The Texas Legislature has wrapped up its 140-day session, with the passage and failures that impact the Black community.
All eyes are on Gov. Greg Abbott who vowed to hold a special legislative session to try and address some of the issues that failed. No word on when he’ll do it, but he has already expressed his intention to call lawmakers back in the fall to redraw legislative maps when the Census Bureau releases its population data for redistricting.
Here’s a rundown of some of the key legislative issues that impact the Black community:
Voting/Senate Bill 7: Texas Democrats, who had been fighting the voting law, Senate Bill 7, found a way to stop – even if only temporarily. Known as the “Election Integrity Bill,” SB7 would set uniform early voting hours, further empower partisan poll watchers, and put new criminal penalties on voting officials and assistants who break the rules. It would ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, penalize election officials who send mail-in ballot applications to those who haven’t asked for them, and require some people who drive voters to the polls to hand over their personal information. Democrats decry it as voter suppression legislation that targets people of color. Republicans say it’s necessary to ensure secure elections and protect the integrity of the voting process. Look for Abbott to end up in court if this is ever signed it into law.
Criminal justice/policing: Though it initially received a lot support, the George Floyd Act did not gain traction in either chamber. Democratic lawmakers did opt to break the sweeping police reform bill into smaller pieces that did advance. Banning chokeholds, requiring police to render aid and stop colleagues from misusing deadly force were approved, but not curbs on qualified immunity, castle doctrine. The Bonton Farms Act aims at easing the burden on Texans who were recently released from jail or prison. Lawmakers did not approve a measure to require air conditioning to be installed in state-run jails and prisons, but the budget does include a mandate to begin logging indoor heat levels.
Education: The fight against “Critical race theory” was huge as lawmakers fought against allowing educators to teach about how morally wrong white supremacy is. Districts also now have clarity on how they can use billions in federal aid aimed at helping students overcome learning loss caused by pandemic disruptions. Because of such struggles, lawmakers also gave leeway to seniors who failed STAAR.
Abortion: Lawmakers passed two GOP priorities: SB 8, known as the “heartbeat” bill by abortion opponents, as well as a “trigger” bill that would prohibit abortion if, and to the extent, the United States Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. SB 8, which has already been signed by Abbott, bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. This can be as early as six weeks, before many people know they are pregnant, which is why it is seen as a near-complete ban. It also allows any private citizen to file lawsuits against abortion providers and anybody else who aids or abets the procedure in violation to the ban. This law goes into effect on Sept. 1, though abortion rights advocates vow to fight the law in court.
Bail: A Texas Republican priority bill that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash was killed after the Democrats walked out of the chamber to block the passage of the GOP priority voting bill. HB 20 sought to clamp down on jail releases in several ways. It would have banned release from jail on personal bonds — in which cash is not required upfront — for people accused of violent or sexual crimes. And, as it became more common for charitable organizations to bail out protesters arrested during the unrest after a police officer murdered George Floyd, HB 20 would have prevented such groups from posting bond for people accused — or ever previously convicted — of a violent crime. Any group could still have posted bail for up to three people every six months, and religious organizations were exempt from the restriction.
Vices: Casino and sports gambling bills fell flat, but Texans can now buy beer and wine starting at 10 a.m. on Sunday. Booze-to-go is also here to stay. Texas’ medical marijuana program was slightly expanded to include all forms of PTSD and cancer, though advocates are disappointed that the THC cap was only bumped up from .5% to 1%. A bill aiming at reducing the penalty for cannabis concentrates from a felony to a Class B misdemeanor died in the final days.
Star Spangled Banner Act: In action stemming from a high profile dispute between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban, lawmakers approved a bill to mandate pro sports teams who have contracts with the state government to play the national anthem before the start of all games. The Mavericks temporarily halted playing the anthem earlier this year. Under the “Star-Spangled Banner Protection Act,” the state, cities, counties and other governmental entities can’t sign agreements to use taxpayer dollars with professional sports teams unless the contracts include a written agreement that the U.S. national anthem will be played at the beginning of each game.
Let the People Be Heard
Houstonians weigh in on the Texas Legislative Session
“Texas is in the national news for the wrong reasons. First, not being prepared for the winter February storm and now, for trying to pass one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country that also makes it easier to overturn an election. Not good for image or business.” – Sylvester Turner, Mayor
“In walking out, we took one important step for Democracy. We believe in Democracy and we believe in Texas and remain committed to fight for both because they are worth it.” – Ron Reynolds, D-Fort Bend
“Whether you’re Black, white, or brown, Democrat, or Republican, those who would defend democracy understand that when the state of Texas, like others, would enact voter suppression laws, it puts all of our democracy at stake.” – Houston NAACP President James Dixon
“I applaud Democratic lawmakers for taking a bold stand against voter suppression by walking out of the Texas legislature. This bill is damaging to our democracy, and although Governor Abbott has indicated that the bill will be placed on the agenda for the special session this fall, we must remain diligent in our efforts to combat this harmful legislation that directly intends to discourage participation among Black voters.” – Shekira Dennis, Next Wave Strategic Consulting Group
“It’s very sad that election integrity was our number one priority for the Republican Party of Texas and also Gov. Abbott’s, but yet it didn’t get accomplished in the legislative session,” West said. “We have to be vocal about it. I think you have a lot of the grass roots organizations here that are calling for those priorities to be addressed in a special session and they don’t want to see it pushed off until the fall.” – Allen West, chair of the Republican Party of Texas