What We’re Monitoring at the 87th Texas Legislative Session
By Mimi Marziani and Alesandra Lozano, Legislative Advocacy Committee Co-Chairs at the Texas Civil Rights Project
Perhaps the only thing certain about 2021 is that we still don’t know what to expect next. That is most definitely true about the 87th session of the Texas legislature that formally began on January 12th but still hasn’t really begun. Even now, weeks in, significant questions remain unanswered — including what basic operating rules will be, how long legislators will continue to gavel in only to take several days off, how chairs will lead their committees around public testimony, and when exactly Census data will be made available for the redistricting process that will determine Texas’s future for the next decade.
Less than one month into this legislative session, we agree with our allies at the Texas ACLU (among other keen observers) that the state budget and legislative items related to controlling and treating the socio-economic ramifications of COVID-19 are likely to dominate session, potentially leaving very little breathing room for the legislature to take up any other policy items. When it comes to the state’s finances, TCRP will continue to resist harmful state-sponsored efforts to further militarize borderland communities through the Texas Department of Public Safety and will seek to reduce allocations to that state entity. What other legislation will move is yet to be seen, but our lawyers and policy experts are keeping close eyes on a variety of issues related to the criminal legal system and to voting rights and election administration.
Here are some details on what we’re monitoring:
After generations of endorsing locally tailored solutions to local matters like public safety, prominent leaders of the Texas Republican Party are now loudly threatening to punish cities and other localities for local criminal law funding decisions. For instance, Austin is being targeted following the City Council’s 2020 decision to reallocate funds from the Austin Police Department to violence prevention, food access and abortion access programs. Here’s just one example from as recently as January 21st.
TCRP is watching movement on these “local preemption” bills, like HB 638 for example, closely, and is committed to working alongside local officials and community activists to stop this state-sponsored overreach.
We are also concerned by Governor Abbott’s threats to criminalize protesting, which have been thinly veiled attempts to suppress free speech and punish the Black Lives Matter movement and Indigenous activists. At least one bill has been filed, HB 446, increasing penalties for damaging public monuments, which has the potential to be twisted and weaponized to dissuade environmental and social justice movement activists.
Finally, we recognize that there may be some room for progress, particularly in limiting criminal financial penalties that punish people simply for being poor. We’ll be looking closely for any opportunities to end (or limit) cash bail; eliminate fines and fees in the juvenile criminal legal system; and end (or limit) arrests and revocations of probation or parole based on failure to pay. We’re also cheering on legislation to abolish the death penalty (HB 215) and strengthen access to counsel for less wealthy Texans (HB 277 and HB 295) — critical steps toward righting some of the worst abuses of Texas’ current unjust system.
Voting Rights and Election Administration
Early action on voting rights and election administration is all over the place, but the good news is that there are actually some good voting bills this session! There is reason to hope for some form of voter registration modernization, such as allowing Texans to register to vote when they renew their driver’s licenses or change their address online as in HB 364 (this would codify a win in a TCRP lawsuit this fall). Enacting online voter registration in Texas, as would be accomplished by bills like HB 104 , HB 134, HB 350, HB 527, HB 1174 and others, should be able to garner wide support, particularly after voter registration by candidates and political groups of all stripes ground to a halt in 2020 when in-person contact had to be curtailed. There are also promising bills that would bolster curbside voting for voters who are unable to enter the polling place, such as HB 22 and HB 478, by requiring designated parking spaces for such voters and prominent signage outside polling places. On the other hand, press reports indicate that the national Republican Party is supporting efforts to restrict voting-by-mail in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, and the chair of the Texas Republican Party, Allen West, names “election integrity” as the party’s number one 2021 priority. We are particularly watching bills like: HB 25 and SB 208, which would prohibit widespread distribution of vote-by-mail applications by county officials; HB 329 and HB 335, which would facilitate widespread voter purges, including of recently naturalized citizens like Texas attempted in 2019; and HB 330, which would criminalize a host of administrative errors by voters and election officials and impose sharp new burdens on residents of a residential care facility to vote by mail. Finally, HB 1026 appears to abolish volunteer deputy registrars, eliminate a very popular program that registers eligible high school students to vote, and centralize voter registration entirely within the Secretary of State’s office — all actions that would immediately attract litigation and widespread public protest.
A special session to draw new maps in Texas seems inevitable at this point. We will continue our “Maps by the People” campaign as we closely monitor the redistricting process, push for greater transparency and accountability and prepare to fight against extreme, discriminatory gerrymandering. We have been disappointed to see no movement on the House side, but we were heartened to see the Senate schedule field hearings for Texans across the state. We continue to work closely with the Fair Maps Texas coalition to ensure that a diverse cross-section of Texans are heard, particularly Black Texans, Texans of color, and younger Texans. In the coming weeks, we will eagerly await additional details from the Commerce Department about the distribution of Census data to the states, as that will help clarify next steps in the map-drawing process.
The legislative session road ahead is long, but we are committed to serving as a resource for members and allies who need legal and strategic advice, acting as an informational funnel for our fellow Texans, and testifying on bills when our voice will uniquely help the communities we seek to protect. To learn more, visit txcivilrights.org and follow us on social media for the latest news: