.

The severity of the proposals prompted state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston to ask Perry how far he was willing to go.

“What’s the next [amendment] going to do? Take their first born?” she asked.

The upper chamber also predictably shot down by party line votes several amendments Democrats offered to make the bill more palatable to their constituents, including a measure by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, that would have excluded college campuses. An amendment by state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, which sought to require peace officers to learn immigration law was also voted down, as was another by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. that would have prohibited the arrest of a person only because he or she was in the country illegally.

Garcia also asked Perry to remove a section of the bill that would punish a local entity for “endorsing” a policy that prohibits or discourages enforcing immigration law. Garcia said that section could be a violation of an elected official’s right to free speech and could be interpreted broadly.

Before the chamber began voting on the amendments, senators debated certain aspects of the bill for more than three hours. Republicans used the time to reiterate that the bill, as filed, would stand up to court challenges that might be brought over questions of constitutionality.

That debate was preceded by a memo attorney general Ken Paxton sent Perry, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and State Affairs Committee Chair Joan Huffman, R-Houston, in which Paxton said concerns over the bill’s legal standing were overblown.

“Our review of the law concludes CSSB 4 is constitutional, there are viable methods for covered entities to avoid liability regarding invalid detainers, and the remainder of the legal concerns are unfounded,” he said in the letter. “CSSB 4 would make great strides to keep communities secure by requiring state and local law enforcement to cooperate with federal agencies as they take care to faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States.”

During the debate, Perry also said that the measure would be the first-ever legislation to codify protections for victims of or witnesses to crimes that agree to cooperate with law enforcement. That came after Democratic lawmakers said that even though the protections are in place, the immigrant communities would still operate under a blanket of fear if they reached out to law enforcement for any reason, including reporting a crime.

Perry said that the misinformation being pedaled about the bill might actually make it more difficult for police to get witnesses or victims to cooperate. But he said that left the door open for a “golden opportunity” for law enforcement to explain to the immigrant community what the bill actually does.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said that although lawmakers might be familiar with the nuances of the bill, the general pubic isn’t and law enforcement officers from across the state have said repeatedly that hinders their efforts to investigate crimes and keep the streets safe.

“It may be a shame that people are afraid. But it doesn’t change the fact that people are afraid,” Whitmire said. “I am listening to the experts. It may be a shame they feel that way, but it’s absolutely true.”

After the vote, Abbott praised SB 4 in a statement.

“Today’s action in the Senate helps ensure that Sheriffs and officials across Texas comply with federal immigration laws and honor Immigration and Custom Enforcement detainer requests that keep dangerous criminals off of our streets,” the statement read in part. “I want to thank Senator Perry for his leadership on this issue and look forward to final passage in the Senate tomorrow.”

Upon final passage, the bill will head to the Texas House, though whether the lower chamber accepts the bill as it’s currently presented isn’t clear. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, filed a companion bill to Perry’s original proposal, but the Texas House hasn’t yet named committees and isn’t moving as fast on this — or any other legislation — as the Senate is.

Read related Tribune coverage: 

  • The state’s attorney general tried to ease concerns Tuesday over whether a state-based immigration enforcement bill could be successfully challenged in courts.
  • The Texas Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-2 along party lines early Friday morning to advance a bill that would punish local government entities and college campuses that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

Texas Senate’s Veteran Affairs Committee to talk Health, Employment and Vet Courts

The Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations will hear three topics: the state of veteran health and mental health in Texas, challenges facing the multiple specialty veteran courts in Texas, and the state of current veteran hiring policies among state agencies.

During its most recent session, the legislature passed laws intended to increase state agency hiring of veterans. Senate Bill 805, passed by state Sen. Donna Campbell and co-authored by state Sen. José Rodríguez, requires each state agency to establish a goal of hiring veterans to fill at least 20 percent of their total employment positions.

As of the bill’s passing, for the three preceding years, only five percent of all state employees were veterans, compared to nearly 20 percent of federal employees, according to Campbell’s office. S.B. 805 also requires agencies with more than 500 employees to designate a veteran’s liaison, and allows state agencies to give veterans a preference in their hiring policies.

Sen. Rodríguez also passed Senate Bill 389, which is intended to help veterans match their military experience with state job postings by requiring state agencies to pair their job postings with relevant occupational specialty codes. These codes are utilized by branches of the armed services to identify a specific job. By now adding these codes to state job postings, the intent is for veterans to quickly identify state jobs for which they already have relevant experience.

“Going into last session, our veterans committee found that difficulty finding appropriate work is a major obstacle for veterans trying to transition to civilian life. Nationwide, more than 700,000 veterans were unemployed, and a third of those were in the prime working ages of mid-20s to mid-40s.

At minimum, Texas can make it easier for veterans to apply the valuable skills they learned in the military toward public service in state government. I look forward to hearing from our various agencies on progress made, as well as hear how we can continue to support veteran employment,” Sen. Rodríguez said.

Tomorrow, the Committee will also discuss challenges facing county veteran courts. Since the legislature authorized their creation in 2009, more than a dozen counties, including El Paso, have created veteran courts, which are intended to provide specialized support and peer mentoring for veterans and reduce recidivism in the veteran population.

“Veteran courts are a tremendous resource, providing a structured, supportive environment many Texas veterans yearn for after their service. These courts also better understand issues veterans may struggle with post-deployment, including issues related to service-related injuries or substance abuse,” Sen. Rodríguez said.

El Paso County’s 346th District Court operates a successful veteran court which, in addition to resolving their criminal law matters, has helped dozens of veterans receive counseling and provided assistance in interacting with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Late last year the court was recognized by the Texas Veterans Commission with its Patriotism Award.

“I look forward to hearing how the legislature can continue to support veteran courts like El Paso’s,” Sen. Rodríguez said.  “I expect one major challenge remains funding. Most courts fund their operations through state grants, but when required to hire personnel to provide vital counseling and other interventions for veterans, those dollars are quickly spread thin.”

Throughout tomorrow’s hearing, the Committee will receive reports and recommendations from several state agencies and organizations, including the Texas Veterans Commission, Texas Military Department, Health and Human Services Commission, Texas Workforce Commission, the University of Texas System, and multiple county veteran courts.  The Committee will also receive public testimony.

The hearing begins at 9 a.m. CST in Austin, and can be viewed live online HERE.

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