Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
A bill that would guarantee a $500,000 death benefit to Operation Lone Star troops if they die in the line of duty is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott after House lawmakers agreed with small changes the Senate made to the bill.
If it becomes law, the bill would be the culmination of a yearslong effort by military leaders and advocates for service members to extend state death benefits to troops on state active duty, which is initiated by the governor.
The bill would give guaranteed death benefits to National Guard troops on state deployment, putting them on par with benefits offered to law enforcement officers serving on Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security mission. Currently, soldiers and airmen on Operation Lone Star are not guaranteed death benefits because they are serving on state, not federal, orders.
The issue came to light in April 2022 when Bishop Evans, a 22-year-old soldier serving on Operation Lone Star, died while trying to rescue migrants from the Rio Grande. He was posthumously promoted to sergeant and awarded the Lone Star Medal of Valor at his funeral.
Evans had a life insurance policy that helped his family pay for his funeral costs, but his death highlighted the need to provide death benefits to state troops on the mission.
House Bill 90 by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, was dubbed the Bishop Evans Act and his family traveled to Austin from North Texas to support the bill. Last month, the House made the bill retroactive so it could apply to Evans and other soldiers who died while serving on Operation Lone Star. On Friday, a unanimous Senate approved the bill.
“This bill is named after Sergeant Bishop Evans, who drowned in the Rio Grande River while on active duty attempting to rescue individuals who were attempting to swim across the river,” Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said before Friday’s vote. “He was certainly a hero, and I’m proud to present this bill to the Senate.”
The Senate amended the bill to clarify how the money would be paid out. On Wednesday, Patterson moved to accept those changes and move the bill one step closer to becoming law.
Abbott, who deployed thousands of soldiers to the border mission, has not commented on whether he will sign the bill.
About 4,000 troops continue to serve on the border security mission, which began in March 2021. Problems have included late or missing pay for the troops, squalid living conditions and a rash of suicides tied to the mission. The Legislature has spent more than $4 billion on Operation Lone Star, blowing past the budget it set for the mission in 2021.
House Speaker Dade Phelan made the legislation one of his session priorities.
Patterson’s bill goes beyond previous efforts by expanding worker’s compensation to cover post-traumatic stress disorder developed during state active duty and by expediting workplace injury claims filed by troops.
If the bill becomes a law, it would go into effect in September, and families of troops who died as part of Operation Lone Star could begin applying for death benefits.
Erin Douglas contributed reporting.
Tickets are on sale now for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin on Sept. 21-23. Get your TribFest tickets by May 31 and save big!