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OPINION: State Capital Highlights: House passes human trafficking, border security bills

AUSTIN — Bills to address the illegal importation and exploitation of persons and to protect the state’s border with Mexico moved through the Texas House last week. They were the first major statewide legislation to be approved by the body since Jan. 13, the opening day of the 140-day session.

The human trafficking bill, House Bill 10 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, concerns criminal and civil consequences for the smuggling or trafficking of human beings. On March 17, it passed on a final vote of 145-0. The border security bill, HB 11 by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, passed March 19 on a final vote of 130-11. The eleven who voted against the bill were: Reps. Diego Bernal, Joe Farias, Roland Gutierrez, Trey Martinez Fischer, Justin Rodriguez, all Democrats of San Antonio; Rep. Cesar Jose Blanco, D-El Paso; Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint (near El Paso); Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin; Reps. Borris Miles and Armando Walle, both Houston Democrats; and one Republican, David Simpson of Tyler. Some of the opposition resulted from the bill’s heavy focus on Hidalgo and Starr counties, and issues also arose over the cost of the legislation and how the funding might be better spent on other budget priorities.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who chairs the House Committee on International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs, issued the following statement on the passage of HB 11: “First, HB 11 gets the state guard off the border. Militarizing the border sends the wrong signal to our state’s No. 1 trading partner, Mexico, and costs the state $650 million in annual gross product. Next, it deploys important law enforcement resources to help interdict international drug cartels and criminal gangs. Finally, it establishes southbound checkpoints to stop the flow of illegal guns from Texas which have been used by cartels to terrorize the people of Mexico.”

Senate passes ‘carry’ bill

On a party-line vote of 20-11, the Texas Senate’s Republican majority approved SB 11, legislation to permit concealed handgun license holders to carry weapons on college and university campuses. The bill’s primary author, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said, “The people of the state of Texas own our public universities, therefore we ought not be limiting a right on public property,” referring to the Constitution’s Second Amendment. SB 11 would allow public universities to set rules for storage of weapons and ammunition in dorms and other on campus residencies.

Any bill originating in one house of the Legislature must be approved by the other house of the Legislature before being enacted into law.

In other news, the Senate Finance Committee approved SB 1 and Senate Joint Resolution 1, by Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. The bill and proposed constitutional amendment, if approved by voters, would increase the homestead exemption from the current $15,000 to 25 percent of the median home price. 

Nelson’s committee also approved SB 7 and SB 8, measures to cut franchise taxes by $2 billion. SB 7 would reduce the franchise tax rate and SB 8 would exempt businesses that make less than $4 million in annual revenue from paying the tax.

11 governors write to EPA

Gov. Greg Abbott last week asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to void its proposed changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone in favor of maintaining the current standard of 75 parts per billion.

In a letter dated March 16 that he signed along with 10 other governors, Abbott pointed to air quality improvements in Texas and other states since the U.S. Clean Air Act took effect and expressed concern that the EPA’s proposed standards could not be achieved even in Texas’ most pristine national parks. The governors of Oklahoma, Mississippi, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Wisconsin, Georgia, Idaho, South Carolina and Arkansas joined Abbott in signing the letter.

In the letter, Abbott said the federal government’s proposed air quality standards violate “free-market policies that promote job growth and economic innovation by imposing an onerous, job-crushing standard.”

The Clean Air Act, written to protect the public from airborne contaminants known to be hazardous to human health, was originally passed by Congress and signed into law on Dec. 17, 1963, by President Lyndon B. Johnson and was renewed in 1970, 1977 and 1990.

Abbott appoints agency chair

Gov. Abbott on March 18 named former state representative Tryon Lewis of Odessa as chair of the Texas Transportation Commission for a term to expire at the pleasure of the governor. The commission oversees the Texas Department of Transportation.

Lewis served as a member of the Texas House from 2008 to 2015. He practiced law in Odessa from 1973-1984. In 1985, Lewis took office as a state district judge of the 161st District and served in that capacity until February of 2006, after which he returned to practicing law. 

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