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Bill filing day at the Texas Capitol revives controversies of years past

Here’s an early look at the bills expected to draw attention when lawmakers reconvene in Austin in 2017.

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* Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional bills.

State lawmakers began putting their campaign promises on paper Monday morning, as they filed hundreds of bills on the first filing day for the 2017 legislative session.

The proposals face a long road ahead, and only a small minority of them will make it out of committee, survive votes in both Capitol chambers and be signed into law by the governor's pen next year. Here’s an early look at some the proposals expected to draw attention when lawmakers reconvene in Austin in January.

Abortion and women’s health

Republicans were quick to file several anti-abortion measures on Monday.

House Bill 87 by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, would make it illegal for women to have an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy even if doctors find the fetus has a severe, irreversible abnormality. Currently, state law allows abortions after 20 weeks only when the mother’s life is in danger or when a severe fetal abnormality has been detected.

And state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, wants Texas health care providers to be required to bury or cremate remains of aborted or miscarried fetuses. He filed House Bill 201, which echoes a recent proposal from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, made at the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott. Cook's bill would penalize health care providers $1,000 for not cremating or burying biological tissue from pregnancy. Medical leaders and reproductive rights activists have vehemently opposed the health commission’s proposal, questioning why it doesn’t allow exceptions for miscarriages or other pregnancy complications that make a fetus non-viable.

Education and child welfare

House Bill 112 by state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, would cap the amount of tuition public universities can charge students. Bills in the 2015 session to re-regulate tuition costs were unsuccessful. Universities oppose tuition regulation, in part because state funding now covers a smaller share of their budgets.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed Senate Bill 35, which would create universal pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds. It would also expand half-day pre-K to certain eligible 3-year olds. State lawmakers in 2015 approved a smaller grant program to expand pre-K education after Abbott named early education as his top legislative priority, though some pre-K advocates argued that the grants didn't go far enough.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D- Brownsville, filed a bill to prohibit corporal punishment in schools.

And state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed Senate Bill 77, which makes sexual assault of a parent grounds for terminating the assaulter's parental rights. Nelson said she filed the bill after being “horrified” to learn of a female constituent who was raped by her husband but could not have his parental rights removed. “No parent should be forced to co-parent with their rapist, and this bill will provide stronger protections for victims of domestic assault,” Nelson said in a statement.

State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, filed House Bill 218 to ensure educators who engage in inappropriate relationships with students are reported and charged. Working with the Texas Education Agency, Dale drafted a bill that would expand liability to educators who target students in schools or districts other than their own. It would require principals, not just superintendents or directors, to report inappropriate relationships to the State Board for Educator Certification, or else face criminal charges.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick included this as one of ten priorities to address in the upcoming session. In its last funding request for a two-year budget, TEA included $400,000 to hire three employees for the educator investigations unit, to address a surge in reported incidents.

Senate Bill 160, filed by state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, is a response to allegations that the Texas Education Agency set an 8.5 percent cap on students receiving special education services. The bill would prevent TEA from implementing arbitrary caps. 

Criminal justice

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, filed House Bill 64 to abolish the death penalty. Another Dutton proposal, House Bill 158, would require grand jury hearings for police officers to be recorded. In Texas, grand jury proceedings are secret.

State Rep. James White, R-Woodville, filed House Bill 67 to abolish the driver responsibility program, which levies surcharges on drivers for traffic offenses. Lawmakers and criminal justice reformers have compared the unpopular program, which requires drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses, such as speeding and driving while intoxicated, to pay additional annual surcharges on top of any court fines and criminal penalties to maintain their driver’s licenses, to an unfair tax on poor Texans. Still, previous attempts to abolish it have fallen short at the Capitol. Revenue from the program provides funding for trauma hospitals across the state.

LGBT matters

State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, filed a bill that would remove an obsolete, anti-gay law from the books. House Bill 96 would repeal the offense of “homosexual conduct” from the Texas criminal code. A 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, already struck down the state’s sodomy law as unconstitutional, meaning the current criminal statute is purely symbolic. Moody’s bill would also change the state’s health and safety code to remove language that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.”

State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, filed Senate Bill 92, which would overturn nondiscrimination ordinances protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that various cities in Texas, including Dallas and Austin, have adopted. Hall's proposal would not allow cities or counties to pass laws barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, or any other basis for legal protections not explicitly mentioned in state law.

Voting issues

House Bill 159, by Dutton, would allow online voter registration. State law currently requires Texans to provide a physical signature on voter registration forms.

And a series of measures proposed by state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, would impose term limits on elected officials in Texas. Senate Joint Resolutions 10, 12 and 13 would limit terms for state senators and representatives (12 years); elected judges, including those on the Texas Supreme Court (18 years); and local officials (a maximum of 12 years, at the discretion of the local governments). Huffines said the election of Republican Donald Trump, who has no prior political experience, proved that voters were “fed up with career politicians.” The measures would amend the Texas Constitution and would need voter approval in a statewide election.

Health care

State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, filed House Bill 120, which would change the legal language that allows parents to get exemptions from immunization requirements for their children. The proposal would change the allowable vaccine exemption from reasons "of conscience" to "nonmedical" reasons, a nod to the scientific community's consensus that personal objections to vaccines are not rooted in medical science. Activists seeking to guard parents’ rights to opt out of immunization requirements have mobilized as a political force in Texas, while public health experts widely support the elimination of nonmedical exemptions to immunization requirements.

Meanwhile, Republican opposition to the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, remained robust on the first day of bill filing. Incoming state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Austin, announced she would file a nonbinding resolution urging Congress to repeal the federal health law under the incoming Trump administration.


Huffines filed a bill that would put rules governing transportation network companies, including taxi companies and ride-hailing firms, in the hands of the state. Senate Bill 113 comes after Austin voters this year elected to keep regulations that led Uber and Lyft, two app-based transportation network companies, to leave the state’s capital.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed Senate Bill 176, which lays out specific, statewide regulations for the companies. His proposal would require national background checks for drivers and require that users be able to request wheelchair-accessible rides.

And, for the fourth session in a row, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, filed House Bill 62 to create a statewide traffic violation for using a smartphone while driving. Similar texting-while-driving bans have routinely failed at the Capitol, including once being vetoed by former Gov. Rick Perry in 2011. In a statement, Craddick said distracted driving was an “epidemic” in Texas and that his bill would “address this life-threatening habit.” Zaffirini filed a similar ban, Senate Bill 31, in the upper chamber.

Food and agriculture

State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, filed House Bill 57, which would allow licensed farmers to sell raw or unpasteurized milk in their homes, at their place of business or at a farmers’ market. The proposal — which builds on similar legislation from 2015 — would not allow the sale of raw milk in supermarkets. Flynn also filed House Bill 95, a proposal to remove Texas from daylight saving time.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, filed House Bill 164, which would create a statewide fund to subsidize the construction and renovation of grocery stores in food deserts in poor and moderate-income neighborhoods. The Texas Grocery Access Investment Fund would be funded through federal, state and private grants and loans as well as any funds appropriated by the Legislature.

Read more of the Tribune's pre-session coverage:

  • Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey writes that the civics seasons in Texas have changed, even if that won't change the color of the leaves on the trees. Say goodbye to the elections and hello to the legislative session.
  • President-elect Donald Trump easily won Texas’ 38 electoral last week on his way to a stunning victory over Hillary Clinton. His victory will change the politics of the 2017 legislative session in Austin. Here are five takeaways from Trump's victory, from a Texas perspective.

Brandon Formby and Aliyya Swaby contributed to this report.

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