Here’s What Texas Legislators Accomplished in 2019

Texas lawmakers ended the 2019 legislative session in a self-congratulatory mood for passing a $251 Billion budget that temporarily lowered property taxes, revamped the Lone Star State’s byzantine school finance laws and gave teachers a pay raise.

Over the next couple of weeks, Reform Austin will look at other bills passed by lawmakers that affect the lives of everyday Texans. Some of the legislation is promising and others are a little more than half-measures. We’ll look at what will change and what will not on issues that are important to Texans.

Child Care Reform

Insufficient regulation and rising cases of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of children at childcare facilities and family homes led to legislation passed this session that increases childcare facility monitoring and creates greater penalties for facilities operating illegally.

SB 568: Transfers certain regulatory authority over childcare facilities and family homes to the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) and modifies certain requirements and penalties that applied to these facilities and homes

What’s different: Transferred regulatory authority previously fell under the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS)

SB 569: Requires the HHSC to adopt minimum standards for listed family homes, require liability insurance, and require certain training for operators of family homes

What’s different: Before this bill, there was little regulation of family homes and such homes were not required to carry liability insurance coverage at the amount of $300,000

SB 706: Requires the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to maintain a unit within the childcare licensing division consisting of investigators whose primary responsibility is to identify childcare facilities operating without a license, certification, registration. This unit will also initiate appropriate enforcement actions against those facilities.

What’s different: There is no current unit under the HHSC to ensure childcare facilities are operating with proper licensing

Education

Texas is ranked near the bottom in education by many studies.

During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers addressed the Lone Star State’s woeful education funding and attainment.

They slightly increased per-student funding and gave teachers a long overdue raise, which was a part of Texas’ property tax and school finance package.  Other notable aspects of that legislation gave the state’s low-income students full-day pre-Kindergarten.

HB 3: Omnibus school finance reform bill which, among other things, increased per-pupil funding by $890, provided funding for full-day pre-K for at-risk 3 and 4 year olds, provided funding for teacher salary increases at the discretion of schools within certain guidelines.

What’s different: Previously, the per-pupil funding level was $5,140. Now, it is $6,030. Previously, there was limited funding for half-day pre-K for at-risk 3 and 4 year olds. Previously, the special education mainstream weight in the school finance formula was 1.1, whereas now it is 1.15. More on the school finance overhaul will be detailed in future articles.

HB 165: Allows endorsements for public high school students enrolled in special education programs if they completed the curriculum requirements, with or without modification..

What’s different: Previously, highschool students can earn endorsements on their transcript by successfully completing math and science curriculum requirements by the SBoE. The law previously prohibited students receiving special education from receiving endorsements when the qualifying course curriculum was modified for the student.

SB 522:  amends current law relating to the development of an individualized education program for a public school student with a visual impairment.

What’s different: Previously, state law uses the term “functionally blind” as it relates to education regulations and guidelines for decisions regarding provision of braille instruction. This caused some confusion and raised an obstacle to providing appropriate instruction. It is now replaced with the language “student with a visual impairment.”

SB 1679: Allows children of public school teachers to be eligible for free pre-kindergarten programs in public schools.

What’s different: Previously, children of public school teachers were not eligible for free pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs in public school. Only English language learners, the homeless, children of active duty members of the military, foster kids, educationally disadvantaged kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and children of first responders were eligible for the free pre-K program.

Ethics

Texas’ famously lax lobbying laws were given a bit of an update in this legislative session.

Long a requirement for their federal counterparts, state lobbyists working for international clients will have to register as foreign agents.  

Business and unions will now be allowed to spend money raised from dues, fees and other money collected as a condition of employment or membership in an organization on political campaigns.

Retired and ousted legislators who became registered lobbyists in their second careers will have less influence on their former colleagues. Retired lawmakers- turned lobbyists will no longer be able to make political contributions or expenses to a candidate or office holder or committees that support candidates/officeholder.

HB 1785: Requires lobbyists to disclose if they are or are required to be registered as foreign agents.

What’s different: There was no requirement for lobbyists registered with the Texas Ethics Commission to disclose if they were foreign agents or were required to be registered as foreign agents.

HB 2586: Loosens the rules for corporations and labor groups who engage in direct campaign expenditures and it repeals a provision which prohibits PACs created by corporations from making political contributions or expenditures from money collected through dues, fees, or other money that is collected as a condition of employment or membership in the organization.

What’s different: Currently many organizations refrain from meeting with candidates or campaigns as they can be legally implicated in collusion. This allows for candidates and campaigns to sign documentation to ensure that collusion is not occurring. Also allows for campaign contributions from corporations with affidavit, and repeals election code where it prohibits PACs created by corporations from making political contributions (through dues,fees,money connect to membership).

HB 2677: Relating to certain restrictions on contributions and expenditures from political funds by a lobbyist.

What’s different:

There was concern about retired and ousted officeholders becoming lobbyists, creating a cycle of those who still have significant influence on legislation. This prohibits those who register as lobbyists from making or authorizing a political contribution or expense  to a candidate or office holder or committees that support candidates/officeholder.

HB 3044: Relating to political expenditures made by a corporation to finance the solicitation of political contributions to a political committee.

What’s different: Currently, the law allows for corporations to make political expenditures to finance political contributions. This would include making contributions to nonprofit organizations with 501 ( c ) (3) status.

SB 751: Relating to the creation of a criminal offense for fabricating a deceptive video with intent to influence the outcome of an election.

What’s different: Previously it was not a criminal offense to create these “deepfake”videos to influence elections. The bill creates the criminal offense for the creation of the videos and who cause the videos to be published/distributed within 30 days of an election.

Hurricane Harvey / Disaster Management

After Hurricane Harvey, it was apparent Texas did not have recovery and response systems in place equipped to handle such large-scale disasters. Hurricane Harvey relief and disaster preparedness and management bills passed this session outline and establish assorted disaster protocol ranging from debris removal to communications efforts.

HB 5: Develops a debris management plan to create a model contract for debris removal services and establishes groups to study debris removal and disaster recovery efforts

What’s different: There is no current debris management plan to assist local jurisdictions with disaster recovery

HB 6: Creates a long-term disaster recovery task force

What’s different: There is no current long-term system to coordinate recovery efforts between state and local governments

HB 2305: Creates a work group made up of emergency management experts to study and develop a proposal for improving the training and credentialing of emergency personnel

What’s different: This will strengthen emergency personnel training and improve Texas’ response to emergencies

HB 2325: Standardizes official digital communication during disaster response for social media, 911 texts, web portals, etc.

What’s different: Disaster communications are not standardized currently. This bill will ensure the information distributed to citizens is consistent to avoid confusion.

SB 799: Creates a business advisory council to provide advice and expertise on state and local government action to assist businesses recovering from a disaster

What’s different: There is currently no such assistance for businesses recovering from a disaster.

Maternal Mortality/ Women’s Health

Texas consistently ranks low for women’s health and has an alarming maternal mortality rate. After cuts to women’s health funding in 2011 and consolidating their women’s health programs in the subsequent years, the latest data shows one in four Texas women are uninsured. This session, the Legislature took some steps to improve women’s health, but did not address the issue of uninsured mothers including passing the #1 recommendation by the state’s task force on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity.

HB 25: Creates a Medicaid transportation pilot program for women and children.

What’s different: Previously, women enrollees of Texas Medicaid were not allowed to bring their children along with them on medical transportation for prenatal or postpartum appointments. Many women were reportedly missing appointments because of this obstacle.

HB 170: Covers diagnostic mammograms under state health insurance plans.

What’s different: While breast cancer screening mammograms are covered under Medicaid, the follow-up, diagnostic mammograms, are not covered. Federally, diagnostic mammograms are coded as not preventative.

SB 436: Directs Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and the Texas Maternal Mortality & Morbidity Task Force to implement initiatives that: improve screening to better identify and care for women with opioid use disorder; improve referrals to treatment and continuity of care; increase medication-assisted treatment options; and optimize health care provided to pregnant women with opioid use disorder and to newborns.

What’s different: Previously, the establishment of maternal mortality and morbidity task force was only required to research and make recommendations whereas now they are being instructed to develop the initiatives to solve the problems identified. With the previous information collected, the DSHS may now act on initiatives. This also allows for the creation of a pilot program to implement initiatives.

SB 748: Creates a dedicated account for newborn screenings; requires Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to evaluate state programs and initiatives addressing maternal mortality and morbidity, including e.g. collecting data on postpartum depression screenings, and study other programmatic options for Texas to explore; creates pregnancy medical homes, high-risk maternal care coordinated services pilot programs, and telehealth programs for prenatal and postpartum care in certain areas; and requires the commission to apply for federal grants for reducing maternal mortality.

What’s different: There was no sustainable source of funding for newborn screenings previously. The proposed maternal health pilot programs do not exist under current law. The bill requires HHSC to send a legislative report on actions taken to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity and to study other options the state could take.

SB 750: Expands prenatal and postpartum care services for certain women enrolled in the Healthy Texas Women program to align with federal legislation on maternal mortality review committees (MMRC); extends Texas MMRC expiration date to 2027. It also directs HHSC to do several things: conduct a postpartum evaluation in Healthy Texas Women and then add a limited postpartum package to address any gaps in care for women; apply for federal funds for specific programs of care not previously sought, including specifically for implementing a model of care for pregnant women with opioid use disorder.

What’s different: Previously, the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee was named the Texas Maternal Mortality Task Force and was set to expire in 2023. The Health and Human Services Commission currently does not provide or manage any postpartum services beyond the family planning services of the Healthy Texas Women program.

SB 2132: alert eligible women of their enrollment into Healthy Texas Women and the services provided through the program, and to provide information on local health care providers that participate in Healthy Texas Women.

What’s different: Previously, there were notices sent to women whose Medicaid expires 2 months postpartum of their eligibility for Healthy Texas Women, but it contained little information on services and affiliated providers in their area.

Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana bills passed this session expand patients eligible for THC cannabis prescriptions, create new research programs, and regulate commercial hemp farming on a state level.

HB 3703: Expands patient eligibility for low- THC cannabis prescriptions and creates research program under Health and Human Services Commission while repealing the therapeutic research program under the Health and Safety Code.

What’s different: Currently physicians prescribe low-THC cannabis to patients with intractable epilepsy. Expands coverage to include all types of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis,amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, autism, incurable cancer, spasticity, or an incurable neurodegenerative disease dependent on the license and  clinical practice of the physician. Creates a low-THC cannabis research program by the Health and Human Services Commission.

HB 1325: Establishes Hemp Farming Act regulating commercial production of hemp on the state level.

What’s different: Previously the federal government held primary regulatory authority on production of hemp unless the state submits a production plan. Established the Hemp Farming Act which establishes the intent of the state to have authority over hemp production under the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Mental Health Bills

Mental health bills passed this session expand requirements of local mental health authorities (LMHA) to provide more Texans with access to mental health resources.

HB 19: Requires a local mental health authority to employ a licensed psychologist, professional counselor, clinical social worker, or similar non-physical mental health professional, as a mental health and substance use resource for school districts

What’s different: Non-physical mental health professionals were not previously required for school districts. This bill addresses the shortage of mental health professionals in Texas and helps address the diverse behavioral health needs of students.

HB 601: Requires interviews with defendants when local mental health, intellectual, and developmental disability authorities collect information about those in custody whom sherrifs believe may be a personal with a mental illness or intellectual disability

What’s different: Currently, courts may order certain types of treatment when releasing these defendants on bond; this bill gives courts additional tools by allowing courts to also order services. It also ensures defendants receive necessary support that could keep them from returning to the criminal justice system.

HB 1070: Requires local mental health authorities (LMHA) and the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to include the number of active mental health first aid trainers and number who left the program during the preceding fiscal year in their annual reports. This bill also requires a detailed accounting of expenditures of money appropriated for implementing mental health first aid training.

What’s different: Previously, this information was not required in annual reports.

HB 4429: Requires the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to contract with local mental health authorities to provide mental health first aid training to veterans and their immediate family members

What’s different: Veterans were not previously included in the DSHS mental health training

SB 633: Requires the HHSC to form a Local Mental Health Authority (LMHA) group in rural areas of the state to develop a plan for mental health services

What’s different: LMHA are required to plan, develop, and coordinate on a local level, but planning in rural areas has been sparse. This bill will ensure rural areas are serviced by LMHA groups.

Minimum Wage Bills

Only one minimum wage bill was passed this session. The bill ensures individuals with disabilities are paid the minimum wage – previously, entities could pay individuals with disabilities below the minimum wage.  

SB 753: Increases the minimum wage for people with disabilities employed by the program wages to the federal minimum wage

What’s different: Previously, the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 allowed entities to pay an individual with a disability wages below the federal minimum wage.

Analysis: What’s a botched voter purge between friends?

BY ROSS RAMSEY

So a governor of Texas appoints a new secretary of state who immediately gets into trouble with an amateurish attempt to purge the state’s voter rolls of noncitizens — a list of almost 100,000 people that turns out to include lots of legitimate voters on it. Democrats in the Texas Senate smell a skunk and block the appointment. And then the governor adds the busted official to the state payroll for $205,000 a year.

David Whitley might be as nice a human being as the governor and others believe him to be. But before we get all misty-eyed about it, folks, this is Texas politics: How many times have you seen the Greg Abbotts of the world run from friends who are tainted with scandal?

You remember how fast Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick dropped Sen. Charles Schwertner in the grease last year, after a college student complained about unwanted sexting that allegedly came from Schwertner’s phone? Or how many of Carlos Uresti’s legislative colleagues went to his trial and sentencing last year to offer support? Have you never seen politicians rid themselves of donors who get into trouble?

Disassociation is as old a political game as endorsements are — the flip side of the same coin. Birds of a feather, fleas from lying with dogs and so on.

And there, finally, is the point: Abbott doesn’t mind the association, not just with his former and future employee, but with the scandal that bounced Whitley out of a gig as the state’s chief election officer.

In the language of politics, Abbott endorsed that voter roll purge by hiring Whitley just as surely as hiring Colonel Sanders would stand as a testimonial for fried chicken.

As loyalty goes, this is a rare and heartwarming story. Abbott obviously thinks highly of Whitley, and the SOS job is a plum for trusted political allies. Keeping him on after the voter roll blunder is an unusual show of forbearance for a politician.

It would have been easier just to slam the door, or to get a friend somewhere else — Dallas, Houston, El Paso, New Delhi, wherever — to give Whitley a good job and a soft landing.

And this wasn’t your average mistake. Putting the voting rights of tens of thousands of Texans in jeopardy attracted three federal lawsuits and ended with the state agreeing to abandon its efforts and to pay $450,000 in court and attorney fees for the lawyers who sued. Local election officials have to let voters who’d been classified as “possible non-U.S. citizens” and told to prove their legitimacy that their voter registrations are safe.

What would your boss do?

The governor did his best to stick the blame elsewhere — on the Department of Public Safety which generated a list of registered voters who at one time or another had said they were not citizens. Many of those got their citizenship later, however, and the DPS database, never meant to be used for voter verification, turned out to be full of outdated information.

The SOS went with that list, though, with Whitley at the helm, and that effort was enough to get the Senate Democrats to withhold their support for Abbott’s appointee. Abbott tried all the way to the end of the just-ended legislative session to turn them around, but couldn’t muster enough support.

The Democrats did what people in politics (and business, and other activities) often do: They disassociated themselves from Whitley, avoiding any appearance that they approved of his work.

That’s because they’re afraid of the association, and that’s the point here: Abbott’s not afraid of this particular association, and Whitley, the lucky fellow, didn’t have to go a day without a state job.

Good for Abbott, sticking up for a friend at some political risk. But if they are such friends, you have to wonder why Abbott put Whitley in front of the bus in the first place.

Maybe he didn’t think it was a bus.

Will Real Tax Reform Please Stand Up

By Alex Karjerker

While the Big 3 Talked a Big Game on Tax Reform, Texas Families will see Limited Relief

Since the 86th Texas Legislature adjourned last Monday, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (Houston) have proudly boasted their work on property tax reform. “It’s the first major property tax reform in nearly four decades, and that says it all!” relished Bettencourt,

Patrick and Bettencourt have spent their entire public careers working to lower taxes and constrain government spending. So it’s surprising that their biggest victories to date come at a time when the State of Texas’s budget will increase 16% of the last two year budget. And worse, the much touted property tax reforms will fall short of their transformative claims and provide only short-term relief to middle class Texas families trying to get ahead.

The Texas Plan

The property tax reform portion of SB 2, “The Texas Plan”, which was supported by Governor Greg Abbott and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen would reduce independent school district property taxes by 8 cents in fiscal year 2020 and by 13 cents in 2021. The school districts would be reimbursed by general state revenue.

More importantly, in order to ensure that property tax rates do not continue to rise, SB2 limits the annual growth of local school district property tax revenues to 2.5%. The new law also limits the growth of city and county property tax revenues to 3.5%. Both limits exempt revenue growth that is a result of population growth and inflation. In order for local governments to raise additional revenue above the limits, a referendum election must be held in which voters can express their opinion.

Property tax reform and relief was a top priority at the beginning of the legislative session amongst parties on both sides of the aisle. Among the 15 counties with the largest growth in the country, eight are located in Texas, resulting in residential homeowner valuations rising 10% – the maximum legal limit – in the most populated parts of the state.

Voters expressed frustration with the sentiment in the November 2018 elections and in subsequent polls. In a February 2019 poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, 66% of Texans, including 48% of liberals and 57% of moderates believed that they paid too much in property taxes. The same poll suggests that the type of reform in SB2 is broadly popular – 69% of Texans, including 67% of liberals and 58% of moderates, support the revenue caps.

A Real Life Example: The Smith Family (Tarrant County)

Ultimately, most Texans won’t see real relief under this reform.

Let’s take a look at the Smith family in Tarrant County and what their property taxes will look like in 2021, the first year of the reform.

The Smith’s live in North Richland Hills. According to the Texas Comptroller, in 2017, they paid $1.198489 per $100 of appraisal value to the City of North Richland Hills, Tarrant County (including the community college and hospital), and another $1.4539 per $100 of appraisal value value to the Birdville Independent School District.

In 2019, their home was worth about $240,000 (or the average according to Zillow). So they paid approximately $5,702.64 in property taxes. Let’s also assume the Smith’s make the median income in North Richland Hills, or about $63,500. That means they paid nearly 9% of their income in taxes.


In 2021, Birdville ISD taxes will drop by 8 cents to $1.3739 per $100 of appraisal value. According to Zillow, homes in North Richland Hills are expected to increase in value by 2.1% per year. Since the 2.1% increase is below the 2.5% limit, we can reasonably assume the property rates for the city and county will stay the same.

So in 2021, the Smith’s will live in a home worth approximately $250,000. Their city and county rate will stay the same – $1.198489 – and their Birdville taxes will drop to $1.3739. Their annual property taxes will be $5,787.88 – an $85 increase over their taxes before the reforms!

This is if the Tarrant County Appraisal Board actually follows market values and only increases the appraisal by 2.1%.

The Future

Adding insult to injury, the Texas Legislative budget writers only planned for the next two years making no plans or effort to find revenues to keep property tax rates low after 2021. But now, if ISDs are short on cash, they will have to either rely more on increasing property tax rates or cutting important public education programs.

This may have been the biggest tax reform in decades, but ultimately, Texas families will see the problem again in two years, when the band aid starts to fall off.