WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE MOVES ON EMERGENCY ISSUES
(AUSTIN) — The Senate held hearings this week on three of the four issues designated as emergencies by Governor Greg Abbott in his State of the State address on Tuesday. The constitution precludes passing legislation in the first 60 days of session unless they have this emergency designation. Abbott named legislation relating to a sanctuary city ban, child protective services reform, ethics reform, and a constitutional convention as such, and the Senate moved quickly to address the first three.
In a marathon 16 hour hearing on Thursday, the Senate State Affairs Committee considered and passed a bill intended to ban sanctuary cities in Texas. This term is commonly applied to cities that have a policy, either written or informal, of prohibiting or discouraging police officers from inquiring about immigration status of lawfully arrested persons or cooperating with federal immigration officials. That undermines the rule of law, said Lubbock Senator Charles Perry. "Then it becomes contingent upon who is the elected official of the day, what is the jurisdiction of the day and it provides instability, it provides lack of trust, and it begins to undermine our society as we know it," he said. His bill, SB 4, would prohibit cities or other local municipalities from having such policies, and would allow the state to withhold funds from cities that don't comply. This is a highly contentious issue and drew hundreds of witnesses to testify. They worried that the bill would lead to persecution of minorities by police, and would overburden local departments with a duty that belongs to the federal government. Some local police officials testified that the bill would erode trust between the community and law enforcement. Perry noted the bill has provisions preventing police stopping people solely to check immigration status, and the bill would exempt witnesses and victims of crime. The bill passed in the wee hours of Friday morning and will be eligible for consideration by the full Senate as early as next week.
Also Thursday, the State Affairs Committee unanimously passed a measure aimed at strengthening ethics rules for elected officials. The Senate passed a similar bill in 2015 with no opposition, but it died in the House. Senator Van Taylor of Plano, who authored the bill last session, thanked state leadership for making this issue a major priority for the current session. "We have no more valuable bond in democracy than the trust the people have in their government," he said. His bill this session, SB 14, would ban registered lobbyists from serving as public officials, would add a full session moratorium on lawmakers exiting the Legislature and stepping into lobbying roles, and would remove any official convicted of corruption and cancel any state-funded pension they were due. That bill passed the committee unanimously and will now go to the full Senate.
Finally this week, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee considered a bill to reform the state agency charged with overseeing child welfare and managing the foster system. SB 11, by Committee Chair Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, would direct the Department of Family and Protective Services to create standards to transition to privately managed, non-profit service providers of the foster care system. This idea was tested in a pilot program in the North Texas region to positive results, and the state will now look at expanding that program state wide. Additionally, the bill would improve health care for foster kids, requiring a child get a full medical examination within three days of removal from an abusive situation and would create a pilot program to test the viability of a private non-profit case management system for the most sick or disabled foster kids. The HHS committee didn't move this bill, and Schwertner said at the end of the meeting that he will continue to work with stakeholders to craft a good solution to fix foster and child protective services in Texas. "We are going to work and work and work until we get this right," he said.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 6 at 2 p.m.