Texas lawmakers pass school finance, criminal justice reforms

(Photo / Eric Black)

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AUSTIN—The 86th Texas Legislature passed a school finance bill that provides $6 billion in new state funding for public education—action Texas Baptist advocates for public schools applauded.

Lawmakers also passed a $250.7 billion two-year budget and a bill that requires local entities to receive voter approval if they want to raise property tax revenue by more than 3.5 percent.

The three closely related bills reflected priorities Gov. Greg Abbott set at the beginning of the legislative session.

Productive session for schools

“Overall, we are pleased with the work of the 86th Legislature,” said Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission.

The additional funding for public schools will supply “the resources they need to provide full-day pre-kindergarten and targeted interventions for those with special needs, among other things,” Freeman noted.

Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, called the 86th legislative session “the most productive on behalf of our 5.4 million schoolchildren in recent memory.

Charles Foster Johnson 150
Charles Foster Johnson

“Clearly, the voices of faith leaders and faith communities played a key role in this huge step forward of the enactment of HB 3,” Johnson said. “Quality public education for all of God’s children is protected by the biblical mandate for justice as well as by the Texas State Constitution. It is a moral imperative embraced by civil society.”

While acknowledging the “historic legislation is not perfect” and “fixes and corrections” will be needed in the next session, Johnson commended lawmakers for taking significant action to improve public school funding.

“Clearly, HB 3 is a huge first step in the right direction in correcting funding lapses of the past decade, and in restoring Texas to its rightful place of leadership among our United States in per pupil spending on our children,” he said.

Criminal justice reform bills approved

Kathryn Freeman 150
Kathryn Freeman

As part of the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition, the CLC supported several bills lawmakers approved to improve the treatment of incarcerated women and reform licensing requirements to enhance the job prospects of ex-offenders, Freeman noted.

“Criminal justice reform is about getting better results, better outcomes and lower costs. It’s about creating opportunities for redemption,” said Bill Hammond, chief strategist of the Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition.

“The Texas Legislature showed its commitment to these core values of reform in a significant way this session. There’s work still to be done, but we’ve made great strides to reform our broken criminal justice system, strengthen our communities, reduce taxpayer costs and keep Texas safe.”

Four criminal justice reform bills—HB 650, HB 1374, HB 3227 and HB 812—were part of a package collectively tagged as Women’s Dignity Legislation.

“Republicans and Democrats stood together to pass meaningful reforms to improve the treatment of women incarcerated in Texas’ state correctional facilities,” said Lindsey Linder, senior policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

“From improving conditions of confinement for women to addressing some of the root causes that contribute to women being incarcerated, to training to support pregnant women inmates, to understanding women’s unique role as primary caregivers, the Texas Legislature made women’s dignity a top priority in reforming the criminal justice system.”

The CLC and other members of the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition also backed HB 1342, which expands access to occupational licenses for people with a criminal record, and HB 1, a vocational education pilot program.

Abortion, sex abuse and LGBTQ issues

The Texas Legislature also “passed several good pro-life bills,” Freeman noted. She particularly singled out SB 22, which prohibits government entities from contracting with abortion providers, and HB 16, which protects babies born alive after failed abortion attempts.

Special session ends without passing most hot-button bills
(BGCT Photo / Kalie Lowrie)

Lawmakers also approved a bill to shield churches from lawsuits if they disclose to potential employers credible sex abuse allegations.

The Texas Senate unanimously passed HB 4345 on May 22, two weeks after the House of Representatives approved it. The bill protects churches and other charitable organizations, their volunteers and independent contractors from civil liability if they communicate credible sex abuse allegations to potential employers, even if no criminal charges were filed against the accused.

Ben Wright, pastor of Cedar Pointe Baptist Church in Cedar Park; Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, and other ministers worked with Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, to initiate the bill.

Legislators also passed SB 1978, the so-called “Save Chick fil-A” bill—a measure that prevents state and local governments from taking adverse action against individuals or entities based on their religious beliefs or moral convictions.

In March, the San Antonio City Council voted to remove Chick fil-A from the San Antonio International Airport, citing the Georgia-based company’s alleged “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

In 2012, the fast-food company’s president, Dan Cathy, voiced support for “the biblical definition of the family unit” and opposition to same-sex marriage. More recently, Chick fil-A and its WinShape Foundation were criticized for making charitable grants to organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that hold traditional views on marriage.

In a May 20 Twitter post, Abbott tweeted a photo of a Chick fil-A cup perched on his laptop, along with the message: “So. What are the odds I’ll sign the Chick fil-A bill? I’ll let you know after dinner.”

Efforts to expand gambling squelched

In spite of intensive lobby by the gambling industry, most bills to expand legalized gambling in Texas never advanced in the legislative session. One bill to legalize daily fantasy sports that passed the House never received a Senate committee hearing.

“The biggest one would have legalized daily fantasy sports. Once again, the gambling interests tried to pass with a statutory change something that requires a constitutional amendment,” said Rob Kohler, consultant with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission.

Commercial daily fantasy sports sites charge players a fee to enter a game in which they create a fantasy sports team using real professional athletes. The athletes’ performance in certain statistical categories determines how a fantasy league team fares. The fantasy sports player wins or loses money accordingly, and the sponsor site claims a percentage.

The Texas Constitution prohibits wagering on games of chance, and Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a ruling three years ago stating his belief that “a court would conclude that participation in paid daily fantasy sports leagues constitutes illegal gambling.”

However, commercial operators—and reportedly the owners of some professional sports teams—lobbied to have daily fantasy sports players reclassified as participants in a legal “game of skill” rather than bettors in a prohibited “game of chance,” Kohler said.

“They tried to compare it to a fishing tournament or a bowling tournament,” he said.

States that have legalized daily fantasy sports had to include consumer protection language, he noted. That includes the right to self-exclusion—voluntarily suspending an account when a player recognizes he has an addiction or has over-extended himself.

“You don’t see that happening with a fishing tournament,” Kohler said.

‘Too close for comfort’

HB 2303, which would have redefined daily fantasy sports as a “game of skill” in the Texas Penal Code, passed the House. However, Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, never allowed a hearing in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, which he chairs.

“At the end of the day, without Sen. Hancock’s leadership, we would have had a real fight on our hands,” Kohler said. “He called it the way it is. If they want to do this (legalize daily fantasy sports), they need to do it the right way by amending the constitution.”

Rodger Weems, chair of Texans Against Gambling, agreed the daily fantasy sports bill “came too close for comfort.” He also noted that “members of the Texas Legislature were under tremendous pressure from the pro-gambling lobby.”

Weems praised Kohler for his “dedication, competence and intellect” in working to resist gambling expansion in the state.

“The anti-gambling forces succeeded in 2019 in defeating every single effort to expand gambling in Texas,” Weems said. “As in past sessions, the gambling industry walked away with absolutely nothing.”

For all the good accomplished during the session, lawmakers failed to act on some significant matters, Freeman noted.

“We would have liked to have seen more attention paid to improving access to health care for impoverished women and mothers through the passage of HB 342 and HB 744,” she said. “But we hope over the interim, momentum will continue to build so that the legislature will take another look at these issues in 2021.”

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