Politics

Texas lawmakers target property taxes, election fraud and transgender people in new legislation ahead of 2023 session

Thousands of bills are expected to be filed for the legislative session that begins in January. Lawmakers are expected to have a budget surplus when they return to Austin.

Montinique Monroe/Getty Images
FILE: The Texas State Capitol is seen during a rally against anti-abortion and voter suppression laws on October 2, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

Texas lawmakers won't gavel in for the new legislative session until January, but they got their first chance to file bills Monday.

By 1 p.m., Texas legislators filed more than 800 bills pertaining to an array of matters. Thousands of pieces of legislation are filed each session, but most never make it into law. The first day of bill filing, though, can shed light on legislators' priorities and what battles could be shaping up in Austin next year. Republicans continue to hold both chambers — and narrowly expanded their control of the Legislature.

When the 88th legislative session convenes, the state is expected to have an unprecedented amount of funds at its disposal. The state comptroller forecast that there will be at least an extra $27 billion in the two-year budget compared with the last regular legislative session. Lawmakers will also see an increase in their savings account, also known as the rainy day fund.

Filing early means bills will typically get a low number. But the lowest numbers are reserved for the highest-priority bills set by the House speaker and lieutenant governor. House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have yet to announce what their priorities are.

Here's a look at some of the notable bills filed Monday, which will be updated regularly.

Public education

Two Houston Democrats have filed legislation pushing for more inclusion of ethnic studies in schools. House Bill 45, filed by Rep. Christina Morales, D-Houston, would mandate most public school districts to offer Mexican American and African American studies. Meanwhile, House Bill 368 by Rep. Jarvis Johnson would create an African American studies advisory board within the State Board of Education to expand the teaching of "citizenship, culture, economics, science, technology, geography, and politics as they relate to the history of African Americans."

Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, has filed a bill that would change how the state funds Texas' 1,204 public school districts and open-enrollment charters. With House Bill 31, Hinojosa wants to fund schools based on their average enrollment.

Currently, schools are funded on their average daily attendance. The average daily attendance is calculated by the sum of children present divided by days of instruction that schools are required to give. Texas schools have to be open for a minimum of 75,600 minutes over a school year, which includes recess and lunch.

This means if a kid is absent, the school loses that money. Some superintendents have been calling to be funded based on enrollment so they don't lose money regardless of attendance.

House Bill 338, filed by Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, would require publishers to assign content ratings to books that they want to sell to schools. The scores, which function similar to movie ratings, would place restrictions on which books students can access depending on their age. If the ratings are not deemed proper, the books could be recalled.

The legislation follows a year of rapid book banning in the state. PEN America, a free expression advocacy nonprofit, found that 22 school districts in Texas banned 801 books — the highest number in the country — between July 2021 and June 2022. The bans particularly targeted books focusing on race, abortion and LGBTQ issues. — Brian Lopez and Alex Nguyen

Guns

Following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas legislators filed a flurry of bills aimed at limiting who can possess firearms, where they can be purchased and increasing accountability around gun purchases.

Limiting firearms purchases or who can own guns could be an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Legislature. Despite several mass shootings in recent years, Texas Republicans have repeatedly loosened gun laws.

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, filed similar bills that would require sales of multiple firearms to be reported to law enforcement agencies. Moody's bill, which includes the sale of multiple magazines, would require the Texas Department of Public Safety to inform the sheriff where the purchaser resides. The shooter who targeted Robb Elementary School legally purchased multiple AR-style rifles immediately after his 18th birthday.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, has also introduced Senate Bill 145 to raise the minimum age to purchase some weapons. — William Melhado and Sneha Dey

Abortion

Texas law bans all abortions from the moment of conception, except to save the life of the pregnant patient. A group of Democrats have filed two bills that would expand those exceptions.

Senate Bill 122 would add an exception to the ban in the case of rape. It would not require the pregnant patient to file a police report, provide forensic evidence or prosecute the crime to obtain an abortion under this exception. Several Republicans have said they would consider supporting rape or incest exceptions.

Senate Bill 123, filed by Democrats, would allow abortions to save the life of the pregnant patient, to preserve the patient's physical or mental health, or in cases of lethal fetal anomalies or other fetal conditions that are incompatible with life "without extraordinary medical interventions." The bill would require those decisions to be made by a doctor and patient, not a medical review board.

Republicans are expected to file bills this session to tighten and ensure enforcement of existing abortion laws. Rep. Candy Noble, R-Lucas, has filed House Bill 61, which would stop Texas municipalities from helping people pay for out-of-state abortions. — Eleanor Klibanoff

LGBTQ Texans' rights

Texas Republicans have targeted transgender people several times in recent sessions. Already, there is a wave of bills aimed at gender-affirming health care.

House Bill 42, filed by Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, would expand the state's definition of child abuse to include providing gender-affirming health care under the guidance of a doctor or mental health care provider. The Legislature declined to pass a similar bill last session.

House Bill 112, filed by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, would also criminalize gender-affirming health care. In particular, the legislation would bar health care providers from offering various gender-affirming procedures and treatments for children, including puberty blockers and testosterone or estrogen doses. Violations could result in a second-degree felony. Toth also introduced this proposed ban in House Bill 41, which would also take away professional liability insurance policy from providers who offer these treatments.

Gender-affirming care is recommended by all major medical associations to treat gender dysphoria, the distress someone can feel when their physical presentation does not align with their gender identity. For teens and youth, gender-affirming care is often limited to social transition — using different pronouns or wearing different clothes — but can include puberty blockers, which are fully reversible, and hormone therapy.

In February, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion that equated gender-affirming care with child abuse, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to direct the state's child welfare agency to investigate parents. Those investigations are largely blocked by court order, but if state law changed, they could potentially resume. — Sneha Dey, Eleanor Klibanoff and Alex Nguyen

Energy

Republican lawmakers filed bills that would make building renewable energy facilities more difficult. For example, a bill by Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, would increase setback requirements on the location of wind turbines and allow county commissioner courts to create designated areas for wind turbines and prohibit them elsewhere in the county. An identical bill was filed by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, in the Senate.

Democratic lawmakers filed bills that seek to harden energy and water infrastructure to endure severe weather events, some of which, like hurricanes, are enhanced by climate change. Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, for example, proposed bills that would require regulators to create plans to protect the state's oil and gas infrastructure and the state's water treatment facilities from severe weather events and power outages. In the Senate, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, proposed bills that would direct regulators to provide funds for public water supply systems to acquire backup power generators in economically stressed areas and develop an alert system for boil water notices.

The energy bills come after a 2021 winter storm that caused the state's power grid to collapse, which ultimately killed hundreds of Texans and left millions without electricity for several days. The power grid crisis also prompted cascading problems with the state's water supplies — millions of people were told to boil their water after water treatment plants lost power. — Erin Douglas

Health care

Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, and Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, have filed bills to expand postpartum Medicaid to 12 months. House Republicans have called this a top priority, particularly in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Last year, the House voted to give new moms access to Medicaid for a year after they gave birth, but the Senate reduced that time period to six months. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has said that the state's application is "not approvable"; applications for 12-month extensions were automatically approved through the American Rescue Plan.

House Bill 70 by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, would make menstrual supplies like tampons and pads tax-exempt. Howard has filed similar bills every session since 2017, but this year, Gov. Greg Abbott and other key Republicans have signaled their support for eliminating the "tampon tax." — Eleanor Klibanoff and Sneha Dey

Voting and elections

House Bill 39, introduced by Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, would bump the penalty for election fraud from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony.

In 2021, Abbott called for stiffer penalties for illegal voting — less than a month after he signed a bill that lowered penalties. Phelan, in response, said it was not an appropriate time "to re-litigate" the legislation known as Senate Bill 1.

The bill filed Monday would amend existing voting law. Some offenses include causing "any false or intentionally misleading statement, representation, or information to be provided to an election official" and causing "the ballot not to reflect the intent of the voter."

Similar legislation, House Bill 397, House Bill 222 and House Bill 52, would increase penalties for illegal voting to a second-degree felony. These bills are filed by Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth; Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City; and Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, respectively.

Senate Bill 118, filed by Sens. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, and Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, would require counties to put polling sites on university and college campuses with at least 5,000 students. While the proposal is similar to what Menéndez introduced in 2019 and 2021, this year's bill goes further by mandating at least two voting locations on campuses with 10,000 students, plus one extra site for every additional 10,000 students.

The lack of on-campus polling locations is a big barrier to youth voter turnout in Texas, on top of strict voting laws. In the recent midterms cycle, 50% of the state's 36 public universities had on-campus early-voting sites, while only around 20% of the nine historically Black colleges and universities did. — Sneha Dey and Alex Nguyen

Disaster declarations

A series of bills by state Sen. Nathan Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, would require more legislative oversight into the Texas governor's ability to renew disaster declarations — which grant the state's top elected official more authority outside the checks and balances by state lawmakers typically in place

The package of legislation includes Senate Bill 99, which would require the governor to call a special session of the Legislature if a disaster declaration is to be renewed past 90 days, provided the Legislature is not already in session at the time.

Gov. Greg Abbott has taken criticism from some Republicans for using his authority under the pandemic disaster declaration to extend the early-voting period during the height of the pandemic. He has also been criticized by Democrats for using a disaster declaration along the Texas-Mexico border to funnel billions in tax dollars to his Operation Lone Star with no legislative appropriations process.

Proponents say limiting the governor's ability to renew declarations curbs potential for abuse of power and allows voters to weigh in during the process.

Johnson also is attempting to curtail the authority of the governor and other leaders to sweep money unchecked out of state agencies' budgets to fund unrelated programs — such as the hundreds of millions Abbott has moved out of agencies like the prison system and juvenile justice department in order to fund Operation Lone Star, his border-security project. Under SB 96, such budget moves that happen outside the normal appropriations process or when the Legislature is not in session would require a public hearing before the Legislative Budget Board.

"This specifically relates to the actions of this governor, but it's not because of this governor — this is something that's been on people's minds," Johnson said. "It's not something wacky — it's of broad interest and it's about good government, limited government, checks and balances, transparency and separation of powers." — Karen Brooks Harper

Property taxes

State lawmakers have so far filed dozens of bills seeking to tame Texas' property taxes — which are among the highest in the nation because that's largely how public schools are financed and the state doesn't have an income tax. Republican leaders have said they want to use the massive budget surplus to help lower homeowners' tax bills.

State Rep. Andrew S. Murr, R-Junction, filed a bill that would abolish school districts' maintenance and operations tax, which they use to pay teachers' salaries and day-to-day expenses. Public schools make up the bulk of any given homeowner's tax bill. The idea of getting rid of the M&O tax has gained traction in Republican circles this year.

Murr's bill would also establish a joint committee to handle the nitty-gritty of how exactly the state would abolish the maintenance and operations tax.

Another proposal — House Bill 32, from state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake — would place limits on how much appraisal districts can raise a single-family home's value. State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, once more filed a bill requiring appraisers to only value a home based on the value of neighboring homes, a proposal aimed at preventing displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods.

House Bill 379 by state Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, directs the state comptroller to automatically put half of any budget surplus at the end of each biennium into the Texas Education Agency to help reduce property taxes. Republican leaders have said they want to use a massive budget surplus to help lower Texas homeowners' property taxes. — Karen Brooks Harper and Joshua Fechter

Opioid testing

With Senate Bill 86, state Sens. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, and Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, have launched a bipartisan effort to remove the penalty for those who manufacture, possess, deliver or use testing equipment for identifying fentanyl. Similar bills are being pushed individually in House Bill 85, House Bill 362 and Senate Bill 207. They were filed respectively by Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock; Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, and state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin. Possession of drug testing supplies is currently punishable by a $500 fine and distribution of drug testing supplies is punishable by up to a year in jail. — Alex Nguyen and Sneha Dey

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/14/texas-bill-filing-legislation-session-2023/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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