Texas has one of the shortest legislative sessions out of all the states, with the regular congress meeting just five months every two years. As such, there’s a lot that does not get done even when it’s very popular. As the 87th Legislative Session draws to a close, here’s what was left unfinished.
Power Grid Reform
Texas ended up in the national news when the state power grid failed during Winter Storm Uri, leaving millions in freezing temperatures with no electricity or water and over 150 people dead. As such, the state legislature made a lot of grand promises about fixing the problem, most of which probably will not actually do much without a fundamental restructuring of the way Texas deals in power. Still, with so much finger-pointing going around, it was expected that the legislature would at least pass something to look like they were trying to avoid the next catastrophic event.
It is still possible that Senate Bill 3 will make it into law at the buzzer, but it has been a hard fight. The House version keeps the mandate that natural gas facilities properly winterize their systems, but it is restricted to only those that are directly connected to power plants and identified by a supply chain mapping committee by January 1, 2022. Also, the rules regarding winterization are left to the discretion of the Railroad Commission, an entity well known to be weak on oversight of the natural gas industry, and they are given six months to adopt it, but there is no timeline to enforce the rules and the penalties are so low as to make it moot. There is significant debate about who will pay for that too. That debate is likely to continue in the Senate while a conference bill is ironed out, but the clock is ticking. As of right now, this is the least dead of the major bills.
The state came as close as it’s ever been to finally fully embracing the provision under the Affordable Care Act this session, but ultimately it didn’t pass. The expansion of Medicaid, which would offer care to over a million Texans, would be paid for by more than 90 percent by the federal government, but Texas has refused to be a part of it.
State Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas), authored Senate Bill 117, which would have brought about the Medicaid expansion, and the bill actually had enough bipartisan support in the House to move forward. Unfortunately, committees in both chambers strangled the bill and kept it from coming to a full vote or even a hearing. On top of that, the legislature seems allergic to even studying the negative effect that refusing the expansion has had on Texans. A modest step to extend the existing Medicaid coverage for low-income new moms from being kicked off two months after childbirth to 12 months is also facing danger. It’s scheduled on the last day House Bills can be considered in the Senate and it has been reduced by the upper chamber to six months after childbirth. More worrying for advocates is the budget conference committee report released today has a contingency waiver only for six months.
Marijuana reform advocates had high hopes for this session, but it looks like the most they might get is the reduction of some penalties. That’s not nothing, but it’s a far cry from the wishes of many Texans. One of the most unfortunate failures of this session involves medical marijuana. While cannabis has been approved for the treatment of some conditions in the state, advocates have been rankled that a host of other problems are not being included on the list. The most prominent among these is PTSD, which is still prohibited for marijuana use.
House Bill 1535 would fix that, and it has remarkably high bipartisan support. It passed out of committee in both chambers unanimously, and easily cleared the House with only 12 nays
. Late Tuesday evening, the Senate passed a watered-down version of House Bill 1535 that only keeps the THC cap at 1% and only includes PTSD and all cancer patients and not patients with chronic pain and those with “debilitating conditions”. It’s unclear whether the House, which was somewhat more expansive on who is eligible for medical marijuana and had a much higher % THC cap, will concur or try to hash out the Senate changes in the last few days of session.
New gambling legislation was always a long shot in Texas, with Governor Greg Abbott being consistently against the idea. However, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation has been dropping huge money into lobbying for more gambling in the state, as well as the various sports gambling entities.
The bets do not appear to have paid off. Two measures, House Joint Resolution 133 and Senate Joint Resolution 49, which would have legalized more resort gambling, have seen their deadlines for hearings come and go. The same has been true of the sports gambling bills and the measure to repeal the gambling ban from the constitution that would have put the issue before the voters. Even the relatively popular measure of allowing the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and the Alabama-Coushatta tribes to continue operating their bingo halls couldn’t get gambling over the line this year.
Raising the Minimum Wage
Texans hoping to see the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour are out of luck. State Rep. Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) filed House Bill 1827 earlier this year which would have gradually increased the minimum up closer to a living wage. Sadly, this bill was almost a non-starter from the beginning. It never even got brought up in committee.
Hopefully, at some point, the idea will be put up before voters, where it tends to pass even in fairly conservative states like Florida. For now, Texas is sticking with low wages that generally can’t support a family. It’s one of the many major initiatives that the state legislature let fall by the wayside as they focused on banning abortion and expanding the dominance of guns.