By, Texas Association of Counties
We are in a race to the end of the 86th Regular Session. There is some (remote) hope for funding for voting machines, while a committee heard some problematic election bills. Efforts to limit the voice of local governments in the legislative process continue and need the close attention of county officials. The repeal of the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) remains in sight as are road grants funds. Sheriffs continue to work a range of law enforcement issues and a priority justice court bill marches on. Public debt bills from the Senate received House hearings and bills addressing how we tax purchases in the Internet of things are advancing.
Potential Funding for Voting Machines
The House passed HB 362 by Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin), a bill that creates a fund to be administered by the secretary of state to help local governments upgrade their antiquated voting systems.
The bill authorizes counties to apply for grant funds to replace their voting systems with “eligible equipment” that has been certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and the secretary of state that produces a paper audit trail by which voters can verify their votes cast are accurately reflected.
The funding for the voting system grant fund would be at the discretion of the Legislature. The bill allows counties to apply to the secretary of state for a grant from the fund to replace voting system equipment or to reimburse the replacement or conversion of voting system equipment purchased on or after Dec. 1, 2016, in an amount equal to but not more than 50 percent of the total cost of the eligible equipment.
The funding is contingent upon the appropriation of $158 million by the Legislature. It is unknown at this time whether these funds will actually be appropriated.
The bill was amended on the House floor by Rep. Stephanie Klick, House Elections Committee Chair, to remove cities from the bill. The bill passed as amended and is headed to the Senate.
Problematic Election Bills Considered
SB 902 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) was heard in the House Elections Committee and Chris Davis, Williamson County Election Administrator and President of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, testified in opposition to the bill.
In his testimony, he expressed concerns that the time constraints to produce election records were too short and capping the costs not to exceed $50 in reproducing the records would not cover the county’s costs.
The bill amends current law on the public availability of election records and authorizes a fee. Under the bill’s provisions, an election record shall be available not later than the 15th day after election day in an electronic format for a fee of no more than $50. The custodian of election records for a primary or general election for state and county offices must maintain a list that contains the total number of votes cast in each precinct by personal appearance on election day and is available for public inspection no later than the day after the election. The secretary of state is to create a system for receiving the information for posting on the secretary of state’s internet website. The bill was left pending in committee.
During the hearing, Davis also provided testimony against SB 966 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston). The bill provides that moving a temporary branch polling place for a county with a population of 100,000 or more may only be changed once during an early voting period and after half the early voting period has concluded, which would have fiscal implications for the county. The bill was left pending in committee.
Limiting County Advocacy
On May 6, the House State Affairs Committee voted out a committee substitute for SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), a bill that focuses on publicly funded lobbying. Under the provisions of the committee substitute, political subdivisions would be prohibited from spending public money to influence legislation related to taxation, bond elections, tax-supported debt, and ethics and transparency of public servants. The substitute allows an officer or employee of a political subdivision to provide information for a legislator at the legislator’s request and allows an elected officer of a political subdivision to influence legislation while acting as an officer of the subdivision.
Additionally, as drafted, the substitute prohibits political subdivisions from paying membership fees and dues of a nonprofit state association or certain organizations unless the association or organization exists for the benefit of all local officials and does not influence legislation on taxation or the other issues referenced above. These provisions could prohibit the expenditure of county funds for membership in various statewide associations of county officials.
The bill now moves to the House Calendars Committee, where members will consider whether to schedule floor debate on the measure. County officials with concerns on this legislation may want to contact members of the Calendars Committee, as well as their legislators, and ask them to hold the bill in the Calendars Committee.
Another bill, SB 702 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), focuses more on transparency of lobbying expenditures. A committee substitute for the bill was considered in House State Affairs on May 8. The substitute would allow a political subdivision to spend money to influence legislation only if the expenditure is authorized by a majority vote of the governing body. Additionally, the expenditure must be voted on as a stand-alone item on the agenda. There are some exceptions if the communication involves testimony before a legislative committee.
The legislation also requires a political subdivision to report certain lobbying expenditures and information to the Texas Ethics Commission and publish that same information on its website. Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley provided testimony to the committee and highlighted their concerns with any provisions that could be construed to limit the ability of county officials to communicate with the Legislature. The bill was left pending.
Driver Responsibility Program Repeal Update
HB 2048 by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), which would repeal the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), has passed out of Senate Finance and will be eligible to be heard on the Senate floor by May 10. The bill would eliminate program surcharges assessed on drivers convicted of certain offenses and replace lost revenue with increases in certain fees and fines so there is no impact to funding trauma centers.
Transportation Infrastructure Fund Grants
HB 4280 by Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) would amend the Transportation Code to change the criteria for a county to be eligible for a grant from the Transportation Infrastructure Fund (TIF) and change the methodology for determining the distribution of TIF grants among the eligible counties. The bill would repeal provisions that require a county to provide an amount of matching funds to be eligible to receive a TIF grant.
The legislation revises the allocation requirements of the TIF grant by decreasing from 20% to 10% the allocation of grants distributed according to weight tolerance permits. It also increases from 50 percent to 60 percent the total allocation of grants distributed according to well completions, with 45% to be distributed according to horizontal well completions and 15 percent to be distributed according to vertical well completions.
The bill requires a county to advertise and receive competitive bids before entering into a contract to use the grant funds. It also requires that any county receiving funds from the grant must use the funds within five years of being awarded.
Regarding TIF funding, the House placed $225 million in SB 500, the supplemental budget bill, and $500 million in HB 1, the budget bill for 2020-2021. The Senate didn’t place any funding in SB 500 and placed $225 million in HB 1 for TIF. These differences are currently being addressed in conference committee.
Legislation of Interest to Sheriffs
SB 2100 by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), relating to the transfer of a retired law enforcement animal, has been sent to the Governor and awaits his signature. It provides the statutory mechanism should voters approve the constitutional amendment for the disposition of retired law enforcement animals as provided by SJR 32 that has been passed by the Legislature.
HB 2007 by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), relating to the enforcement of traffic regulations on a public road that is owned, operated and maintained by a special district, is set on the House Local and Consent Calendar on May 10. The bill clarifies that a special district and a county may extend traffic regulations and its enforcement of those regulations by means of an inter-local contract.
HB 3316 by Rep. James White (R-Hillister), relating to the Texas Crime Stoppers Council, is set on the same House Local and Consent Calendar. The bill is a recommendation from Governor Greg Abbott’s School and Firearm Safety Action Plan to expand campus Crime Stoppers programs involving public school districts and open-enrollment charter schools in the reporting process. The Sheriffs’ Association negotiated part of the amended language to ensure the anonymity of tipsters.
HB 3503 by Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco), relating to firearms training for county jailers, provides for the development of a basic training program in the use of firearms by county jailers. It is set on the House Local and Consent Calendar on May 10.
HB 4468 by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), relating to county jails and community mental health programs in certain counties, is also set on the House Local and Consent Calendar on May 10. Among the various provisions of the bill is language negotiated by the Sheriffs’ Association to require a county jailer appointed on a temporary basis to be enrolled in the preparatory training program for county jailers on or before the 90th day after the temporary appointment.
However, the bill maintains current law providing that a county jailer appointed on a temporary basis has one year to satisfactorily complete the preparatory training program. The bill removes the authorization for a sheriff to petition the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement for reinstatement to a temporary appointment of a person who failed to satisfactorily complete the preparatory training program. Also, it prohibits a county jailer appointed on a temporary basis from being promoted to a supervisory position in a county jail.
JPCA Priority Bill Moves Forward in the House
On May 9, the House passed a Justices of the Peace and Constables Association priority bill, HB 1380 by Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction).
HB 1380 increases the justice court civil jurisdiction from $10,000 to $20,000 and increases the cost to file in justice court from $25 to $50 in order to cover services rendered for justice court.
Two amendments were added to the bill that exclude the jurisdiction increase for counties with populations of 250,000 and above, meaning 20 counties will fall under this exemption.
The same types of cases including debt collection, landlord/tenant disputes and other contracts will still be heard in justice court regardless of the jurisdiction increase. This increase will allow for more people to access justice at a lower cost and will alleviate the burden on the county-level courts. The bill now moves to the Senate.
Public Debt Bills Considered
The House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee considered several bills relating to bond propositions and certificates of obligation that have already passed the Senate. SB 30 by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) would amend the Election Code to require a bond proposition or a proposition relating to a tax specifically state a plain language description of the single purpose for which the bonds are to be authorized. It also requires each specific purpose to be printed on the ballot as a separate proposition.
SB 462 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) would amend the Government Code to require five pieces of information be included on a ballot proposition by a political subdivision seeking to issue debt.
This includes (1) the purpose for which the debt obligations are to be authorized; (2) the principal amount of the debt obligations to be authorized; (3) that taxes sufficient to pay the annual principal of and interest on the debt obligations may be imposed; (4) the aggregate amount of the outstanding principal of the political subdivision’s debt obligations; and (5) the ad valorem debt service tax rate for the political subdivision at the time the election is ordered.
SB 652 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) would amend the Local Government Code to increase the time required before a governing body may authorize the issuance of bonds for the same purpose that was submitted to voters from three to six years. The bill would also require the governing body to post notice on the entity’s website for at least 30 days prior to the authorization of debt. All bills were left pending.
Online Sales Tax Collection Bills Advance
HB 2153 by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) would establish a single local use tax rate of 1.75 percent for goods subject to sales tax by a seller who may not have a physical presence in the state and is currently not collecting local sales tax. The goal is to simplify the sales and use tax rate, which varies depending on the local community to be collected by an online marketplace. The bill has been sent to the Governor and will go into effect in October 2019 if he signs it.
HB 1525 by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) outlines the administration and collection of sales and use taxes involving marketplace providers. This is not a new tax but instead would streamline the collection of existing sales and use tax and is a result of the recent South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc. decision.
The bill defines a marketplace seller and the duties to collect and determines the location of the sale to be the location to which the items are delivered. It is expected to collect between $250 and $450 million a year. The bill has passed both chambers, but there are differences between the versions.