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Legislature grinds toward close with much still to accomplish

 

With a mere two weeks remaining until the end of the 85th regular session of the Texas Legislature, lawmakers have not yet finalized a state budget for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

The Legislature’s 150 House members and 31 Senate members can work around the clock, if need be. Their only absolutely required accomplishment in the 140-day-long session is to produce that budget and put it on the governor’s desk. If they don’t, the governor will call them back for a special session.

House floor debates, protracted by Republican intra-party bickering, ate up the clock last week. Sheaves of mostly noncontroversial local and consent bills accumulated and died as deadlines took effect, and chances were reduced for hundreds of other bills to earn a spot on a floor-debate calendar.

Despite the atmosphere in the House, the body tentatively passed House Bill 39, the Child and Family Protective Services and Health and Human Services reform bill authored by Gene Wu, D-Houston; Richard Raymond, D-Laredo; Sarah Davis, R-Houston; Toni Rose, D-Dallas; James White, R-Hillister; and coauthored by Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs; and Ina Minjarez and Tomas Uresti, both D-San Antonio. The bipartisan bill seeks to support the existing child protective services system by creating programs and procedures that respond to service gaps, provide resources for parties involved in child welfare and the foster care system, and establish a more efficient case management system. HB 39 still must gain Senate approval before advancing to the governor’s desk.

“After more than a year of work, we were able to accomplish something that includes input from numerous child-welfare system stakeholders and experts, along with proposals from both sides of the aisle,” Rep. Wu said. “We worked together to keep our word and came up with comprehensive legislation to make the necessary reforms we so desperately need. I am confident that these reforms will change the lives of vulnerable children and families in Texas and I look forward to working with the Senate to make these comprehensive reforms state law.”

Sandra Bland Act OK’d

Meanwhile, at the East end of the Capitol building, the Senate unanimously approved SB 1849, the Sandra Bland Act.

Sandra Bland was found dead in a Waller County jail cell in July 2015, three days after a state trooper arrested her in a traffic stop. In September 2016, Bland’s family was awarded $1.8 million from Waller County and $100,000 from the Texas Department of Public Safety, defendants in a wrongful-death lawsuit.

The bill, authored by John Whitmire, D-Houston, dean of the Senate and chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, would require training for jail officers to teach them to recognize signs of mental illness in newly incarcerated individuals and take appropriate action, such as notifying a judge in a timely fashion. The bill also would require county jails to install surveillance cameras, if funding allows. On May 11, the bill moved to the House for consideration.

AG files pre-emptive suit

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on May 8 filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to uphold Senate Bill 4, legislation finally passed on May 4 and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on May 7.

SB 4, which takes effect Sept. 1, bans sanctuary cities in Texas and requires all governments throughout the state to comply with immigration law and detainer requests. The law is expected to trigger lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.

“Texas possesses an independent sovereign responsibility to protect the health, welfare, and safety of its residents,” Paxton wrote, explaining why he filed the lawsuit. “Texas, cognizant of this duty, recently enacted SB 4 to set a statewide policy of cooperation with federal immigration authorities,” he added.

Ed Sterling is the director of member services for the Texas Press Association in Austin. Contact him at 512-477-6755 or edsterling@texaspress.com.

 
 
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