“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
The Legislative Session moves very quickly; before you know it, time is running short. Many of the bills filed will not get past the first step of having a committee hearing. Grassroots activist Tom Glass has put together an excellent timeline demonstrating our current urgency.
Thu, Apr 20 (101st day)
House – Last day for committee to hear a bill and have a realistic shot at passing the House.
Thu, Apr 27 (108th day)
House – Last day for a committee to report a bill and have a realistic shot of passing the House.
Fri, May 5 (116th day)
House – Last day for a bill to be reported out of committee and have a long-shot chance of making it through Calendars to the House floor.
Mon, May 8 (119th day)
House – Last day for committees to report HBs and HJRs.
Thu, May 11 (122nd day)
House – Last day to consider 2nd reading on HBs daily/supplemental calendar.
Fri, May 12 (123rd day)
House – Last day to consider 2nd reading on local & consent calendar.
Fri, May 19 (130th day)
House – Last local & consent calendar 2nd and 3rd readings.
Sat, May 20 (131st day)
House – Last day for House committees to report SBs/SJRs.
Tue, May 23 (134th day)
House – Last day for House to consider SB/SJRs on daily/supplemental calendar.
Tue, May 24 (135th day)
House – Last day to consider 3rd reading of SBs/SJRs.
Senate – Last day for Senate to consider all bills/JRs.
Fri, May 26 (137th day)
House – Last day to consider Senate amendments.
Sun, May 28 (139th day)
Senate – Last day to concur on House amendments.
Mon, May 29 (140th day)
House & Senate – Last day of Texas 88th Legislature.
We will begin narrowing down our LP bill focus, asking you to help get our most significant bills across the finish line.
Last week, HB 900 by Rep. Jared Patterson, known as the READER Act, which would ban sexually explicit and violent books from public schools, was passed out of committee with bipartisan support. We look forward to this bill coming to the House floor and its swift passage.
This week, we have several bills protecting children moving in the Senate. SB 14, Sen. Campbell’s bill to ban gender modification for children, is on the intent calendar, meaning it will be heard on the floor in the coming days.
Also, SB 12 by Senator Hughes restricts drag shows on public property and in front of minors. Unlike some of the early bills filed, Hughes has done an excellent job defining what a sexually oriented performance is as it relates to drag. It has strong enforcement, including both civil and criminal penalties. It was easily voted out of the Senate State Affairs Committee last week and is currently on the intent calendar.
SB 1562 by Senators Hancock and Huffman creates a criminal offense of child sexual grooming in the Texas penal code. It will become a felony to knowingly persuade, induce, entice, or coerce, or attempt to persuade, induce, entice, or coerce a child younger than 18 years of age to engage in specific sexual conduct that violates existing penal codes related to the sexual exploitation of children. This bill has a hearing on Tuesday in Criminal Justice.
1. Contact your Senator and ask them to vote yes on SB 12.
2. Contact members of the Senate Criminal Justice committee and ask them to pass SB 1562 out of committee on Tuesday:
Chair: John Whitmire D 512-463-0115
Vice Chair: Pete Flores R 512-463-0124
Paul Bettencourt R 512-463-0107
Juan Hinojosa D 512-463-0120
Joan Huffman R 512-463-0117
Phil King R 512-463-0110
Boris L. Miles D 512-463-0113
3. Last week, we asked you to call and submit public comments on HB 1686, which would ban the gender modification of children. We have heard from a capitol insider that over 8,000 public comments were submitted, with roughly 80% in favor of the bill! While the bill was heard in committee, it has not been passed out yet. Please call the committee members and ask them to pass the bill out of committee quickly.
Chair: Stephanie Klick 512-463-0599
Vice Chair: Liz Campos 512-463-0452
Nicole Collier 512-463-0716
Jacey Jetton 512-463-0710
Ann Johnson 512-463-0389
Jolanda Jones 512-463-0524
Venton Jones 512-463-0586
Tom Oliverson Tom.Oliverson@house.texas.gov (email Rep. Oliverson and thank him for authoring the bill)
Four Price 512-463-0470
Reggie Smith 512-463-0297
Tony Tinderholt 512-463-0624
For God and Texas,
SREC, SD 12
Texas Comptroller Rescinds Harris County Police Defunding Determination
Since the budget included countywide cuts, leaving the constable’s office with a greater share of the total, the county will not be sanctioned.
HOLLY HANSEN18 HOURS AGO
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Monday he would rescind his determination that Harris County had illegally reduced funding for at least one constable’s office in violation of a state law against defunding police.
Hegar’s announcement lifts sanctions that would have forced the county to either seek voter approval for reduced law enforcement budgets or have tax rates frozen at the no-new-revenue rate.
Based on an investigation of a complaint filed by Constable Ted Heap last year, the Comptroller found in February that the county had reduced Heap’s year-over-year budget by $2,367,444.
Initially, the county objected to the comptroller’s annualization of a “short fiscal year” (SFY) budget of just seven months for 2022. While Hegar divided the SFY budget by seven and then multiplied by 12 to obtain an annualized amount to compare with the 2023 budget, the county argued that the annualization should instead be based on pay periods.
The Harris County Commissioners Court then voted 4 to 1 along partisan lines to file a lawsuit to challenge the determination, but dropped claims that Heap’s budget had not been reduced. Instead, County Attorney Christian Menefee claimed that Senate Bill (SB) 23 enacted during the 87th Legislative Session only authorized the comptroller to compare “adopted budgets” but that commissioners had never “adopted” an “annualized” budget for 2022.
Menefee also argued that even if the court accepted Hegar’s annualization method, all county budgets had been cut and therefore Heap’s “share” of the total budget actually increased.
A Travis County district court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the comptroller last month while the parties continued negotiations.
“I applaud Harris County and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo for finally admitting that they defunded law enforcement,” Hegar said in a statement Monday. “The fact that they defunded police as part of larger cuts to the county’s overall budget is in no way an indication of Judge Hidalgo’s commitment to public safety.”
Menefee also claimed victory in his own press release: “I’m glad the Comptroller admitted his error and is no longer holding Harris County’s budget process hostage. I hope that in the future, we can talk through these types of allegations, as the law requires, before the Comptroller makes a final decision.”
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) also chided Hegar in a statement, saying, “I’m happy this is over. I served in the Texas Legislature with Comptroller Hegar years ago. We talked then and we can talk now. I look forward to a dialogue between the state and the county next time an issue like this arises.”
Along with his announcement rescinding the determination, Hegar said his office will continue to analyze Harris County’s budget “maneuvering” in response to complaints.
Hegar also noted that state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress) have pledged to file legislation that would give the comptroller’s office the authority to initiate audits of local government budgets while investigating police defunding complaints.
“I fought hard and have worked with Comptroller Hegar to ensure communities around this state feel secure knowing their local governments must support the men and women who keep our families safe,” said Huffman, who is also chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
“Lawmakers thought we made our intentions clear, but some Harris County officials have shown that they are willing to use budget tricks and legal maneuvering to defund the levers of justice and allow criminals to remain on our streets. It has become clear we need greater transparency.”
While Menefee’s court filings took a different approach, Hidalgo has insisted publicly that the county had increased law enforcement budgets “across the board” and that the county saw a 10 percent reduction in violent crime in 2022.
According to state reports, crime rates in Harris County began to climb in 2019, and the Texas Department of Public Safety indicates there were 633 murders reported in the county for 2021. Final data for 2022 will not be available until later this year, but the City of Houston’s preliminary numbers indicated that some categories of violent crime are down by 9 percent, while property crimes rose by 7 percent and kidnappings by 63 percent.
Commissioners sparred last year over police funding in response to crime, especially after the county’s initial budget rejected 82 percent of requests from law enforcement and only begrudgingly added funds for prosecutors after District Attorney Kim Ogg made frequent appearances at commissioners court to advocate for the funds.
While reluctant to add patrol officers or increase constables’ budgets, the commissioners court has provided funds to build sidewalks and bike trails, add streetlights and trees, and provide free public Wi-Fi, listing these as public safety programs.
Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and former commissioner Jack Cagle thwarted a planned tax increase by boycotting meetings and preventing a quorum after commissioners court failed to come to an agreement over law enforcement funding.
Harris County government has grown an estimated 39 percent over the past four years with the addition of new departments such as the Justice Administration and the Election Administrator’s and County Administrator’s Offices. County services also now include early childhood education, free daycare, legal defense services for immigrants facing deportation and residents facing eviction, and expanded pretrial services under a federal consent decree.
Fifth Circuit Court Overturns Bail Bond Precedent Cases in Dallas and Harris Counties
The federal appeals court threw out a 2018 ruling that has governed Harris County.
HOLLY HANSEN21 HOURS AGO
In overturning a lower court ruling on the constitutionality of cash bail in Dallas County, a federal appeals court has tossed out precedent set in a Harris County case five years ago with significant implications for bail practices in Texas, other pending federal lawsuits, and Harris County’s criminal justice system.
On Friday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Daves v. Dallas County, a federal lawsuit alleging that bail practices in the county were unconstitutional since indigent defendants could be denied release from pretrial incarceration if they did not have the ability to pay cash bail.
While the Daves lawsuit considered both felony and misdemeanor bail, plaintiffs cited decisions issued in ODonnell v. Harris County over misdemeanor bail. Now, the Fifth Circuit has determined that neither case should have ever been considered in federal court and that state legislation enacted in 2021 has made the cases moot.
In an en banc consideration that included all members of the Fifth Circuit court, the majority invoked the Younger Abstention Doctrine stating that federal courts may not intervene in state criminal proceedings if there are remedies available in the state judicial system. The court’s opinion further explains that the previous injunctions in both Daves and ODonnell “plainly show federal court involvement to the point of ongoing interference and “audit” of state criminal procedures.”
The 68-page opinion also cites changes to the state law enacted by the 87th Legislative Session’s Senate Bill (SB) 6, under which magistrates are required to set bail “imposing the least restrictive conditions” within 48 hours of arrest. SB 6 requires individual consideration of the defendant’s ability to pay as well as the safety of the community, law enforcement, and alleged victims.
SB 6 author Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) told The Texan in a statement that the intent of the 2021 legislation was to “increase public confidence and safety around bail setting procedures for violent, habitual offenders.”
“Additionally, in the wake of O’Donnell v Harris County, I wanted to codify integral parts of the opinion handed down by the 5th Court of Appeals to address ongoing constitutionally questionable bail practices, and to increase transparency and put structures in place to protect the state from future litigation,” added Huffman.
In 2018, judicial panels consisting of two or sometimes three justices from the Fifth Circuit affirmed Chief U.S. Southern District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s finding that Harris County’s misdemeanor bail practices were unconstitutional, but rejected her proposed remedies as “overbroad” and remanded the case for further consideration. After the 2018 elections gave Democrats control of the commissioners court, Harris County ceased to appeal the ODonnell case and instead moved to draw up an expansive consent decree, effectively preventing an en banc consideration before the Fifth Circuit.
Under the consent decree, most misdemeanor defendants in Harris County must be released without paying bail or fees on “general order” bonds. The decree also mandated that the county spend a minimum of $850,000 per year to provide support for defendants to “mitigate causes of non-appearance” for court dates. Those expenditures may include transportation, childcare, housing, and phones for indigent defendants. In addition, the county is required to pay for a federal “monitor” to oversee bail practices and provide reports.
Citing the mandates outlined in the consent decree, the county also created a new department originally titled the Justice Administration Department but renamed last year to the Office of Justice and Safety. The county’s pretrial services budget has grown from $8.6 million in 2018 to $25.4 million in 2023.
As a result of the Fifth Circuit’s rejection of ODonnell, it is possible that misdemeanor court judges and magistrates could reject the mandates included in the federal consent decree. Although county elected officials have attempted to bind the judicial courts with the agreement, judges are actors on behalf of the state and are tasked with enforcing state law.
Harris County’s practice of automatically releasing misdemeanor suspects on unsecured bond drew scrutiny last month after it was discovered that a suspect arrested and charged in a brutal robbery and assault that left a woman paralyzed had been released on a general order bond for Unlawful Possession of a Weapon last January.
Huffman has proposed a slew of bills this session to address bail bonds and criminal justice, including prohibiting no-cost personal recognizance bonds for charges of Felon in Possession of a Weapon and measures to punish judges and district attorneys who do not enforce state laws.
In addition to ODonnell, a case regarding felony bail, Russell v. Harris County, has been pending in Rosenthal’s court since 2019. Plaintiffs urged the judge to order the widespread release of Harris County jail inmates during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and again last December, but Attorney General Ken Paxton obtained intervenor status in the case and has successfully headed off a settlement like that adopted in ODonnell.
In response to the Fifth Circuit opinion, Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) told The Texan the county will need to reevaluate spending programs instituted as a result of the ODonnell consent decree.
“Harris County must immediately void the ODonnell consent decree and the costs associated with it,” said Ramsey. “They also need to be sure to move to dismiss the Russell lawsuit.”
Last Friday afternoon, Rosenthal held an emergency conference hearing in the Russell case. She ordered defendants and plaintiffs to file briefs addressing the abstention and mootness issues cited in the Fifth Circuit opinion with a reply due by May 5.
Neither the Attorney General nor the Harris County Attorney’s Offices returned requests for comment in time for publication, and the Harris County Commissioners Court agenda for April 4 does not include any mention of ODonnell or Russell.
“I would like to have the conversation at commissioners court,” said Ramsey. “Now we’ve got to begin to unwind the expensive and costly ODonnell monitor costs and programs that were started because of it. Those dollars could be used to address real criminal justice issues rather than this.”
Texas Senate Approves Ballot Language Requirement in Slate of Election Reforms
Legislation to address concerns over ballot language, bloated voter rolls, and Harris County’s problematic elections gained momentum this week.
HOLLY HANSENMARCH 31, 2023
A slew of election reform bills have made progress in the state Senate this week that would address ballot language and voter registration rolls, and increase state authority to oversee and enforce Texas election laws.
In recent years, citizens in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio have resorted to litigation to sort out confusing ballot language and allegedly opaque charter amendment procedures, prompting proposed legislative remedies from Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) in Senate Bill (SB) 221.
Passed in a 22 to 8 vote on the Senate floor Wednesday, the bill requires home-rule cities to adopt and publicize ballot language that includes “such definiteness, certainty, and facial neutrality that the voters are not misled,” and allows citizens to request a Texas secretary of state review of the language within seven days of publication.
If the secretary of state finds the ballot language insufficient, the city will have the opportunity to rewrite it, but after three attempts, the state agency will draft the ballot language itself.
SB 221 also calls on courts to quickly respond to citizen petitions over ballot language, and cities found non-compliant must pay complainants’ legal fees and will lose the authority to compose their own ballot language for four years.Great Idea !
Finally , Bettencourt’s bill makes it more difficult for cities to reject citizen petitions and preempts city restrictions on who may gather petition signatures, such as religious groups.
Noting that the Supreme Court of Texas has frequently had to reprimand cities over ballot language, Bettencourt defended the right of citizens’ petitions “to be voted on in the same language that they are submitted.”
On Thursday, the Senate Committee on State Affairs approved more than a dozen election-related bills and took up 15 more, including a proposal from Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) to remove inactive voters from registration rolls.
In laying out SB 260, Kolkhorst cited research conducted by Judicial Watch in 2020 showing there were 33 counties in Texas with more registered voters than eligible adult citizens. Most were smaller counties, with Loving topping the list with 187 percent of the population registered to vote. Larger counties included Travis, Comal, and Fort Bend.
Kolkhorst’s legislation, approved by the committee in an 8 to 2 vote, would require election officials to mail a request for confirmation to voters who have not voted for 25 months. If the voter does not respond, the registrar must then remove them from the rolls.
Noting the rise in local debt and taxes but often low voter participation in bond elections, Sen. Kevin Sparks (R-Midland) proposed SB 946 requiring bond and voter-ratified tax increase elections be held on uniform election dates in November. Humble ISD would fall into this category. Cities, Counties, School Districts try and vote on Bonds in off election dates because fewer people will vote in these elections making it more likely the bond will pass.
Other proposals heard during Thursday’s committee hearing included providing for automatic recounts to be paid for by the state, prohibitions on voting system software owned by companies headquartered in hostile nations, and requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote.
The committee also took testimony on Bettencourt’s SB 220 to create a state election marshal and system of regional election marshals and to assign specially trained Texas Department of Public Safety officers to assist with the enforcement of election law during an election.
“During the November 2020 election cycle the lax enforcement and tools for the Texas Election Code was very apparent,” said Bettencourt. “All too often violations occurred but [were] not addressed, noted merely as an irregularity that could be used in the event of an election contest.”
Bettencourt listed Harris County violations such as plans to mail absentee ballots to all voters, obstruction of poll watchers, and use of illegal drive-through voting that resulted in still-unresolved irregularities.
The bill would also require each of the state’s 11 judicial regional administrators to set up systems for hearing challenges to election procedures beginning 45 days before an election in an effort to prevent violations.
Houston City Council Member Mike Knox, a former police officer, testified that he had witnessed violations and the law enforcement officers were needed.
“If you call the police out there, the police are not prepared because they don’t understand the election code and there’s no recourse until after that,” said Knox. “You can file a complaint, but that complaint won’t be heard until after the election is already over.”
David Weinberg of the Brennan Center for Justice objected to giving the state greater enforcement power, which he said would shift authority to “offices controlled by the governor and away from prosecutors that operate independently from the political branches.”
“This is a fundamental erosion of the investigative and prosecutorial independence,” said Weinberg.
Last year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upended prosecution of election crime in the state in a ruling that allowed only locally elected district attorneys to pursue election fraud.
Following Harris County’s fraught 2022 elections that included delayed openings and widespread issues due to malfunctioning equipment, lack of staff, and a ballot paper shortage, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced her office had received criminal complaints and formally requested assistance from the Texas Rangers to investigate.
The county also faces multiple lawsuits and 21 formal election contests in relation to last year’s elections.
Knox described Harris County’s elections as “designed incompetence.”
Weinberg and other opponents to SB 221 accused Bettencourt of copying a similar law passed in Florida last year, but Bettencourt noted he had introduced the same legislation during the 2021 legislative session.
Nicole Peterson of Muslim political advocacy group Emgage told the committee there is no need for “election police.”
“There’s nothing in this bill to keep election marshals from targeting specifically election workers who are not of the same political party as the Secretary of State’s voters,” said Peterson.
While Peterson alleged Harris County’s problems could be addressed by “proper funding,” Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel told the committee that the county’s election budget had increased from $12 million in 2018 to more than $30 million in 2022.
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