Senate priorities on bail,
Eleanor Klibanoff, James Barragán and Jolie McCullough
On Tuesday night, the Texas House of Representatives killed several top Senate priority bills on bail, immigration, judges and school safety in a midnight massacre that dashed hopes of a harmonious end to the session.
The two chambers have been increasingly at odds on issues like property taxes and school choice, but Tuesday night, those disagreements spilled over into priorities the chambers had generally agreed on.
The move sets up major battle lines for the final six days of the session and fuels speculation that Gov. Greg Abbott will call the Legislature back for a special session.
Just four days earlier, House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick struck a different tone when Phelan visited the Senate and took a photograph with Patrick.
“The Speaker and I had a very good meeting, we’re working together,” Patrick said.
As recently as Monday, Phelan tweeted a photo with Patrick and Abbott meeting together for the first time in months to discuss legislative issues.
“We’re working together to make sure we get it all done on time,” he said. “One week left of #txlege. Stay tuned . . .”
But the next night, Senate priority bills that would have made it a crime to enter the country outside a port of entry, allowed judges to more often deny bail, and disciplined judges that set low or no bail met unceremonious ends in the House.
House Democrats planned to fight the bills with technical procedures, but in some cases, Republicans fell on their own swords, repeatedly postponing bills beyond the chamber’s midnight deadline to pass Senate legislation.
In killing bail bills, the House knocked down not only Senate priorities, but the governor’s as well. In laying out his emergency items for lawmakers in February, Abbott specifically mentioned his desire for a constitutional amendment to expand the circumstances in which a judge can deny bail. Senate Joint Resolution 44 aimed to do just that and was set for a vote in the House on Tuesday night before it met its demise at the hands of House lawmakers.
Abbott and both chambers have also prioritized securing the state’s border with Mexico. Although the House killed its version of Senate Bill 2424, a bill that would have allowed Texas police to arrest or expel from the country people suspected of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border outside of a port of entry, similar provisions remain in the current version of House Bill 7, which went before the full Senate after midnight Wednesday.
Another Abbott priority, ending COVID-19 restrictions, was not so lucky. Neither Senate Bill 177, which would end COVID-19 mandates, nor Senate Bill 1104, which would require a special legislative session to extend disaster declarations like the ones Abbott used during the pandemic, made the House deadline Tuesday. The House companions to those bills are also dead, despite Abbott calling for such legislation in his State of the State address. The House instead passed Senate Bill 29, a less expansive measure relating to COVID-19 mandates.
Two other Senate bail bills died Tuesday: Senate Bill 1318, which was largely pitched as a clean-up bill for the sweeping bail legislation that passed in 2021, and Senate Bill 21, which would have allowed judges to be disciplined for setting low or no bail in criminal cases. After a point of order was raised, Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, quickly moved it off the calendar.
A month ago, when the Senate passed SB 21, Patrick said the bill would protect law enforcement and communities by reining in judges “who do not fully consider an offender’s violent history” when they released alleged criminals on personal recognizance or low bail amounts.
The House also postponed Senate Bill 11, Patrick’s priority school safety bill. While that bill is off the calendar, the issue is not off the table. House Bill 3, which gives the state more power to compel school districts to create active- shooter plans, requires mental health training for certain employees and puts restrictions on those who carry a gun in school, has passed both chambers and is now in conference committee.
Another high-profile education bill, Senate Bill 9, passed the House on Tuesday, with several amendments attached. The original bill gave teachers a one-time bonus of $2,000, plus an additional $6,000 for teachers in small districts. The House tacked on several other education priorities, which the Senate will have to agree to — or, more likely, the two chambers will have to duke out their differing priorities in conference committee.
Several other high-profile bills died simply because they did not make it to the floor before the midnight deadline, including an effort to get the Ten Commandments posted in public schools.
Across the rotunda, however, the Senate continued passing many top House priorities, including bills that ban “sexually explicit” books in school libraries and create stricter parental controls for social media companies. Patrick even took the time to praise the House author of the library bill, state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, thanking him for trying to get language from one of his priority bills added to it.
“For the last four days, you’ve been trying to figure out how to get [Senate Bill] 13, which you carried in the House but it did not pass, on to your bill,” the lieutenant governor said as his chamber’s bills were being repeatedly knocked down in the House. “But at the end of the day, it didn’t work and we didn’t want this to go down.”
The Senate also took up House Bill 100, a bill to infuse school districts with billions of dollars, which Senate Republicans amended to include a controversial voucher-like program in an effort to achieve a legislative priority of many conservatives and avoid the need for a special session.
That effort will force House lawmakers to entertain the idea of a voucher- like program despite House leaders previously saying such a bill did not have the support needed to move out of committee. The House will likely reject a bill with these amendments to avoid jeopardizing the school funding, forcing the chambers to negotiate in conference committee in the final days of the session.
The Senate also put House Bill 5, a Phelan priority to create a new state tax break program to attract big business to the state, on its calendar for Wednesday — the last day for the Senate to pass any bills. Patrick had opposed the previous iteration of the program, known as Chapter 313 after the section of the government code it covered, and ultimately boasted about killing it last session. But Phelan and Abbott have said such a program is necessary to attract business.
Patrick had ceded ground on the issue in recent weeks as the House version excluded renewable energy projects from the tax breaks. He said the Senate would look at the issue but first the state must work to shore up its electric grid, which the House tried to tackle by taking up Patrick’s Senate Bill 7.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune. org/2023/05/24/texas-legislature- senate-priorities/.
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