Major bills that passed, died in the 87th Texas Legislature

Abortion restrictions and pro-gun legislation passed while anti-trans and voter restriction measures were killed

The dome of the Texas Capitol on April 12, 2021. (JORDAN VONDERHAAR)

After months of hearings, debates and votes, the regular session for the 87th Texas Legislature came to a close on Monday.

The busy session was made even more hectic by the COVID-19 pandemic and a winter storm that left millions of Texans without power for days on end in February.

While lawmakers are expected to come back for at least one special session — a 30-day overtime period that only the governor can call and set the agenda for — the 5-month regular session did produce several bills that will change the way Texas operates.

With Republicans dominating the Legislature in both the House and Senate, the GOP successfully passed several of their own priority bills, leading Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to tout this year’s session as “one of the most conservative sessions (Texas) has ever seen.”

Despite the label, Republicans were not able to pass every bill they deemed a priority after Democratic members of the House walked out on Sunday night, breaking up a quorum in the closing moments of the legislative session over what they described as an assault on voting rights.

Democratic members were also able to push through some legislation that gained bipartisan support on issues like policing and insulin access.

Here are the bills that made it through the Legislature, and some that died before making it to the finish line. Abbott has until June 20 to sign or veto all bills that were passed - more than 3,000 in total.

What passed

Legislation discouraging defunding police

After activists made calls to “defund the police” over the summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Texas went the other direction, passing legislation that would punish cities if police funding is slashed.

House Bill 1900, authored by a number of Republicans, would freeze property tax revenue for cities with a population of 250,000 or more that defunds police. It also allows the state to withhold sales taxes from a city that defunded police, giving that money to the Texas Department of Public Safety instead.

A similar bill, Senate Bill 23, requires voter approval to cut law enforcement budgets in counties with a population larger than 1 million people. If voter approval isn’t received and police funding is still cut, then the county’s property tax revenue will be frozen.

Critics say the measure, coupled with last session’s property tax rate freeze, handcuffs leaders in major cities and “pretty much precludes spending on anything else” and could lead to police departments being tasked with non-law enforcement duties like mental illness treatment and evictions.

‘Constitutional carry’

Abbott called on Texas to become a “Second Amendment sanctuary state,” and lawmakers followed his lead.

Constitutional carry legislation, which allows Texans over 21 to carry a handgun without a firearms license, was a bill deemed too extreme by conservative leadership in past legislative sessions. This year, however, Republicans were able to pass the bill, sending it to Abbott’s desk for a signature.

House Bill 1927 will allow Texans 21 and over to carry handguns — openly or concealed — without obtaining a state-issued license, so long they are not excluded from possessing a firearm by another federal or state law.

Supporters of the legislation argue the change would “restore” Second Amendment rights, removing virtually all government barriers to carrying a handgun in many public places.

Opponents, which included police unions from major Texas cities, say it would remove barriers aimed at keeping people who are not legally fit to possess a gun from carrying one. They also say it will increase gun violence and escalate conflicts in public places and could make it more difficult to identify suspects at an active crime scene.

Fetal heartbeat abortion restriction

During the session, Abbott signed one of the nation’s strictest abortion measures into law.

Senate Bill 8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, would ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women even know they are pregnant. The ban also applies to women whose pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

But the bill doesn’t only limit abortion access. It also creates a new cause of action, allowing any Texas resident to sue abortion providers and anyone else who assisted in enabling an “illegal abortion.” Even if the lawsuit is tossed or fails, the defendant would not be able to recoup attorney fees, as is typical of civil litigation.

The bill was passed largely along party lines, but border Democrats state Sen. Eddie Lucio and state Rep. Ryan Guillen voted for it.

Abortion advocates have vowed to sue over the law, setting up a potential showdown that could reach the Supreme Court and have national implications on abortion access.

Power grid reform

In the aftermath of a devastating winter storm in February, which killed hundreds of Texans who were without power for days, Texas lawmakers passed a bill intended to address the shortfalls of the Texas power grid that led to widespread outages throughout the state.

Senate Bill 3, which was passed nearly unanimously on the next-to-last day of the session, will require power plants and certain gas suppliers to winterize equipment ahead of frigid temperatures. The bill also established a statewide emergency alert system and mandates more communication between participants who generate and distribute power.

Though lawmakers championed the bill, some experts believe the legislation did not do enough, leaving some operations up to the discretion of gas suppliers and only allowing minimal fines for noncompliance.

A proposal in the bill that didn’t make the cut was a potential one-time payment to customers who were affected by the outages.

Critical race theory

Though it caused controversy and was deeply opposed by all major teacher unions in the state, Texas lawmakers pushed through a bill that would limit how educators can discuss current events.

House Bill 3979 states teachers cannot be compelled to discuss current events. If they do, they must cover various viewpoints without favoring any side.

The Senate’s amendments to the bill would have removed requirements that students read works by historical women and people of color. After those amendments were sunk by a Democrat’s procedural move in the Texas House, the Senate stoked controversy by bending the rules in a party-line vote to revive the bill in it’s original form despite a deadline that had already passed.

Opponents of the bill say it would have a negative impact on teachers, watering down honest conversations about the history of race in America. Supporters argued that the legislation intends to limit personal biases inside the classroom. Republicans who supported the bill said that some teachers have been resorting to “woke philosophies,” blaming white historical figures for institutional racism.

Medical marijuana expansion

A bill that expanded eligibility for the Texas Compassionate Use Program, the state’s limited medical marijuana program, was passed by a majority of lawmakers in both chambers before heading to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 1535 would allow Texans with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder to join the program. It also upped the capped amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, to 1%. It was previously set at 0.5%.

Though advocates said the bill was a step in the right direction, it was weakened when amended in the Senate. The Senate gutted part of the bill that would have allowed Texans with chronic pain access to medical marijuana. They also lowered the THC cap from 5% to 1%.

If Abbott signs the bill into law, Texans who suffer from the following conditions would be eligible to be prescribed medical marijuana:

  • Epilepsy
  • A seizure disorder
  • Multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Spasticity
  • Autism
  • Cancer
  • Incurable neurodegenerative disease
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Banning police from contracting with reality TV shows

One Democrat-authored bill that passed the Legislature with bipartisan support took aim at law enforcement agencies who allow reality television crews to film them as they do their job.

Named “Javier Ambler’s Law” after a man who died in Williamson County Sheriff’s Office custody while deputies were being filmed by “Live PD,” House Bill 54 prohibits police and other Texas law enforcement agencies from participating in reality shows.

Ambler’s family felt that the television crew’s presence motivated deputies to use force on Ambler, who died after multiple shocks from a stun gun.

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.

Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody has since been indicted on two counts of tampering with evidence in connection with Ambler’s death.

Insulin access and price cap

To combat insulin’s rising costs, lawmakers passed legislation that would cap prices for the prescription drug that is used by people who live with diabetes.

Senate Bill 827 would cap the cost for prescription insulin for insured Texans at $25. House Bill 18 would give those without insurance a discounted rate under a new drug savings program. Both were approved, heading to the governor’s desk for a signature.

In some cases, even insured Texans found themselves having to pay hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket to purchase insulin, which they need to survive.

Homeless camping ban

After the City of Austin’s decision to lift the city’s homeless encampment ban two years ago, Texas lawmakers passed a law that will outlaw the encampments statewide.

House Bill 1925 makes camping in prohibited public spaces a crime. The Class C misdemeanor would be punishable by a fine of up to $500.

The law received bipartisan support in its passage. Still, homeless encampments are already banned in major cities throughout Texas, including San Antonio.

After Austin city officials lifted the city’s camping ban, voters reinstated it in a proposition election in May.

Alcohol to-go

After a popular pandemic-era change approved of Abbott, alcohol to-go is here to stay.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Abbott signed a waiver that allowed alcohol to-go sales in an effort to help struggling restaurants.

The measure was so popular that lawmakers passed House Bill 1024, making the practice permanently legal.

Under the new law, which went into effect when it was signed on May 12, restaurants can sell alcoholic beverages in to-go orders, as long as the alcohol comes in a sealed and tamper-proof container. Food must be included in the order.

What failed to pass

Election bill

An election bill deemed an emergency item by Abbott failed to make it to his desk before the end of the legislative session.

Senate Bill 7, if passed, would have enacted new voting restrictions, expanded the rights of partisan poll watchers and narrowed absentee voting rules.

Republicans argued the bill standardized the election system statewide and would protect the integrity of future elections, though there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in previous Texas elections.

The legislation also appeared to take aim at the state’s most populous areas, like Harris County, where voters are more likely to vote Democrat. The bill would have restricted early voting hours, prohibited drive-thru voting that was championed in Harris County, and cut down on Sunday early voting hours that would affect “souls to the polls” efforts organized by churches. Republicans have since claimed the Sunday restriction was a mistake and that they will do away with that provision on the next try.

After a lengthy negotiation process, the Senate suspended its own rules to pass a final voting bill with little time left to review or amend the legislation for the public or even the senators who were voting on it. In response, House Democrats made the choice to walk out, preventing a quorum and defeating the bill, for now.

Bail reform

The walkout didn’t only doom the election bill, it resulted in the failure of another one of Abbott’s emergency items — bail reform.

House Bill 20 would have limited the number of defendants who could be released from jail without a cash payment. The bill would prohibit personal recognizance, or PR, bonds for people who have been arrested on charges that are violent or sexual in nature. It would have also prevented nonreligious organizations from posting bail for people accused or previously convicted of a violent crime.

While proponents argued that the bill would help keep people accused of violent crimes behind bars, opponents said the bill did not do enough to address a bail system that “criminalizes poverty.”

Transgender sports bill

Another piece of legislations Texas Democrats successfully ran the clock out on targeted transgender children’s participation in school sports.

Senate Bill 29 would have forced students to compete in events based only on the gender listed on their birth certificate instead of their gender identity. In other words, a transgender girl would be forced to play with boys and vice-versa.

Supporters argued the measure would ensure fairness and prevent potential competitive disadvantages.

But LGBT advocates have argued that the bill would alienate transgender Texans from their peers, have adverse mental effects and remove a form of community that sports provide them.

Though the bill passed in the Senate, it did not pass a House deadline to consider Senate bills. House Democrats celebrated the bill’s failure, waving transgender flags as the deadline passed.

What’s next

Though Abbott championed the conservative legislation that made it to his desk this session, he issued a statement saying it was “deeply disappointing” that the bail reform proposal and the voting restriction bill failed to pass.

Abbott has indicated he would call a special session to address those bills.

What’s unclear is if he will add any other items on the special session agenda.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had previously called on Abbott to call a special session to revive the transgender sports bill, a bill to end taxpayer-funded lobbying and another bill intended to prevent social media companies from “censoring” conservatives.

Abbott pushed back on the request, saying that “some are trying to end the game before the time clock has run out.”

But Abbott has since declined to reveal specifics on what the special agenda will look like.

What’s certain is that the Legislature must act on the new Census data that comes out at the beginning of each decade by drawing new district maps, a process known as redistricting, by the end of the year.