BY ALEX SAMUELS
The Texas House on Thursday tentatively backed legislation that would require three-point seat belts be installed on newly-purchased school buses across the state.
Senate Bill 693, authored by Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, cleared the lower chamber in a 91-43 vote following a debate among lawmakers over whether the bill would force an unfunded mandate on schools.
“We have to have three-point seatbelts on all of our school buses,” the bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Matthew Phelan, R-Beaumont, said. “I can’t believe we’re going to let 1.1 million children get on the roads every day without seat belts.”
Garcia’s bill would require seat belts on all buses purchased in 2017 or later and would not allow schools to opt out. The measure now needs final approval from the House before it can get to the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers passed similar legislation — called Ashley and Alicia’s law — in 2007. But the law let school districts decide whether to apply for state money earmarked for the effort. Virtually no school districts applied, according to a Houston Public Media report, leaving buses across Texas belt-less.
During Thursday’s debate, state Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, insisted passage of the bill would impose an unfunded mandate on local school districts. He proposed an amendment that wouldn’t require three-point seat belts unless the Legislature provided money to pay for them.
“The other day this body voted to have a constitutional amendment that we could not have unfunded mandates for counties,” Thompson said, referring the House’s recent approval of a resolution to amend the Texas Constitution to prevent the Legislature from issuing unfunded mandates to counties and municipalities.
“I don’t want anyone to leave this room thinking I feel seat belts aren’t good for children,” Thompson said. “But we as a body should not put these mandates on our school system without giving them the money to do it.”
However, Phelan said the amendment would essentially gut the bill. It failed in a close 68-71 vote.
“Representative Thompson’s district did not use that $10 million [in 2007] and that’s on them. We’ve been there and we’ve done that,” Phelan said. “Unless we compel action, the school districts will not comply.”
Fifty-five people died on school buses between 2003 and 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and two children — neither wearing seat belts — died in 2015 when a crash sent a Houston school bus plummeting from an overpass. A crash this month in Lumberton, outside of Beaumont, sent 23 fourth-graders to the hospital, but no one died. That bus had seat belts.