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COVID, abortion, voting access, permitless gun carry: Here's where Texas bills stand

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 5/14/2021 Eleanor Dearman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

May 14—About two weeks remain of the regular legislative session, leaving Texas lawmakers with limited time to pass laws.

Lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives faced a critical deadline Thursday night. They had until midnight to give initial approval to hundreds of House bills. Lawmakers made it to page 13 of a 25-page calendar, rendering many bills effectively dead.

That comes with an asterisk: Similar proposals can always pass in the Senate or get attached to other legislation as an amendment. Legislators could also be called back for a special session, though Gov. Greg Abbott indicated Thursday he believes that can be avoided. (Redistricting is a likely exception.)

He told KIII-TV in Corpus Christi that members of the House and Senate are working productively and collaboratively.

"They are addressing all of the major issues, and we are on track to make sure that we do get most meaningful legislation passed this session, that would avoid a special session," Abbott said. "So, so far, so good, but there's still a whole lot of work to do over the next two or three weeks."

After convening in January, lawmakers will adjourn the regular session on May 31.

The fate of bills on Thursday as the clock approached midnight varied. Lawmakers approved "Bo's Law," named in honor of Botham Jean who was killed by a Dallas police officer in his apartment. The legislation, House Bill 929, requires law enforcement officers with body cameras to keep them on for the entirety of an investigation.

Bills that weren't heard before the clock stuck 12 a.m. include House Bill 392, The CROWN Act. The bills bars schools and employers from adopting dress or grooming policies that discriminate "against a hair texture or protective hairstyle commonly or historically associated with race." There is a Senate companion to the bill.

Rep. Nichole Collier, D-Fort Worth, had one of the final bills of the night pass. Human-generated barks filled the House chamber as she laid out the senate version of a bill that, with some exceptions, prohibits owners from leaving their dogs restrained outside without provisions like water and adequate shelter.

"For the dogs, I move passage," Collier said.

Here's the status of some of the bills filed by Texas lawmakers.

Pandemic response and winter storm recovery

When Texas lawmakers convened in January, they had a major crisis to deal with: The COVID-19 pandemic and its health and financial impacts. Just over a month in, that undertaking was compounded when Winter Storm Uri hit the state, leaving many Texans in the cold without power or water.

One bill responding to the pandemic that's making its way through the legislature is House Bill 3, which addresses the state and governor's response to a pandemic like COVID-19. The bill, which has passed the House and is in Senate committee, gives legislators more input in a pandemic disaster. For instance, the bill creates a legislative oversight committee that can review or potentially terminate a governor's pandemic disaster declaration and related orders after 30 days when lawmakers aren't in session.

House Bill 16, responding to the winter storm, is headed to Abbott's desk. It prohibits residential or small commercial electricity customers from enrolling in wholesale plans, like those offered by Griddy Energy. The provider was criticized for charging Texans high rates reflecting wholesale prices during the storm.

Senate Bill 3, which creates an emergency alert system for power outages and requires weatherization for generators among other provisions, has passed out of the Senate.

'Fetal heartbeat' bill

A bill that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which typically occurs around 6 weeks, is headed to Abbott's desk for his signature. Currently, Texas law generally bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Opponents of Senate Bill 8 have pointed out that many women do not know they are pregnant at 6 weeks and have criticized the bill for further limiting access to abortions in Texas. Similar bills have been challenged in court, but the bill in Texas varies as it lets citizens bring civil action against a person who performs an abortion or aids in the performance of an abortion.

Abbott is expected to sign the bill into law.

Access to the polls

Senate Bill 7, an omnibus voting bill, has received national attention and criticism from opponents who say it restricts access to the polls.

The bill, as passed out of the House, bars an election worker from providing an application to vote by mail to a person who didn't request one. It also limits when an election judge can remove a poll watcher from a voting location. A number of amendments were made in the House to make the legislation more agreeable to Democrats.

The legislation is now back in the Senate where it remains to be seen whether the changes will be accepted or if a conference committee will be established to negotiate.

Permitless carry of handguns

A bill that would allow Texans to carry a handgun without a permit, as long as they're not otherwise barred from having a firearm, is being negotiated in conference committee as lawmakers work to come up with a version that's agreeable to both the House and Senate. Once the 10 lawmakers craft a compromise bill, it's reported to both chambers. If acceptable, it goes to the governor for approval.

The legislative session is the first since the shooting at an El Paso Walmart that resulted in 23 deaths and the shooting in the Midland-Odessa area where eight were killed, including the gunman. Democrats, particularly members of the El Paso delegation, had hoped to pass measures that limit access to guns and help prevent shootings, but those proposals generally haven't gained traction.

An exception is bill that makes it a state jail felony for a person prohibited from having a firearm to knowingly lie on a form that's required to buy a gun. The Senate version of the bill, SB 162, ushered through the House by Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren, was given initial approval in the House Thursday and final approval Friday.

"When I went to El Paso, I promised those people that this would be the first bill that I filed, and this is one I'm dedicated to passing," Geren said.

Legislation regarding transgender kids

One bill that was being closely watched Thursday was House Bill 1399, which would prohibit a doctor from performing gender affirming medical care for transgender children, including the prescription of puberty blockers. The bill, which has spurred opposition from members of the LGBTQ community, wasn't heard before the midnight deadline. However, a Senate version of the bill is still making its way through the legislature.

Senate Bill 1646, which would make it child abuse to provide gender affirming health care, is in the House Public Health Committee.

Lawmakers have also debated a bill that would prevent transgender student athletes from competing on a team that aligns with their gender identity. Senate Bill 29 was approved in the House Education Committee May 7. Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who chairs the committee, brought it up for a vote, going against his own party, after a fellow Democrat blocked one of his bills on the House floor the prior night, according to the Texas Tribune. Senate Bill 29 had previously failed to pass out of the committee.

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