Focus shifts to redistricting as Senate passes most of governor’s agenda

Published 8:53 pm Friday, September 24, 2021

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In the first week of the third called special session, the Senate passed bills related to most of the non-redistricting items placed on the agenda by Governor Greg Abbott.  Measures addressing property tax relief, animal cruelty, school sports, and bail reform all cleared the Senate, allowing the body to turn its full attention the complex and contentious redistricting process.  Lawmakers now have three weeks left to decide what the new state Senate, House, Congressional and State Board of Education districts will look like before the session ends on October 19th.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick signaled that property tax relief would top the Senate’s agenda for this special session when he designated Senator Paul Bettencourt’s tax compression bill as Senate Bill 1.  His bill would use some of the state surplus to buy down property tax rates by at least $2 billion, and perhaps as much as $4 billion depending on how much is forecast to remain in state coffers when the current biennium ends in September of 2023.  Bettencourt said that at the minimum level, the bill would create around $190 in tax savings for the median homeowner in Texas.  The tax compression would be in effect only for the 2022-2023 school year.

The Senate also passed, for the fourth time, a bill that would require that boys and girls participate in school sports divisions based on the biological sex listed on the student’s original birth certificate.  Lubbock Senator Charles Perry says that males who transition gender have an unfair biological advantage against female athletes and that could threaten the fairness of girls high school sports.  This measure, SB 3 for the third called session, died on the last day of the regular session in the House and hasn’t reached the floor in that chamber since.

In an unusual move, Abbott also asked lawmakers to address a bill that he vetoed in the regular session.  Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio Jr.’s SB 474 would have set requirements regarding how dogs are kept outside, barring heavy chains, inhumane restraints, and requiring adequate shelter against extreme weather.  In his veto statement, Abbott said that while he supports the intent of the bill, the language was overly prescriptive.  “[The bill] would compel every dog owner, on pain of criminal penalties, to monitor things like the tailoring of the dog’s collar, the time the dog spends in the bed of a truck, and the ratio of tether-to-dog length, as measured from the tip of the nose to the base of the tail,” Abbott wrote.  Lucio offered a toned-down version this week in the form of SB 5, which isn’t as specific in its requirements and waives many of them when a dog is in the company of his or her owner.

The final measure passed this week would ask voters to amend the state constitution to permit judges to deny bail in cases where a suspect poses an ongoing threat to public safety.  The constitution requires that anyone held prior to trial have bond set, but the increasing number of violent crimes committed by suspects out on bond calls out for a change in the law, said author and Houston Senator Joan Huffman.  If approved by voters, her proposed amendment would allow a judge to deny bond in cases where a suspect might threaten the community.

These issues could return to the Senate depending on House changes to the bills, but for now, redistricting will be the only issue before senators.  The body has held hearings throughout the year to hear public input on the process, but Friday was the first time that the Senate Redistricting Committee heard testimony on specific maps.  The committee heard invited and public testimony regarding proposed state Senate and State Board of Education district lines and will continue hearings into the weekend.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, September 27 at 2 p.m.