Here Are Some Key Bills That Died In The 87th Texas Legislature — At Least Temporarily

Jun 3, 2021

After 140 days, the regular session of the 87th Texas Legislature is finally over. The session saw some major triumphs for the conservative Republican majority, but not all their priorities passed.

In fact, some of their marquee bills died right at the end of the session, when passage appeared in sight.

The highest-profile casualty of the regular session was Senate Bill 7. A conference version of the bill had passed the Senate, and it t appeared to be sailing towards passage in the House on Sunday when Democrats discreetly filed out of the chamber, denying the GOP a quorum.

Midnight that night was the deadline for the House to pass conference committee reports. Unable to hold a vote, the House was forced to adjourn, killing SB 7.

"I think it was really unfortunate," said state Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, one of the final speakers on the bill before House Speaker Dade Phelan established that there were no longer enough members present to do business.

"The idea that this is a tool to be used to kill legislation is just wrong,” Jetton said. “We are elected to show up. We're elected to debate, engage in this process and to eventually vote on this legislation."

At a press conference across town, Democratic Caucus chairman Chris Turner, the state representative for Grand Prairie, said Republicans had left him and his colleagues no choice.

"Even though our Democratic members needed to speak out against this bill and demonstrate their opposition, why it is so harmful to our constituents, they were prepared to cut us off and try to silence us," Turner said. "We were not going to let them do that."

Elections and bail reform

SB 7 included a number of provisions to block election reforms Harris County either enacted or attempted during the 2020 presidential election. These included a ban on 24-hour voting and drive-through voting, as well as a ban on local officials sending out mail-in ballot applications unless asked. The bill would also have greatly empowered partisan poll watchers.

Supporters say the measures were needed to prevent the risk of election fraud. Opponents countered that no such fraud existed, arguing the measures were primarily designed to suppress the votes of African American voters, Hispanic voters, the elderly, and the disabled.

By blocking a vote on SB 7, Democrats also prevented a vote on the next bill behind it in the queue, the conference committee report on House Bill 20, bail reform.

"I think that is a major loss for everyone in Harris County and any other urban county in the state, because bail reform is desperately needed," said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a cosponsor of the bill.

As written, the final version of HB 20 would have made it significantly harder for people accused of violent or sexual crimes to make bail. Bettencourt and other supporters argued the legislation was necessary because of the number of individuals allegedly committing crimes while out on multiple bonds.

Critics argued that by reinforcing the existing system of cash bail HB 20 would simply have discriminated against poor defendants – while still allowing wealthy defendants to bond out, regardless of the seriousness of the charges against them.

"Until that bill is passed, we've got to change our bond system in the state of Texas," Bettencourt said. “We went way too far in one direction, and now citizens are at risk as a result.”

But while those bills died in the regular session, they may still rise from the grave: Gov. Greg Abbott said he would call a special session to pass both SB 7 and HB 20, which were among his emergency priorities.

GOP members differ on LGBTQ issues, lobbying

Some of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's priorities may not be so lucky. Patrick has asked Abbott to revive three bills that failed – SB 29, which effectively bans transgender children from participating in school sports, SB 10, which bans local governments from employing taxpayer-funded lobbyists, and SB 12, which punishes social media sites for alleged censorship.

Bettencourt was an author of all three bills, and blames Phelan, as well as Republican House State Affairs Committee Chair Chris Paddie from Marshall, for slow-walking the legislation.

"We had bills that were stuck in committee — taxpayer ban on lobbying, at least four weeks, anti-big-tech censorship, six weeks,” Bettencourt said. “They never came to the floor for a vote, and that's a leadership issue."

Bettencourt added that he believed the lobbying ban was needed to keep local governments from wasting taxpayers' money.

That's not how Bill Kelly, head of government relations in Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office, sees it.

"We are a 22,000-employee organization with a $5.2-billion annual budget, and to say that we shouldn't be able to spend less than $700,000...biennially on state lobbying really goes against every practice we see in the private sector," Kelly said.

Kelly noted that Houston's ability to lobby helped block a bill that would have cost taxpayers millions: House Bill 753, filed by state Rep. Briscoe Cain.

“It would have cut the franchise fee that we charge for commercial garbage pickup from 4%…and cut it down to 2%, which would have been a $4 million loss to the city's solid waste department," Kelly said.

The $700,000 Houston spent on lobbying more than paid for itself when the city's lobbyists kept that bill from getting out of committee, Kelly said. He also pointed out that, had SB 10 been in place in 2017, two sessions ago, Houston would have been unable to win passage of its main legislative priority that year: pension reform.

As for SB 29, the ban on transgender children participating in school sports, it was only one of more than 30 bills targeting LGBTQ individuals in the recent session.

Speaker Phelan had made clear before the session that he did not favor such bills, but part of the reason they failed was because of a well-organized lobbying campaign. The casualties also included SB 1311, a bill that would have banned gender modification surgery and hormone therapy for those under 18.

"The vast majority of Texans do not want to see our community under attack session after session," said Angela Hale, senior advisor for Equality Texas, "A lot of good people rallied together to defeat this legislation. And we worked very hard, and we did it because we wanted to protect innocent children, who should not be political pawns in this game of Dan Patrick's."

Disappointment for Democrats

Of course, the Republicans were not the only ones to see bills die.

Perhaps the Democrats' biggest disappointment was the death of the George Floyd Act, a wide-ranging bill aimed at reforming law enforcement practices.

"We didn't pass the bill that was named after him, but we did pass some of the aspects that would lead to meaningful police and criminal justice reform measures," said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, a co-author of the act.

Reynolds helped pass SB 69, which bans chokeholds and requires a police officer to intervene if a fellow officer is using excessive force. But the core of the George Floyd Act, restricting qualified immunity for police officers, died in committee.

"Quite frankly, the police unions are afraid of it," Reynolds said. "Ending qualified immunity would mean officers would be held personally liable, so you would bring accountability personally to the police."

Three other fragments of the original George Floyd Act passed the House but failed to get committee hearings in the Senate. Those were HB 829, providing for a disciplinary matrix for police officers, HB 830, which would have banned arrests for misdemeanor traffic stops, and HB 834, requiring corroboration of testimony by undercover officers in drug cases.

Other Democratic casualties included two resolutions and a bill that would have legalized casino gambling in Texas. The proposals had strong backing from the Las Vegas Sands, which funded a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort to lift the ban. None of the measures made it out of committee.

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, was the primary backer of the effort in the upper chamber. She argued that legalizing casinos and gaming would create tens of thousands of permanent jobs and generate billions of dollars for the state's GDP.

"I don't know any other initiative, policy that could give our economy a shot in the arm like this could," Alvarado said. "Unfortunately, I think Republicans still have a hard time with the issue."