Texas House passes second, more limited bill expanding access to medical cannabis

State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, on the House floor on May 6, 2019. Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

 

Four years after state Rep. Stephanie Klick authored legislation that legalized the sale of medical cannabis oil to Texans suffering from intractable epilepsy, the House gave tentative approval to a bill by the Fort Worth Republican Tuesday that would expand the list of patients eligible for the medicine.

House Bill 3703 would add multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and spasticity to the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for cannabis oil.

Her bill would also allow the state’s three dispensaries that are eligible to grow and distribute the medicine to open other locations if the Texas Department of Public Safety determines more are needed to meet patients’ needs. And the legislation calls for a research program to assess how effective cannabis is as a medical treatment option for various conditions.

The lower chamber gave preliminary approval to the legislation in a voice vote. It will still need a final stamp of approval in the House before it can head to the Senate for consideration.

“I have seen the benefits of expanding the condition list,” Klick told other lawmakers on the floor Tuesday.

Debate on the floor was relatively tame, though state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, questioned how Klick’s bill was different from a more broad medical cannabis expansion bill by state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, the chamber overwhelmingly passed Monday.

“Is there any reason you excluded autism?” Beckley asked Klick.

“The data is really not there,” Klick responded.

On Tuesday, the Texas House gave final approval in a 128-20 vote to Lucio’s bill, which would let people with Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, muscular dystrophy, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and a bevy of other illnesses qualify for the medicine.

Lucio’s 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.

The Compassionate Use Act, authored by Klick 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.

Under the law, Texans with intractable epilepsy only qualify for the oil if they’ve tried two FDA-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. Patients also must be permanent state residents and get approval from two specialized neurologists listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Klick successfully added an amendment to her bill Tuesday saying the second doctor only needed to be a licensed physician, rather than a specialized neurologist.

Unlike Klick’s bill, Lucio’s strikes the residency requirement and says 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.

Despite the changes to the legislation, the passage of Klick’s bills is significant for the Texas House: It’s now the third time this legislative session the lower chamber has approved measures to relax the state’s marijuana laws. But like other marijuana bills that have passed the Texas House, hurdles remain in the more conservative Senate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already drawn a line in the sand on a bill to lessen the criminal penalties for Texans found with small amounts of marijuana.

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.”

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.

Several marijuana advocacy groups lauded the passage of both Klick and Lucio’s bill.

“TEAMM applauds the Texas House for taking an important step to help more patients in need,” 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.

Texas Senate Passes School Finance Plan, Remove Sales Tax Swap Provision

AUSTIN, TX – After nearly eight hours of debate and votes on about 70 amendments, the Senate passed House Bill 3, the chief school finance reform legislation, late Monday evening. The Senate’s version of the plan includes a $5,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers and librarians, full-day pre-K for eligible children, merit pay for teachers, outcomes-based funding tied to statewide standardized testing, a school property tax rate compression of 10 cents per $100 of taxable value, and a property tax revenue growth cap at 2.5 percent.

Previously, the Senate Education Committee voted out a version of the bill which included plans for long-term property tax relief. One of those plans to make up for the lost income to public education was a 1 cent sales tax increase to buy down property taxes.   

Sensing the difficulty of passing a plan tied to a sales tax swap proposal which would only benefit the wealthiest Texans, Chair of the Education Committee and the bill’s author, Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), removed the contingency language from the bill on the floor.

Also removed in the bill is the $10,000 increase in the homestead exemption.

With the help of a Senate revenue working group, the Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education (TREE) Fund replaced the sales tax swap in an adopted amendment by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin). The revenue for this fund includes $2.3 billion a year in existing oil and gas severance taxes from the Rainy Day Fund, increased transfer from the Available School Fund which gets revenue from the Permanent School Fund, and future sales tax collections from online purchases with third party vendors, which is expected to provide $300 million a year.  

Multiple amendments offered to add other school employees in the raise failed. There was an amendment by Senator Beverly Powell (D-Burleson) to repeal the outcomes-based funding provision of the bill. It too failed in a nearly party line vote with Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) joining the Senate Democrats in favor. A few of the amendments which succeeded included one to require the state pay for alternative testing used by school districts for merit pay and another to reduce the percentage of the STAAR test in the criteria used in merit pay.

Other amendments to increase the special education funding and bilingual funding allotments failed. There was, however, an amendment passed that proposes requiring a state advisory committee study how to fix the way the state funds special education. It appears there is little appetite for legislators to reform and improve special education funding this session until after TEA’s “Corrective Action Plan” gets approved by the federal government, resolving Texas’ violations of federal law to maintain adequate special education funding. 

One amendment by Senator Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) to add back in the gifted and talented allotment in the school finance formula succeeded.

Another amendment that succeeded was bringing back the small and midsize school district allotment that was repealed in the version of the bill which passed the House and the version which passed the Senate Education Committee.

Twenty-six Senators voted for the bill, two Senators, Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) and Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), voted against the bill and three Senators, Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) and Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), abstained.

The bill now heads back to the House to see if they approve of the Senate’s changes, which is unlikely. It will then head to a conference committee of both House and Senate members to iron out the details.

The story will be updated with more details on the amended version of HB3 which received Senate passage when it gets released by the Texas Legislature.

How would lawmakers’ plan to hike sales taxes and drop property taxes affect Texans?

The rotunda at the state Capitol. At most there are 139 days left until the Legislature adjourns sine die. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

 

Texas lawmakers are expected to debate a plan this week that would raise the taxes consumers pay when they go shopping in order to lower the taxes homeowners and business owners pay on their properties.

Adding 1 percentage point to the rate of the sales tax, one of the state’s most regressive means of raising funds, would hit poor Texans hardest. But with less than a month left in the legislative session, new data is shedding light on how the proposal would benefit those with higher incomes at the expense of those with lower incomes.

An analysis of House Joint Resolution 3, which would ask voters to amend the Texas Constitution to authorize the sales tax hike, found that trading higher sales taxes for lower property taxes would benefit the highest-earning 40% of Texans while increasing the taxes paid by the remaining 60%.

The average Texas household in the bottom 20% of earners — those with household incomes less than about $37,600 — would expect to see its annual tax bill grow by about $21, according to the analysis.

Meanwhile, the average household in the highest 20% of earners — those with household incomes greater than about $149,400 — would expect to see its annual tax bill reduced by about $185.

Although the changes to most Texans’ bills would be small, the result of hiking sales taxes while lowering property taxes would be an overall tax system that is more regressive, meaning it takes a larger percentage of income from poorer people than richer people.

The sales-for-property tax swap is only one of several tax plans under debate at the Texas Legislature. Republicans who have endorsed the sales tax hike — including the trifecta of state leadership: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — say they are willing to spend more on property tax relief this year beyond the dollars generated from an increased sales tax rate. The House and Senate have proposed spending at least $2.7 billion from the state treasury’s anticipated surplus to pay for additional property tax cuts in 2020 and 2021.

Doing both in combination could lead Texans in all income brackets to experience an overall tax cut. Still, it is likely that high-earning Texans and big businesses would see greater relief than lower-earning Texans.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, on Monday shared an analysis of the lower chamber’s combined tax plans that found savings for Texans in all income brackets. Burrows’ analysis, which projected additional tax relief from a school-finance bill that’s currently under debate, found that the average household in the lowest 20% of earners would likely see an annual tax reduction of $11 under the House proposals, while the average household in the top 20% of earners would likely see annual tax savings of $384, according to the analysis. State funds supplement property taxes to pay for public schools in Texas.

But Dick Lavine, a senior fiscal analyst for the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the analysis — dependent on an infusion of at least $2.7 billion in additional state funds this year for property tax relief, with the details still under negotiation between the House and Senate — was intended to disguise the sales tax hike’s regressivity.

“You’re using the everybody-wins bill to try to swamp the effect of the bill that’s creating winners and losers,” he said.

Many conservatives favor regressive taxes like the sales tax because the overall tax levy depends on a person’s consumption and because everyone, regardless of income level, pays the same tax rate.

“In contrast to property taxes, individuals can control the goods they choose to purchase and the resulting sales taxes — and those purchases are only taxed once instead of every year,” Texas GOP chairman James Dickey said in a statement this week in support of the tax-swap plan.

Aliyya Swaby and Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting.

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