Texas House passes bill to vastly expand access to medical cannabis

Michael Rubin, Director at Compassionate Cultivation, a home-grown medical cannabis company serving patients throughout Texas. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

 

The Texas House on Monday advanced a bill that would expand the list of debilitating conditions that allow Texans to legally use medical cannabis.

House Bill 1365 would add Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, muscular dystrophy, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and a bevy of other illnesses to an existing state program that currently only applies only to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements.

The bill would also increase from three to 12 the number of dispensaries the Texas Department of Public Safety can authorize to begin growing and distributing the product and authorizes the implementation of cannabis testing facilities to analyze the content, safety and potency of medical cannabis.

After a relatively short debate, the lower chamber gave preliminary approval to Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III’s bill in a 121-23 vote. But the legislation still faces major hurdles in the more conservative Texas Senate before it can become law.

“Today, I don’t just stand here as a member of this body but as a voice for thousands of people in this state that are too sick to function or that live in constant, debilitating pain,” Lucio, D-Brownsville, told other lawmakers.

The Compassionate Use Act, signed into law in 2015, legalized products containing high levels of CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana, and low levels of THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, for Texans with intractable epilepsy whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Patients also must be permanent state residents and get approval from two specialized neurologists listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas. While Lucio’s bill strikes the residency requirement, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, successfully tacked on an amendment Monday saying those wanting to try the medicine only needed approval of one neurologist from the registry and a second physician who only needs to be licensed in the state of Texas and have “adequate medical knowledge” in order to render a second opinion.

Lucio’s bill is one of two which aim to expand the scope of the narrow Compassionate Use Act that have gained traction this legislative session. Another measure by Fort Worth Republican Stephanie Klick, an author of the 2015 program, is scheduled to get debated by the Texas House later in the week.

Texas is one of several states where marijuana is still illegal, and the state remains reluctant to move forward on legislation that would legalize its recreational use. More than 30 states allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas is one of nearly a dozen states that only allow for “low THC, high CBD” products for medical situations in limited circumstances.

Lucio filed a similar medical expansion bill during the 2017 session. The measure attracted nearly 80 co-sponsors — including some of the chambers more hardline conservatives — but was never scheduled for a floor vote.

HB 1365 will still need a final stamp of approval in the House before it can head to the Senate for consideration.

But despite its overwhelming support the Texas House, it’s less clear where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who has already drawn a line in the sand on a bill to lessen the criminal penalties for Texans found with small amounts of marijuana — stands on expanding the existing state medical program.

Two medical expansion bills in the upper chamber by state Sens. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, have yet to get a committee hearing. And in a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, Patrick spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor “remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

To be clear, Lucio is aware of the pushback his bill might receive in the Senate.

“We’re in a good place right now, but the fight is far from over,” he said at a press conference Friday after learning his bill had been set for a floor debate. “If we get this through the House, we have a whole other battle in the Senate.”

But expanding the Compassionate Use Act has drawn the support of some politically powerful players since the last legislative session. In March, a new group lobbying for medical marijuana, Texans for Expanded Access to Medical Marijuana, dubbed TEAMM, emerged comprising players with some serious clout in the Capitol — including Allen Blakemore, a top political consultant for Patrick.

The Republican Party of Texas also approved a plank last year asking the Legislature to “improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients,” and according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 26% of the state’s registered voters would legalize marijuana for only medical purposes.

“It’s not everyday I get to carry a comprehensive bill that is a platform issue for both the Democratic and Republican parties,” Lucio told The Texas Tribune Monday prior to debate on his bill. “That helps and it’s a great talking point when I can tell members there’s no political risk for them to support this bill.”

Several marijuana advocacy groups praised the passage of Lucio’s bill.

“Texans overwhelmingly support the expansion of medical cannabis, and it’s encouraging that lawmakers have championed bills that make safety the priority, emphasize the need for scientific research, insist on the importance of the doctor-patient relationship, and create high industry guardrails to ensure quality and consistency for patients,” said Brian Sweany, a member of TEAMM’s leadership.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

Summer is Coming: where is the Texas Legislature on Texans’ top priorities?

Texas has less than a month left until sine die, the final day of the regular session of the Texas Legislature which falls on May 27, and Thursday marks the deadline for bills to be heard out of committee in the House. Many of the priorities of Texans are at risk of being neglected and postponed for another two years when legislators meet again unless a special session is called by the Governor.

Here’s where we are on some of those very important issues:

Medicaid Expansion

This year had a record number of bills filed to expand Medicaid in some form or another, be it through traditional expansion, counties opting into expansion funds, or a ”Texas solution” which calls for a block grant from the federal government. The only vote made so far on this issue was a budget amendment by Rep. John Bucy III (D-Austin), which failed on a near party-line vote. The only other movement on this issue was a committee hearing on a bill by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), which not only expands Medicaid but enshrines the protections of the Affordable Care Act such as for pre-existing conditions into state law. This was the first committee hearing for a Medicaid expansion bill in three sessions. All expansion bills have been stalled in committee. These bills need to clear committees by Tuesday to have a chance at becoming law.

At a smaller level, there has been some traction on expanding Texas Medicaid maternity coverage to mothers to a full year postpartum in an effort to curb maternal mortality rate. Several bills have been filed but only two such bills have come out of committee in the House. Their deadline to be heard on the House floor before it gets killed for the session is Thursday.

Bills to extend children’s Medicaid coverage to address the abhorrently high uninsured rate among Texas children have yet to pass either chamber. The House version is stalled in Calendars Committee and has until Thursday to be heard on the floor before it dies. The Senate bill, which has a later deadline this month before it dies, has not yet received a committee hearing.

School Safety

Several school safety bills have only passed one chamber and are awaiting committee hearings in the other chamber. Most bills are focused on increasing funding for resiliency and improving and increasing mental health services at schools, ranging from increasing counselors to expanding telemedicine. Several plans to expand the school marshall program, which arms educators, passed the Senate, two of which received committee hearings in the House this week and one which already got approved. Other bills have stalled committee in favor of priority bills of the Speaker and Lt. Governor going forward.

Medical Marijuana

Two bills to expand medical marijuana have gotten out of committee, including one by the author of the first medical marijuana bill to pass in Texas. Both are slated for debate Monday. The rest are stalled in committee in both chambers. A bill to reduce penalties for marijuana possession but keeps possession a criminal offense passed the House. However, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says it’s “dead in the water.” It appears there is no appetite for medical marijuana in the upper chamber either, but one of the House bills’ authors says otherwise.

Property Taxes and School Funding

On the issue of property taxes and school funding, the Texas Legislature is fielding several different proposals on lowering property taxes, the method of funding schools, and the amount the state sends to schools.

The House and Senate appear to agree on spending $9 billion more on public education, above enrollment growth, with around $3 billion of that going to property tax relief contingent on what gets passed this session. Currently, the school finance bill, HB 3, was voted out of the Senate Education Committee after only one hearing with public testimony. It is slated for debate on the Senate floor on Monday. In a recently released fiscal note, the Senate’s version of HB 3 increases the price tag of the school finance reform to $15.5 billion.

Regarding where this funding is coming from and how property taxes are going to be lowered, it doesn’t seem both chambers have agreed on how exactly to do that. At the beginning of the session, the “Big Three” came together and supported a property tax reform bill which included a 2.5 percent cap on property tax revenue. While some politicians have claimed this would bring relief, it will not lower anyone’s tax bills but only lower the growth of future property tax rates. Appraisals, which drive high property tax bills more than rates do, are not capped; however, there is more transparency and accountability in property appraisal and appeal process in the bills. The proposal, after passing the Senate last month, was voted out of the House last week with an important contingency provision tying its passage to HB 3. The latest version changes the rollback rate for city and county governments’ property tax rates to 3.5 percent.

Later in the session, the “Big Three” announced their support of a 1 cent sales tax increase to buy down property taxes. The reaction from both sides of the aisle suggests there is not much of an appetite from Democrats or even some Republicans to sell that plan to their constituents. Nonetheless, HJR 3 was voted out of committee last Wednesday night and is slated for debate Tuesday. The Big Three reiterated their confidence in the plan’s passage in a press conference last Friday. In the bill’s original version, 20 percent of the revenue would go to public education and 80 percent towards property tax relief. The committee’s substitute changed it to 100 percent of the revenue earmarked for property tax relief. The Legislative Budget Board recently released an equity note on the bill indicating only the wealthiest people in the state would benefit from a sales tax swap.

Other proposals include an increase in the homestead exemption, ranging from $10,000 in the Senate to $25,000 in the House led by the House Democratic Caucus. Neither proposal cleared their respective committees but the low bill number for the Senate’s plan indicates it as a priority for the Lt. Gov. The Senate’s plan is expected to take $750 million in existing severance tax revenue from the Rainy Day Fund to make up for the losses to school revenue in the upcoming biennium if the homestead exemption is increased. This would only go into effect if voters support the constitutional amendment.

Other proposals have stalled in committee, including Rep. Charlie Geren’s (R-Fort Worth) plan to constitutionally require the state to pay its fair share of school funding by paying at least 50 percent.

One proposal to raise online sales tax collection following the Supreme Court Wayfair decision has passed both chambers.

Ethics Reform

If past is prologue, this Texas Legislature is on track to not get much done on ethics reform. The Texas Ethics Commission keeps track of all ethics reform bills for this session. According to a Reform Austin analysis, nearly 70 ethics reforms bills have been filed in both chambers, half of which have not received a committee hearing, covering campaign finance laws, lobbyist disclosures and increasing government transparency.

The majority of ethics reform bills were filed in the House whereas a little more than half the number were filed in the Senate, with 44 and 25. Of those, eight are still pending in House committees, seven more have yet to be heard on the House floor. On the Senate side, 13 bills have yet to be heard in Senate committees and two bills have yet to be heard on the Senate floor. However, there is still a chance for those bills to get passed since May 21 is the deadline for Senate bills to be heard in the House before they are dead.

One important ethics reform highlighted prior to the session is the lack of transparency regarding lobbyists who also act as foreign agents. A bill carried by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) would improve lobbyist disclosure requirements to remedy. Capriglione’s bill is one of eight ethics reform bills which have passed the House and are awaiting Senate consideration.

Another important ethics reform is closing the special session fundraising loophole, which came up in the last session but was never resolved. Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) re-filed her bill, HB 786, addressing this issue, and it is currently stalled in committee. In the previous session and in the interim, the issue of the Governor’s ability to reward campaign contributors with plum appointments to state boards and commissions came up. Only one bill, by Rep. Terry Meza (D-Irving), was filed this session to remedy this ethical issue. If neither bill clears committee and gets heard on the House floor by Thursday, they will both receive the same fate as the last session.

The Senate has passed 10 ethics reform bills so far, including SB 13, a priority bill of the Lt. Governor which seeks to close the “revolving door” between public officials and lobbyists, and another controversial one, which makes it more difficult for local governments, public universities and school districts to hire lobbyists and potentially be subject to lawsuits for noncompliance.

Minimum Wage

Several bills and resolutions to raise the minimum wage were offered again this session. Only two bills received a committee hearing, both in the House. One was authored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), who also authored the original bill that tied Texas’ minimum wage to the federal rate, at the time, $7.25, ten years ago. Her bill calls for the minimum wage to increase to $10.10 whereas the other bill, by Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City) calls for a $15 an hour minimum wage. Both were left pending after their hearings in late February. Another bill to allow local governments to pass minimum wage laws was left pending in committee last month. The House has until Tuesday to send any of these bills to the House floor for second reading.

Texas state Rep. Jonathan Stickland resigns from hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, resigned from the Freedom Caucus late last week, telling members he was recommitting himself “to the grassroots as a clear voice in the Texas House.” Bob Daemmrich

 

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, one of the most vocal members of the Texas House, has left the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus.

The Bedford Republican, who was first elected to the lower chamber in 2012, resigned late last week, telling members he was recommitting himself “to the grassroots as a clear voice in the Texas House.” Stickland, who didn’t give a specific reason for his departure, told The Texas Tribune on Monday that he “has got nothing but love for those guys and [hopes] to work with them.”

The Freedom Caucus, founded at the beginning of the 2017 legislative session, was created to fight for hardline conservative issues. The group often clashed with former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and other GOP lawmakers aligned with the more moderate faction of the party. Perhaps the caucus’ most notable success came in May 2017, when it killed more than 100 bills in a single day using a procedural maneuver — an event that became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”

So far this year, under new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the caucus has mainly fallen in line. Most members have cast votes alongside fellow Republicans on a host of bills, generally chalking up their support as acts of good faith to keep the negotiation process moving forward.

But Stickland hasn’t always been willing to join in. In November, as Bonnen trotted out a list of signatures to show he had more than enough support to become the next speaker, Stickland was the lone Freedom Caucus member whose name was absent. Stickland did, however, vote in January to elect Bonnen the next speaker.

More recently, Stickland cast lone votes against two major bills — the lower chamber’s school finance proposal and legislation that would shore up the Teacher Retirement System pension fund.

Stickland is the second House member to depart from the caucus in recent months. In December, on the heels of Bonnen’s announcement that he had the votes to become speaker, state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, left the group, stating that his “time, talent and treasure is best devoted to fighting for those things within the Republican Caucus.”

Stickland’s resignation brings the group’s membership to 10.

The office for state Rep. Mike Lang, a Granbury Republican who was elected as the caucus’ chair earlier this year, declined to comment.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.

Feds will visit six Texas school districts this week to monitor special education

Vanessa Tijerina addresses a U.S. Department of Education panel in 2016 about her 13-year-old special needs child who has been denied special education for four years. Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune

 

Federal officials will give Texas’ special education programs another round of scrutiny this week, with visits planned to monitor how six school districts are educating students with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Education is set to make those visits as part of an ongoing review, after it finished a thorough investigation last year and found Texas had violated federal education law by failing to provide students with disabilities with a proper education. Since then, state officials said they have completed all necessary steps to fix the long list of problems with special education and are waiting for the federal government to clear them.

This week, federal officials will monitor progress at schools in Houston ISD, Laredo ISD and Everman ISD, following up on a 2017 visit. They also will visit special education programs in Comal ISD, Spring Branch ISD and Lubbock ISD, chosen at random, according to the state.

Texas determined last year that all of those school districts, except Comal ISD, are in need of some assistance or intervention in their special education programs, according to state records. And all of those in need of help, except Lubbock ISD, had lower percentages of students in special education than the state average of 9.1% last year.

The 2018 federal investigation found that Texas effectively capped the percentage of students statewide who could receive special education services and incentivized some school districts to deny services to students in need. It also found that school administrators refused to evaluate some students suspected of disabilities to see if they qualified for federally funded special education services. Instead, those administrators saw those evaluations as a “last resort” for students struggling to learn. And many educators fundamentally misunderstood their federal obligation to identify students with disabilities who need additional services, the investigation found.

Federal officials OK’d some aspects of Texas’ improvement plan in October, but said Texas should do more to make sure school districts understand how to comply with federal special education law.

State officials say that problem has now been addressed.

“Commissioner Mike Morath remains confident that Texas school districts are aware of their obligations to identify, evaluate and provide special education services to students with disabilities,” said Texas Education Agency spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson in a statement.

But advocates say districts have not received guidance or additional resources from the state to help improve their services for students with disabilities.

“Our districts and our members are anxiously awaiting guidance,” said Kristen McGuire, director of governmental relations at the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education. “Right now they’re doing everything they can, absent [Texas Education Agency] guidance and so hopefully the Department of Education will see that when they come to those visits.”

Texas is also in hot water with the federal government for illegally decreasing funding for kids with disabilities from year to year. State education officials have estimated they may owe the federal government about a quarter of their annual federal special education grant in a financial penalty.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.