New laws in Texas

From the office of State Representative Eric Johnson,
On Sept 1, 2015, much of the legislation that was passed during the 84th Legislative Session became effective. Many of the early predictions about the issues legislators would tackle in the 84th session largely came true. From open carry, pre-k, and border security to transportation and tax cuts, several pieces of legislation we as legislators had been considering for several sessions finally made it to the Governor’s desk.

I’d like to share with you some important legislation that will impact the lives of Texans now and in the future.

The Budget
This legislative session, we passed a $209.4 billion dollar budget, a 3.6% increase from the budget passed during the 83rd Legislative Session. The budget leaves $6.4 billion unspent, including $2.9 billion under the state constitutional spending cap. The budget includes tax cuts, increased funding for the border, additional funds for the Employees Retirement System, and $1.5 billion more for public education than in the last legislative session.

Tax Cuts
After lengthy debates between both chambers about how to deliver meaningful tax cuts in the budget bill, the legislature finally passed a $3.8 billion tax cut deal, with a mix of franchise tax cuts pushed by the House and property tax cuts pushed by the Senate.

We passed an increase to the homestead exemption from $15,000 to $25,000. This property tax cut, if approved by voters in this year’s November Constitutional election, will save the average Texas homeowner around $120 per year and will ultimately lead to a loss of $1.2 billion over the next biennium.

We also passed HB 32 which cuts the franchise tax rate paid by businesses by 25 percent, and will lead to a revenue loss of $2.56 billion for the 2016-2017 biennium. The bulk of that loss is to the Property Tax Relief Fund, and a portion of General Revenue. This loss to the Property Tax Relief Fund will have to be made up with an equal amount of General Revenue to fund the Foundation School Program, the main source of funding for our public schools.

School Finance
The legislature made some small gains in bringing us back to the pre-2011 school finance levels when nearly $5 billion was cut from education. We rightfully decided to increase the public education spending by $3 billion, bringing the newly appropriated amount to $58.4 billion for the 2016 – 2017 biennium.

This biennium we are funding public education at $1.5 billion for the student’s basic allotment in addition to a $2.7 billion increase to cover enrollment growth. We also increased Pre-K funding to $148 million, which is still about $50 million shy of what schools were receiving before 2011 for Pre-K.

Reforming Pre-K
The legislature passed a much improved House Bill 4, the Governor’s key education bill that sought to increase funding for half-day Pre-k programs geared toward students from low-income, non-English-speaking, foster and military families, despite push back from some conservative leaders. House Bill 4 ultimately included some of my Pre-K legislation’s teacher quality, curriculum measures, and reporting requirements before passage. While I wanted to see more stringent quality requirements, a push for full-day instead of half-day, and funding through the more stable K-12 funding formula, I am glad to see a bolstered state Pre-K program enacted. The program will be funded at $118 million through the next biennium through a grant program.

Border Security
Like tax cuts, the fight over how to increase border security spending was a legislative battle between the two chambers. Ultimately the legislature dedicated a record $800 million for border security. The bulk of these funds are dedicated to pay for House Bill 11 which increases the use of technology and provides for intelligence operations units along the Texas/Mexico border to combat organized crime, human smuggling, and human trafficking and has a $310 million price tag. The bill also funds the extended stay of the Texas National Guard along the border, as well as the hiring and training of more DPS troopers.

Gun Control
While many lawmakers stalled “open carry” legislation for most of the legislative session, the measure to allow Concealed Handgun License holders to openly carry holstered handguns ultimately passed. Under the new law, an individual with a CHL will be able to openly carry a gun wherever they can currently carry a concealed handgun, but they will have to carry the gun in a shoulder or belt holster.
The Texas Department of Public Safety notes the following clarifications for gun owners:
• Individuals who hold a valid CHL may continue to carry with valid existing license.
• A separate license will not be required to open carry. No additional fee will be required.
• Individuals currently licensed will not be required to attend additional training.
• Training curriculum for new applicants will be updated to reflect the new training requirements related to the use of restraint holsters and methods to ensure the secure carrying of openly carried handguns. The new curriculum will be required for all classes beginning January 1, 2016.
• The eligibility criteria to obtain a license to carry do not change.
• The department will be updating website, forms and training materials to reference License to Carry (LTC) instead of Concealed Handgun License (CHL).

In addition to “open carry,” lawmakers passed a “campus carry” bill that allows CHL holders to carry concealed handguns on college and university campuses. The legislation still bans openly carrying a handgun on campus. The legislation was amended to give Texas public universities the ability to establish “reasonable” rules and restrictions on where firearms are carried and how they’re stored based on public safety concerns. Private universities will be allowed to opt out of campus carry altogether. Additionally, the campus is required to use appropriate signage in the areas where they want to prevent CHL holders from carrying a concealed handgun.
I am very proud of the work my staff and I were able to do to help the people of Texas. Months of hard work, collaboration, and perseverance have paid off in the form of several common sense bills I authored, joint authored or sponsored that were sent to Governor Abbott.

Banking and Credit Union Development Districts – HB 1626
Texas has one of the largest un-banked and under-banked populations in the country. Among the reasons for this is that mainstream financial institutions have closed their doors at a greater rate in poorer communities while sub-prime lenders, such as payday and title lenders, have disproportionately expanded their footprint in these areas.

This bill allows county and municipal governments and banks and credit unions to apply to the Finance Commission of Texas and the Texas Credit Union Commission to establish Banking or Credit Union Development Districts in communities that have limited access to mainstream banking services. This bill creates an incentive for banks and credit unions to open branches in areas where they are needed most.

Crowdfunding for Small Businesses – HB 1629
Crowdfunding is a fundraising method that uses the power of the internet to raise money from a large number of people. By leveraging this tool to boost economic development, crowdfunding has the potential to become a real game-changer for small businesses in Texas.

This legislation seeks to assist entities which provide financing to small businesses that have historically had limited access to capital. It would direct the Texas State Securities Board to adopt rules to regulate and facilitate intrastate crowdfunding for these entities, many of which are already providing grants or loans to small businesses.

Preserving In-Person Jail Visitation – HB 549
Many county jail facilities in Texas have completely eliminated in-person jail visitation and replaced it with video-only visitation. These counties have contracted with a for-profit company that essentially forces families to pay to “video-chat” with their loved ones in jail, and tout this as an efficiency and cost saving measure for the jail. However, people visiting a family member or friend in jail should not be limited to seeing them on a video screen. In-person jail visitation is not only of psychological benefit to inmates (most of whom are innocent and awaiting trial) and their families, but is also a valuable disciplinary tool that helps keep our jails operating safely.

This bill requires the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) to adopt rules that establish a minimum of two in-person visitation periods per week in all county jails. TCJS will also be required to determine a county jail’s ability to comply with this law for the purpose of exempting those counties that have already spent significant funds in planning or building jail facilities that physically cannot accommodate in-person visitation.

Uniform Reporting of Officer-Related Shootings – HB 1036
Despite intense media coverage of officer-involved shootings, there is no single source for accurate statistical information on these incidents. Even FBI Director James Comey has said that “because [officer-involved shooting] reporting is voluntary, our data is incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.” This information gap prevents policymakers and researchers from adequately studying the issue, allowing the conversation on this topic to be driven more by speculation and personal biases than facts.

This bill requires Texas law enforcement agencies to submit a report containing basic demographic information on shootings involving peace officers to the Office of the Texas Attorney General (OAG) within thirty days of the incident. The OAG would then be required to report this information on their website within five days and to compile an annual report.

Body Cameras for Police – SB 158/HB 455
The use of body worn camera technology by law enforcement has increased dramatically over the last few years. This is largely due to the potential that this technology has to improve the safety of both citizens and peace officers, and to reduce the rate of false claims made against law enforcement. In Texas, some cities like Fort Worth have already fully implemented body camera programs, while in others, like Dallas, law enforcement agencies have implemented pilot programs.

This bill establishes statewide standards for the use of body cameras by police and helps law enforcement agencies throughout the state procure and operate a body camera program through a grant run by the Governor’s office.

Ending “Squatter’s Rights” Real Estate Fraud – HB 2590
In a troubling trend, some real estate scam artists have misused our adverse possession laws to claim fraudulent title to seemingly abandoned homes. Without the actual owners’ knowledge or consent, these scam artists then “sell” these homes to “buyers” who are unaware of the fact that the seller doesn’t actually own these properties. Some victims have reported spending over $30,000 on renovations and “mortgage” payments as a result of these scams.

This bill allows municipalities, county governments, district attorneys, and the Office of the Texas Attorney General (OAG) to prosecute this type of real estate fraud under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). It also allows for the distribution of 75% of the monetary penalties to the local jurisdiction prosecuting the case. Additionally, it allows victims of these fraudulent schemes to obtain three times the damages while simultaneously recovering their attorney’s fees, regardless of whether the scammer has already been sued by local attorneys or the OAG.

Ending Immigration Consulting Fraud – HB 2573
Some Notaries Public (and other individuals not licensed to practice law) exploit Spanish speakers who conflate the Spanish words for Notary Public (“notario”) and attorney. These fraudulent actors take advantage of this misnomer to represent themselves as being licensed to provide legal services. Unfortunately, victims of this kind of fraud are disproportionately immigrants who are striving to be law-abiding citizens.

This bill creates the offense of “notario fraud” under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). It allows city and district attorneys to prosecute these types of cases under the DTPA without prior approval from the Office of the Attorney General, while allowing 75% of the monetary penalties to be distributed to the local jurisdiction prosecuting the case.

State Representative Eric Johnson

Thanks to Sherman NAACP for forwarding this information to members.

1 thought on “New laws in Texas

  1. Thank you for posting this information. I need to be better informed as to what is happening in my state’s government, as do many fellow Texans.
    Looking forward to an active pre-and final election cycle.

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