6 bills to watch in the Texas Legislature in 2021

From marijuana and casino legalization to the George Floyd Act, here’s what to watch

Texas Capitol
Texas Capitol (Pixabay)

The Texas Legislature convened Tuesday for the first day of its 87th regular session.

Lawmakers from across the state descended on the Texas Capitol for what’s certain to be one of the most important and unique Legislature’s in recent memory, considering the ongoing pandemic, fallout from the deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol, vaccine distribution, international calls for police reform, redistricting and changes in the U.S. executive and legislative branches. Also at play will be new coronavirus safety protocols in place for lawmakers, press and activists, as well as the election of a new Texas House Speaker.

While the first few weeks of the Legislature are generally procedural, Monday’s revenue estimate and the imminent election of expected new House Speaker Dade Phelan will likely be the most impactful occurrences the first month.

Committee assignments will be announced toward the end of the month, and Governor Greg Abbott will lay out his priorities for the session. Known as emergency items, the agenda set by Abbott in a few weeks will be the only bills that can be considered by the full House or Senate until a March date triggers all bills into play.

Here, we’ll focus on 6 issues that might have legs this session.

George Floyd Act

Texas’ longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, has a compilation of bills she’s introducing during the legislative session that deals with police reform called the George Floyd Act.

The bills dealing with excessive police force, chokeholds, revising qualified immunity, police identifying themselves, and arrests involving minor offenses, and an officer’s discipline records.

It’s about upgrading old laws to current times, Thompson said.

“We’re making sure we upgrade. Times have changed, we don’t need to put people in jail because they can’t pay a $500 fine and keep them there for two weeks until they’re let out,” Thompson said.

Marijuana legalization

In a time where budgets have been hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, marijuana legalization could present a new source of revenue for the state.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat from San Antonio, filed SB 140, to allow for recreational use for adults 21 and older.

Gutierrez previously said legalization would result in an estimated $3.2 billion in state revenue and 30,000 high-paying jobs, boosting employment in agriculture, manufacture, retail and distributing.

Marijuana is legalized, either for medicinal or recreational adult use in at least 38 states, the most recent of which include New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota in last week’s election.

While the bill faces an uphill battle, other bills plan to expand access to medical cannabis under the state’s relatively limited Compassionate Use Program.

Annual legislative session

Texas is one of the only state legislatures that only meet once every two years. One bill filed by a San Antonio lawmaker would change that.

HJR 52, filed be District 122 Rep. Lyle Larson, a Republican, would require the legislature to meet for 70 days each year from mid-March to May instead of the current schedule of 140-day meetings in odd-numbered years.

“The cost to run the Legislature would be the same, and we would be light years ahead from an effectiveness and efficiency standpoint,” Larson said in a statement.

An annual session would change revenue projections to 12-month periods, making the budgeting process more accurate, Larson argued.

Casinos

A prominent casino group that was run by mogul Sheldon Adelson, who died Tuesday, was eyeing Texas for its next project.

As Las Vegas Sands prepares to send lobbyists to sway lawmakers to expand gambling, one bill filed a Democratic Representative from Beaumont makes that possible. State Rep. Joe Deshotel’s proposed bill, HB 477, would allow casino gambling in parts of Texas. Under Deshotel’s bill, money generated from gambling would increase windstorm insurance funding.

But Texas has a long history of opposing gambling efforts and many conservative lobbying groups have stayed steadfast in opposing any effort. The largest money campaign against legalized gambling in Texas? Casinos in adjacent states such as Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Currently, there are only three casinos allowed to operate in Texas, which are run by federally recognized American Indian tribes. They are in Eagle Pass, El Paso and Livingston.

Banning police from signing reality television contracts

In response to death of Javier Ambler, Texas District 52 Rep. James Talarico, a Democrat, filed HB 54, that would ban state and local law enforcement agencies from entering into reality TV deals.

The bill, named “Ambler’s Law,” was written with the help of his family, Talarico said.

Ambler was killed after he was chased by Williamson County deputies for failing to dim his headlights in March 2019. Ambler was stunned multiple times and could be heard begging “Save me” and “I can’t breathe” before he was stunned a fourth time and lost consciousness.

The pursuit was recorded by a Live PD camera crew, and news of Ambler’s death resulted in the show’s cancellation.

An analysis by the Austin American-Statesman found that use-of-force incidents nearly doubled from 2017, the year before the agency began filming with Live PD, to 2019, when the department was heavily featured on the show.

Alcohol to-go sales

In the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as restaurant dining rooms were shut down, Abbott eased restrictions on alcohol to-go sales in Texas.

The sales have been a popular feature, and the governor has indicated support for keeping it legal.

SB 298 would make alcohol to-go sales permanent.

This bill is expected to pass, especially as many restaurants and bars continue to recover from the economic impact COVID-19 has caused.


About the Authors:

Fares Sabawi has been a journalist in San Antonio for four years. He has covered several topics, but specializes in crime, courts, open records and data visualization.

Kolten Parker is digital executive producer at KSAT. Previously, he worked at the San Antonio Express-News and the Texas Observer.