As predicted, State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) was elected by his peers to lead the House as speaker this session. Now that the formalities are over, he can finish getting his staff in place and start the all-important job of deciding who gets assigned to which committee and, even more importantly, who on those committees will wield the gavel from the middle chair. These assignments are important because the committees and their chairmen determine the fate of most legislation during a session. Committees generally must wait until the session’s 30th day to hear bills (unless the bill concerns the state budget or the topic of the bill has been designated an emergency by the governor), but the sooner the committee assignments are made, the sooner everyone else can start pestering those committee members to file their pet bills.
We don’t have any inside information on the timing of this announcement, but we’re guessing House committee assignments will come out at the end of either next week or the following week, while in the Senate (which is not under new leadership and has fewer new members), the committee assignments should come out as soon this afternoon, or if not, probably no later than the end of next week. (Why the end of the week? Good question. The answer is that dumping the news after the final adjournment for the week helps the speaker or lite guv get a head start and be far from Austin and “unavailable” when legislators who are unhappy with their assignments want to find him and complain to them about it!)
One other prediction: Right now, the House and Senate leadership and the governor are singing kumbaya and pledging their cooperation with each other, but like all new crushes, this too will end—the only question is when. To paraphrase a golden rule of bicameral politics: “The other political party is not ‘the enemy,’ they are ‘the opposition’; the other chamber is the enemy.” This rule will kick in at some point this session, but until then, expect the natural tensions to remain bottled up for a few weeks.
During the first week of a session, each chamber of the legislature must adopt the rules under which its members will operate. (Must be nice to get to set your own rules, eh?) Among the rule changes that may impact your work at the capitol are the following:
- The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will be reduced from nine to seven members, meaning shorter waits to establish quorums, shorter hearings, and fewer votes to whip if you are trying to pass or kill a bill. All in all, that is going to make your work easier in the Senate (depending on who is on the committee, of course).
- The House committees on Criminal Jurisprudence, Corrections, and Juvenile Justice were all expanded from seven to nine members, so reverse everything we just said above and apply it here. (What can we say—the Lege giveth, and the Lege taketh away!)
- The House made it harder to kill bills that have been placed on the Local and Consent Calendar (a tactic used to great effect last session by the House Freedom Caucus).
- Both chambers updated their rules to govern complaints of sexual harassment and related training obligations—but how that will work in practice remains to be seen.
“Always follow the money” is a well-heeded rule of thumb at the state capitol, and this week the state comptroller released his all-important biennial revenue estimate to give lawmakers an initial target for how much general revenue money they can spend in the next two fiscal years. The good news is that Comptroller Hegar predicted there would be an extra $9 billion in general revenue for legislators to play with (plus as much as $15 billion in the hard-to-tap Rainy Day Fund); the bad news is that they have billions of dollars of outstanding debts to cover, and the comptroller’s final estimate could be lowered later in the session (usually around April) if oil prices stay low and the national economic situation remains in flux.
Overall, however, this is cautiously optimistic news for observers interested in squeezing more juice from the legislature’s lemon—say, for things like a judicial pay raise or shoring up assistant prosecutor longevity pay or creating new courts, for example. But all of that will be contingent on how much of this “new money” gets earmarked for school finance and property tax relief, the two intertwined issues that will dominate this session. It could take anywhere from $5 billion to $12 billion (every biennium, mind you) to truly “solve” those problems, so all bets are off when it comes to guessing what the final accounting will be. But the bottom line is that all things are still possible, unlike in some other sessions when a weak estimate has immediately doomed new endeavors.
New bills to watch
For the first 60 days of a session, legislators’ focus is on budget hearings and bill filings. With that in mind, here is another entry in the category we began last week highlighting some of the recent filings of interest:
HB 629 by Landgraf, creating a statewide protective order registry
HB 658 by Dutton, changing the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 12–17 years of age
HB 667 by K. King, enhancing the punishment for sexual assaults involving incest
HB 707 by Flynn, enhancing the punishment for sexual assaults involving incest (yes, this is the exact same bill as the previous one; that happens in the House sometimes)
HB 738 by Harless, requiring conditions of bond to be entered into TCIC
SB 315 by Hughes, adding unlawful interception to engaging in organized criminal activity
SB 325 by Huffman, creating a statewide protective order registry (companion to HB 629 above)
To read any bill, go to https://capitol.texas.gov/, enter the bill number in the appropriate field, and click “go”—then on the subsequent webpage, select the tab at the top of the page for the information (history, bill text, actions, authors, etc.) you want. And as always, you can contact Shannon or Rob if you are having trouble finding the information you seek.
New interim reports
Committees are still releasing their final reports from the interim. The House County Affairs Committee released its report yesterday, most of which will be of more interest to your county commissioners and the civil practitioners with whom they consult. We are also still waiting for the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to release its recommendations.
New wish lists
Now that the legislature has convened, numerous lobby and advocacy groups are papering the hallways of the capitol with their policy papers and wish lists for the session. In the criminal justice sphere, that includes these entities that released their agendas this week:
Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF)/Right on Crime (PDF copy available here)
- Prohibit “public agency association” (such as TAC, TML, and—yes—TDCAA) from receiving any public funds
- Prohibit local governments from using public funds on employees (like assistant prosecutors) who come to Austin to work on legislation
- Grand jury reforms (same as last session)
- Reform/eliminate civil asset forfeiture (same as last session)
- Revise the state’s funding formula for probation departments to incentivize treatment and early terminations of successful probationers
- “Presumptive pre-trial diversion/drug courts” for drug possession cases
- Raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds
- Expand eligibility for orders of non-disclosure
- Expand the list of offenses eligible for cite-and-release
- Pre-trial presumption of release on personal bond for low-risk offenders (based on validated risk assessment)
- Prohibit arrest for fine-only offenses
- Increase default mens rea standard from recklessly to intentionally/knowingly
- And many more; see the full report for all the details
Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) (PDF copy available for download here)
- Remove parole and good time information from punishment jury charges
- Retroactively grant some young violent or sex offenders early parole eligibility (aka the “Second Look” bill)
- Reduce low-level felony drug offenses to misdemeanors
- Reduce low-level marijuana possession to a Class C offense or a civil sanction
- Reduce all Class B DWLI offenses back to Class Cs
- Remove felony enhancements for prostitution sellers (“Janes”)
- Increase funding for pre-trial diversion services for state jail felony offenders
- Replace current bail bond system with county-run pre-trial services and create a presumption of release on personal bond for low-risk offenders
- Require courts to consider “parenthood status” in sentencing
- Raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds
- Remove minimum terms of confinement for juvenile determinate sentences
- Numerous other re-entry and rehabilitation proposals (see the report for details)
Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV)
- Enter “no contact” conditions of bond into TCIC (as with protective orders now)
- Keep firearms out of the hands of FV offenders who cannot legally possess them
- Expand existing Property Code laws allowing lease terminations due to family violence
- Increase training on strangulation recognition and victim services
- Various funding requests
Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force
- Apply rape shield law protections to victims of human trafficking
- Allow evidence of extraneous offenses in the guilt/innocence phase of trafficking trials
- Create a new Penal Code offense for online promotion of prostitution/trafficking
- Allow stacking of continuous human trafficking cases
- Broaden the definition of “coercion” for certain trafficking offenses
- Make it easier for human trafficking victims to get orders of non-disclosure for crimes committed while being trafficked
- Increase penalties for buyers of prostitution (“Johns”); mandatory probation for a first offense by sellers (“Janes”)
The governor and lieutenant governor’s inaugurations are on Tuesday, so very little substantive work will be accomplished next week—which is as it should be, because the focus at this stage is on filing bills, not debating them. If/when committee assignments are announced, we’ll break down those assignments for you and continue to highlight certain bills or lobby group agendas as they are rolled out.
Legislative rotation sign-up
Remember, you can contact Shannon for details on how to can get involved in the legislative process—even if it is only to get an up-close-and-personal view of the sausage-making for your first time. If you know when you’d like to come to Austin, give those dates to Shannon so he can put you on our first-come, first-served calendar (it is starting to fill up!). And if not, reach out and ask him for suggestions on when a visit may best suit your goals. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease at the Capitol, so don’t be shy—your legislators need to hear from you!
Quotes of the Month
“The top three things—number one, number two, and number three—is [sic] school finance and property tax reform. Those are the top three issues for me.”
—New House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), when asked last month what his legislative priorities would be this session. He even went so far as to stock the House members’ lounge with drinking cups that said “School finance reform: The time is now.”
“Most certainly, the numbers mean this will be a school finance session.”
—Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers & Research Association, commenting upon the comptroller’s budget projections for the next biennium.
“If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back. You have a moral imperative to do this—to do whatever it takes.”
—Matt Osborne, a political activist who recently created a “false flag” Facebook page to discredit a rival party’s Senate candidate.
“I tried to get her to come to lunch today and she gave me some lame excuse about session.”
—Attorney General Ken Paxton, joking about his wife, new State Senator Angela Paxton (R-Plano).
“There’s nothing ‘easy’ about Dennis.”
—Former State Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Houston), giving a tongue-in-cheek reply when asked if she would say new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was as “easy on the eyes” as she once remarked about his predecessor.