Published 10:40 am Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Monday saw the end of the 60 day constitutional prohibition on considering non-emergency legislation, and the Senate marked the occasion by passing a number of bills intended to protect and honor law enforcement in Texas. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who sets each day’s agenda, says the idea came to him when he was attending memorial services for police officers killed in the July 7 attack in Dallas. “We’re going to focus on making sure that every man and woman who wears a uniform in the state of Texas, who represents the great people of Texas, hears loud and clear that the Texas Senate put them first when this session began, because they deserve to be first,” he told members from the rostrum.

SB 12 by Dallas Senator Royce West would create a grant program to help local police and sheriff’s departments pay for upgraded body armor that can better protect officers from high caliber rifle bullets. There is already $25 million set aside in the Senate version of the state budget to pay for the program. Another bill, SB 1138 by Houston Senator John Whitmire would place in statute a Blue Alert program to notify the public when a person suspected of killing or injuring a police officers is on the loose. People would receive notice on their cell phones, similar to existing Amber and Silver Alert programs. SJR 1 by New Braunfels Senator Donna Campbell and SB 15 by Dallas Senator Don Huffines, would exempt the spouses of first responders who die in the line of duty from property taxes. Huffines also passed a bill, SB 798, that would make every July 7th “Fallen Officer Appreciation Day” in Texas. All five measures received unanimous support.

A bill that would conform Texas’ voter ID law to federal court findings passed the Senate State Affairs committee on Monday.   This summer, a federal court found that the 2011 law requiring photo ID for voting in Texas violated the Voting Rights Act. Senate Bill 5, by Houston Senator Joan Huffman, intends to bring the Texas statute in line with federal requirements.   “The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in an en banc opinion this past summer provided Texas a road map to address the finding of discriminatory effect and possibly intent,” she said. “SB 5 contains updates to Texas’ voter ID law that follow the directive of the Fifth Circuit.”

The bill would permit voters with a reasonable impediment to getting a photo ID to cast a full ballot. They would need to sign an affidavit saying so, and provide an alternative document, like a voter registration certificate, utility bill, or bank statement to verify name and address. Individuals found to have falsified information on the affidavit could be charged with a third degree felony. The measure would also expand a mobile voter certificate program to travel around the state to provide official voter certificates at no charge that would qualify as a form of identification for voting purposes. Individuals older than 70 years of age would be allowed to use an expired photo ID when voting. The bill passed the committee without objection.

Also before State Affairs Monday was a bill making it illegal to text while driving. Several cities already have ordinances that restrict texting while behind the wheel, but SB 31 by Senator Judith Zaffirini of Laredo would make it illegal statewide. This is her fifth session in a row carrying such legislation, and Zaffirini says that texting and driving poses a deadly threat on the roadways. She cited studies showing that states that enacted texting bans saw a decrease of about one and a half driving fatalities every month, and a seven percent decrease in crash-related hospitalizations. “Clearly, given Texas’ size and population, many more crashes would be avoided and lives saved if this bill is passed,” she said. This bill passed the committee 6-3 and now heads to the full Senate.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 14 at noon.