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By Jeffery L. Bones

Hey, Texans!

Every two years, the Texas State Legislature convenes to introduce bills that they hope will eventually come out of their respective committees, get argued on both the House and Senate floor, gain passage by both chambers, and then come before the Governor of Texas to be signed into law. Every biennial session, tons of bills get introduced, but a select few get signed into law.

Although 2019 was no exception, there were several important bills that were signed into law and were vetoed by the governor that everyone in Texas should be keenly aware of, especially members of the African American community.

The Forward Times wants to share some of the key bills that Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) signed into law that will affect everyone in Texas related to education, flooding, school safety and other important areas, as well as some of the bills that were vetoed by the governor.

Let’s first talk about some of the key bills that were signed into law and will take effect soon.

One of the much-talked about issues coming into this year’s legislative session was the desire of Gov. Abbott to be able to sign into law a major property tax reform bill to deal with rising property taxes that have significantly impacted residents all across the state of Texas.

Senate Bill 2, or the Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act as it has been called, was signed into law by Gov. Abbott on June 12th. This bill will require school districts, cities, counties and all other taxing entities to go to their respective voters to gain approval before they can raise taxes above a certain percentage more than it was the previous year.  As the current law stands, if any taxing entity wants to raise property taxes by 8%, residents can petition that entity to hold an election to roll back the increase, often referred to as the “roll back rate.”

Now, as a result of this bill being signed into law, voter approval will be required when any taxing entity wants to increase their property tax revenues by more than 3.5%, and for select taxing entities, the increase is limited to 2.5% before voter approval is required. The taxing entities impacted by this bill include cities, counties, school districts, community colleges and all other types of local entities that collect property taxes from residents and set a local tax rate.

Gov. Abbott released a statement prior to signing the bill into law, saying:

“For far too long, Texans have seen their property taxes skyrocket as they are reduced to tenants of their own land…The Texas legislature took a meaningful step in reinforcing private property rights by reining in the power of local taxing entities, providing more transparency to the property tax process, and enacting long awaited appraisal reforms.”

It is important to note that this new bill does not cut or reduce property taxes in any way.  It does, however, make it extremely challenging for these taxing entities to raise taxes above a certain percentage for any reason without getting voter approval first.

House Bill 3 was signed into law that and the members of the state legislature, as well as the governor, finally decided to address the problematic issue known as Texas public school finance.

As a result of this new bill being signed into law on June 11th, per-student base funding will be increased by roughly 20%; school districts will be allowed to give pay raises to veteran teachers, between $3,000 to $12,000; school districts like Houston Independent School District (HISD) and other wealthy districts across the state, had the amount of money they were required to give back to the state because of the recapture legislation, also known as the “Robin Hood” tax that was passed by the state legislature in 1993 in order to subsidize poorer districts throughout the state, significantly lowered; and money was allotted to provide free full-day pre-K for eligible 4-year-olds across the state.

One bill that has been signed into law, is sure to have a positive impact on many members of the African American community who have suffered the negative impacts of the controversial and systemically oppressive Driver Responsibility Program in Texas.

For those who were unaware, groups like the ACLU of Texas, Equal Justice Under Law and others, have fought for years to end the Driver Responsibility Program, which was particularly impactful on poor and low-to-moderate income people, mostly who were people of color.

As a result of this bill now becoming law, the ACLU of Texas states that more than 630,000 people will immediately be eligible to have their driver’s licenses reinstated, because they have no fees or suspensions that stem from something other than the DRP.  They also state that approximately 350,000 people will be able to get their licenses back after paying a reinstatement fee and roughly 400,000 will be able to drive legally if they can resolve their non-DRP-related suspensions. According to the ACLU of Texas, any remaining surcharges that are owed by Texas drivers that were forced to enroll in the program will be wiped out on September 1, 2019, which is the effective date the bill becomes the law in Texas.

Another fee-related bill has been signed into law and it has many Texans relieved.  The use of red-light cameras as a means of traffic control and monitoring across the state of Texas is no more, effective immediately, although entities who currently have contracts with red-light camera companies must honor those contracts, but are unable to renew those contracts.

Flooding continues to be a huge issue across certain parts of Texas, especially across the Greater Houston area.  On June 13th, Gov. Abbott signed Senate Bill 7 into law, which establishes two funds that will provide grants and loans for flood control and mitigation projects in areas that are impacted by flooding across the state and will draw $1.7 billion from the state’s “rainy day fund” to help pay for it.

In the wake of the shooting at Santa Fe High School last year, Gov. Abbott signed Senate Bill 11 into law, which will strengthen mental health initiatives in schools, and will require classrooms to have access to a telephone or other electronic communication, as well as create teams that identify potentially dangerous students.

There are many other bills that have been signed into law, such as raising the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, except for military personnel; increasing the amount of time that victims of certain types of sexual abuse are given to sue abusers or entities, from 15 years to 30 years after a victim turns 18; a prohibition on state and local governments from partnering with agencies that perform abortions, even if they contract for services not related to the procedure; and many more.

Now that we have heard about several of the bills that were signed into law, it is important to note that 58 other bills that passed the House and Senate this legislative session were vetoed by Gov. Abbott. Those 58 bills are is the most he has vetoed since being first elected to the governor’s office in 2015 (44 vetoes in 2015 and 51 vetoes in 2017, respectively).

Two bills vetoed by Gov. Abbott that received a lot of bipartisan support on both sides of the aisle were House Bill 448, which was authored by state Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie) and House Bill 3490, which was authored by freshman state Rep. Sheryl Cole (D-Austin).

H.B. 448, which would have required children under the age of 2 to be secured in a rear-facing car seat while traveling in any moving vehicle, as strongly recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. According to Gov. Abbott, signing this bill into law would have been “an unnecessary invasion of parental rights and an unfortunate example of over-criminalization.”

Gov. Abbott went on to say that “Texas already compels drivers to use a car seat for a child under eight years of age…It is not necessary to micromanage the parenting process to such a great extent, much less to criminalize different parenting decisions by Texans.”

Relative to H.B. 3490, which would have made it a criminal act to use any form of social media to harass and torment someone. The bill would have made the people convicted of this form of harassment, also known as “cyber-bullying” for those who have been following this issue, subjected to higher penalties if they caused someone underage to commit suicide or physically harm themselves. According to Gov. Abbot, he felt that while “cyber-bullying is a very real problem,” he felt that “the language used in the bill was overbroad and would sweep in conduct that legislators did not intend to criminalize, such as repeated criticisms of elected officials on Internet websites.”  Gov. Abbott did appear to be interested to working on this issue during the next legislative session, as he stated that he wanted “to forcefully counter cyberbullying in ways that can be upheld constitutionally.”

It is extremely important that all Texas residents and businesses know and understand the various bills that impact them on a day-to-day basis, including the ones that will have gone into effect already or will go into effect on Sept. 1st or at the beginning of next year.

The Forward Times will delve deeper into some of the key bills introduced by many of our local lawmakers that came through during this year’s Legislative Session and see what success stories came as a result of their hard work and legislative efforts this year.

In the meantime, if you are interested in finding out more about the 86th Legislative Session and what occurred, please visit Gov. Abbott’s Legislative news page at https://gov.texas.gov/news/category/legislative.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Forward Times. 

COMMENTARY: The 2019 Legislative Session is Over. What Bills Did Gov. Abbott Sign into Law that YOU Must Know About?

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