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Legislative Update Jan 2023 Vol. 3

Republicans File Election Bills to Bolster Fraud Prosecutions After Court Strips Attorney General’s Power

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided in 2021 that the attorney general cannot unilaterally prosecute suspected election crimes.


State Reps. Keith Bell (R-Forney) and Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) filed legislation to work around a decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) gutting Attorney General Ken Paxton’s authority to prosecute election fraud on his own volition.

Bell’s House Bill (HB) 678 would empower special prosecutors from adjacent counties to prosecute election crimes at the request of the attorney general. The two-page bill also repeals a statute that hinges on a law found unconstitutional by the CCA.

Slaton’s bill, HB 125, empowers the attorney general to file suit against a district or county attorney who explicitly or by “pattern or practice” declines to prosecute certain crimes under the election code. Officials who flouted the election code would also be subject to removal from office, an outcome the attorney general would be required to pursue under HB 125.

It also provides for civil penalties of up to $1,500 for the first violation and $25,000 for each subsequent violation. Under HB 125, prosecuting attorneys would also be prohibited from directing peace officers under their employ to avoid investigating suspected violations of the election code.

The CCA decided in December 2021 that a decades-old Texas statute giving the state attorney general the authority to charge individuals for alleged violations of election law runs contrary to the Texas Constitution. The judges on the court contended that it violates the separation of powers, which gives local district and county attorneys the ability to prosecute people.

The case originated in Jefferson County, where Paxton convened a grand jury and brought charges against Sheriff Zena Stephens, a Democrat.

Paxton sought a rehearing in the case, but the CCA denied his motion in September.

“The CCA’s shameful decision means local DAs with radical liberal views have the sole power to prosecute election fraud in TX — which they will never do. The timing is no accident — this is devastating for the integrity of our upcoming elections. Time for [the Texas Legislature] to right this wrong,” Paxton wrote at the time.

Republicans designed the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021 with the attorney general’s authority to prosecute alleged violations of the election code in mind. Without the attorney general’s involvement, decisions to prosecute are left to local district and county attorneys. Supporters of the election reform law believe that Democrats — specifically in counties such as Dallas, Harris, and Travis — will not prosecute fraud as aggressively as Republicans.

The election reform bill expanded the required timeframe for early voting, added criminal penalties for unsolicited mail ballot applications, and gave additional legal protections for poll watchers, among other measures. Republicans and supporters of the law say it makes elections more secure and fraud easier to prosecute.

Opponents of the bill in the Legislature bewailed the bill as “voter suppression” and ascribed it to unproven claims by former President Trump that President Biden illegitimately won the 2020 presidential election.

Democrats broke quorum and fled the Capitol during the 87th Legislature’s regular session and two special sessions in an unsuccessful effort to scuttle the law.

$70k Homestead Exemption, $100k Business Exemption Detailed in Texas Inauguration Speeches

Property tax reform is expected to feature during the Texas Legislature’s discussions over the next five months.


A board at a December press conference listing property tax relief as one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities for the 88th Legislative Session. (The Texan/Daniel Friend)

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick both highlighted property tax relief in their respective inauguration speeches — providing some more detail on what is sure to be a featured debate in the current legislative session.

Abbott again called for the “largest property tax cut in Texas history,” a phrase he first used back in September. At the time, he wanted to use “at least half” of the then-projected $27 billion treasury surplus to compress local school district tax rates.

That estimate grew to $32.7 billion in the Texas comptroller’s update earlier this month.

In his speech, Patrick called for an increase in the business personal property tax exemption to $100,000 — providing a reduction in the taxable value of businesses’ inventory and other tangible property. That exemption currently sits at $2,500, increased in 2021 from $500 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s (R-Houston) Senate Bill 1449. Both officials have expressed their desire to ensure Texas remains a business-friendly state, and reforming business taxation is a central part of that.

But Patrick shed light on something not previously mentioned with any specificity: he intends to increase the state’s standard homestead exemption to $70,000. At his November press conference during which a broad priority slate was announced, Patrick stated the exemption should be increased — without giving hard numbers.

But now a concrete figure has been named. Since Abbott and Patrick first took office, the homestead exemption has grown from $15,000 to $40,000 and, if all goes according to Patrick’s plan, will nearly double later this year.

Should the homestead exemption be increased, the average Texas homeowner — using an average tax rate from the last couple of years — would see their school district tax bill remain level.

That would be on top of any reduction caused by state compression. In addition to funds appropriated from the projected surplus, the state earmarked $3 billion in federal coronavirus aid for compression this year.

Much of House Speaker Dade Phelan’s (R-Beaumont) property tax-related rhetoric has focused on shaking up the appraisal process.

Not mentioned at the inauguration was any concerted plan to move the state off of its current property tax-heavy system.

Abbott has previously indicated support for eliminating the school district Maintenance & Operations rate, the largest component of property tax bills in Texas. But so far there is little indication that reform beyond compression, exemption growth, and appraisal system shake-up is on the agenda.

Lt. Gov. Patrick Says He and Gov. Abbott Are ‘All In’ on School Choice

Gov. Abbott has previously stated he expects to see a serious push for school choice during this legislative session.


The second-highest state official in Texas, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, pushed his chips to the middle of the policy table on school choice.

“The governor and I are all in on school choice,” Patrick said in his speech on Tuesday. “We are going to pass school choice and I hope, finally, that this is the session that we join over 30 other states in giving parental rights to parents to choose the school of their choice.”

He did not say the same thing about House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), who’s previously expressed skepticism about school choice’s ability to pass his chamber. In a May radio interview, Phelan said, “It’s something we’ve had on the House floor on budget night, which was a test vote [for vouchers], and it’s been about 40 to 45 out of 150 members [who] would vote for that. So the delta is pretty large on getting school choice across the finish line.”

Patrick added on Tuesday, “Governor, thank you for making this a campaign issue. By the way, we got 77 percent of the vote in rural Texas — we both campaigned on that — and I think people of rural Texas are just fine with school choice.”

A year ago, Abbott said he expected to see “a stronger, swifter, more powerful movement advocating school choice than you’ve ever seen in the history of the State of Texas.” He’s since doubled and tripled down on the issue.

In his speech, Abbott was not as direct as Patrick, but said, “No one knows what is better for a child’s education than their parents. Those parents deserve the freedom to choose the education that’s best for their child.”

The push for school choice has been criticized by some in rural areas, including some Republicans, as being anathema to those communities — specifically, that allowing parents to take their tax dollars elsewhere would undermine public schools’ ability to operate.

To that, Patrick said, “The governor and I will have a plan to protect those schools financially, and to make sure those parents have choice also where they are.”

The final shape of the school choice legislation is yet to be determined. Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) has filed Senate Bill 176 that’d create a tuition tax credit for parents moving their children to other schools.

Given the emphasis by Patrick, it is likely the blessed version will be announced among the Senate’s slate of 30 priority bills that has yet to come out.

The 88th Texas Legislature gaveled in one week ago and will conclude on May 29.

Broadband, Education, and Gun Control: Big City Mayors Announce Legislative Priorities

Mayors of the biggest cities in Texas want the state to fund multiple programs while still allowing cities to maintain local control.


Mayors of Texas’ largest cities announced their legislative priorities last week. The group plans to urge hundreds of millions in funding from the state for multiple programs like mental health services and broadband expansion while emphasizing their desire for local control.

Big City Mayors (BCM) describes itself as a “bipartisan coalition of mayors from Texas’ most populous cities, representing nearly one third of the state’s residents,” but mayoral races in Texas are nonpartisan.

It includes mayors of the 18 largest cities in Texas. Nine of those were part of the legislative agenda press conference on Friday, January 13.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg chairs the coalition. He began the press conference by emphasizing the priority of local control saying, “We undoubtedly will be opposing legislation that would erode that local authority.”

Mayor George Fuller of McKinney argued that the last few legislative sessions have “seen a degradation in the working relationship between the state and cities.”

Hinting at Gov. Greg Abbott’s declarations that prohibited local governments from imposing certain COVID-19 restrictions like mask mandates, Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez also emphasized his desire for local control. “The City of Brownsville struggled with some of the decisions that were being made and the inability for us to make our own decisions during COVID.”

Abbott’s declarations never forbade any individual from wearing a mask for his or her own protection.

Arlington Mayor Jim Ross urged the state to adopt gun control. “We need to have legitimate gun control enacted in this state,” he said, citing his concern that Arlington’s entertainment district might fall victim to a mass shooting as happened in Las Vegas in 2017.

Nirenberg pointed to a letter issued by BCM last summer after the tragic shooting in Uvalde that advocated for measures like “red flag” laws, universal background checks, and increasing the age to purchase an assault weapon.

Several of the mayors advocated for state grants for broadband funding along with increased education funding, including early childhood.

Sylvester Turner, who served as a Democrat in the Texas Legislature before being elected as Houston’s mayor, urged the Legislature to make a “transformative investment in mental health services,” clarifying that he means hundreds of millions of dollars. If you take hundreds of millions of $ from the state, why would you think you could have self-control. You have already exhibited that you have no self-control Bond after Bond since you have been in office has never gone where you promised and the City is broke,

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker acknowledged her idea to be provocative, but said, “I want Texas to be known as a state that takes care of families — women and children in particular — first. What if we piloted the first paid family leave program in Texas?”

Several mayors advocated for increased state funding for education, including in the early childhood years.

Amarillo’s mayor, Ginger Nelson, emphasized the mayors’ desire to see the continuation of Local 380 incentive agreements that she said are critical to attracting businesses to Texas cities. This might be of particular concern due to the expiration of Chapter 313 property tax abatement agreements at the end of 2022.

None of the mayors mentioned border security issues, including Mendez, who governs Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas and a border city to Mexico.

Members of BCM claim to represent their communities and want to “improve the lives of all Texans.” Cities often pay lobbyists to advocate for their legislative priorities. For instance, the city of Houston has paid over $1.3 million for lobbyists’ efforts on its behalf in Austin, according to Transparency USA.

Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) has filed legislation again this session to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying. Previous proposals have been killed by Mayes’ Republican colleagues, even though 94 percent of Texas Republicans supported such measures in a primary 2020 ballot proposition vote.

Gov. Abbott to Preserve COVID Emergency Order Until Legislature Passes Mask, Vaccine Mandate Ban

The governor provided three reasons for preserving the disaster declaration will soon stretch into its fourth year.


JANUARY 26, 2023

In a Thursday morning interview with Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, Gov. Greg Abbott said that he’ll leave his COVID-19 emergency declarations intact until the Texas Legislature bans mask and vaccine mandates.

The governor renewed his COVID-19 disaster declaration on January 15 — a tradition that will turn three years old in March.

Asked why he continues extending the orders, Abbott said it was biding time, for three reasons: for the Legislature to “codify his order” that prohibits public or private vaccine and mask mandates, for the body to pass a state version of the federal Title 42 policy, and for the Texas Supreme Court to rule on his lawsuits against school districts that implemented such mandates.

If his orders are withdrawn, the governor said, those localities and private businesses may resume their vaccine and mask mandate policies and the lawsuit would become moot.

Additionally, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has issued her own order with various directives claiming to last for 14 days after the governor’s orders are rescinded. One of those, GA-13, counteracted one of Harris County’s directives that prison inmates be released to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s unclear how that will be affected by the rescission of Abbott’s declaration and orders, but the Legislature is pining to pass bail and personal bond restrictions this session against local governments like Harris County that have deployed, or have tried to deploy loose release policies.

State Rep. Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian) filed House Bill (HB) 1491 that would establish a state version of Title 42, the federal provision that allows the government to expel illegal immigrants from the U.S. under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Biden administration to continue enforcing the provision, staying a lower court ruling that it be ceased.

The fight over mask and vaccine mandates has been long drawn out. Most recently, Abbott has called on the Legislature to pass its own ban, adding it to the special session call in October 2021.

The Legislature did not pass that ban during its truncated session, which focused mostly on redistricting.

This position differed from his position only a couple of months before, in which a spokesman voiced opposition to placing a vaccine mandate prohibition against private entities.

It also contrasts with the governor’s own mask mandate issued in July 2020 that he rescinded in March 2021 — issued after Abbott stated the “government cannot require individuals to wear masks.” Since then, Abbott has tried to crack down on local orders, including his GA-40 order that prohibits any vaccine mandates; that order states he will rescind it once the Legislature acts.

One of the lawsuits Abbott references is the State of Texas v. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, filed against said official who issued such mandates.

The Legislature began the 88th Legislative Session this month, which adjourns sine die on May 29. Until then, the members have the chance to pass vaccine and mask mandate bans once and for all — until which date, the governor’s orders will continue to be renewed.

Most legislation passed takes effect the following September or January after the session, but if they get enough support, those laws may take effect immediately. How long Abbott renews his orders depends not only on the passage of these laws, but also on how much support they garner in the Legislature.

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