Recap of the 2015 Texas Legislation session, tuition and immigration bills filed, among others

Alonso Moreno, Staff Reporter

Maria Esquinca contributed to this story.

January 2015 not only marked the beginning of the new semester at UTEP, it also marked the beginning of the 84th Texas legislative session, which was set to be a heated one with issues such as education, gun rights and immigration.

The Texas Legislature meets in a regular session every two years, convening on the second Tuesday in January of every odd-numbered year. These biennial sessions are limited to 140 days. The governor can also call additional special sessions as necessary, which cannot exceed 30 days. The 84th Legislative Session is January 13 through June 1, 2015.

Here is a recap on some the most prominent bills The Prospector featured from this session:

Higher Education

1. Revoking In-state Tuition for Dreamers

In 2001, Texas was the first state to introduce a law allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates to attend public universities in the form of HB 1403. The bill allowed undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates as long as they graduated from high school or received a GED in Texas. They also must have lived in the state for three years or more and sign and affidavit affirming that they were seeking legal residency. According to data from The Center for Public Policy Priorities, about 24,770 non-citizen resident students out of 1,303,684 total students (1.9 percent of total students) benefited from HB 1403.

This year’s legislative session saw the introduction of legislation to repeal the Texas Dream Act by State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. Texas Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick said he wants to end the act, and Governor Greg Abbott has indicated he wouldn’t veto any repeal efforts.

Pertinent legislation:

HB 209 Status: filed

HB 360 Status: filed HB 586 Status: filed

SB 1819 Status: Pending committee

2. Re-regulate Tuition Rates

Texas lawmakers have also taken on the task of tackling the increased cost of state colleges and universities. Prior to 2003, the Texas Legislature was responsible for setting tuition rates, but since opting to abdicate that power, the statewide average for tuition and fees has more than doubled. However, according to a Texas Tribune analysis, only nine of the state’s 38 four-year public institutions and fees went up at higher rate after 2003 than they did in the decade before it.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, introduced a bill that would re-regulate tuition by capping increases at the rate of inflation, and State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, also authored a similar bill as well.

Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, have both also filed legislation that would re-regulate tuition. The bill by Seliger would tie tuition increases to performance measures, and the Ellis bill would require universities to get approval from lawmakers before increasing tuition.

According to information provided by The Texas Tribune, from 1993 to 2003 UTEP saw a tuition percent increase of 179.32 percent and a 95.40 percent increase from 2003 to 2013.

Pertinent legislation:

HB 89 Status: filed 

HB 233 Status: filed

HB 255 Status: filed                                  

HB 793 Status: filed

HB 827 Status: filed

3. Immigration Issues

Sanctuary Cities

Texas legislators also focused on so called “sanctuary cities,” which is the term for government entities that forbid local peace officers from enforcing federal immigration laws, including asking the immigration status of someone detained or arrested.

Senate Bill 185 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would cut off state funding for local governments or governmental entities that adopt policies such as the ones described above.

According to state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, the bill would encourage racial profiling.

“I think it puts Texas on the wrong track,” Garcia said during a debate for the bill. “It will lead to racial profiling and it will give people cover.”

Texas is home to 13 sanctuary cities, amongst them Austin, Dallas and Houston. El Paso is not amongst those listed in Texas.

Pertinent legislation:

SB 185 Status: filed     SB 160 Status:filed     HB 592 Status: filed

Border Security Package

Texas Legislation introduced a three-part border security package, which Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a legislative priority.

House Bill 10 by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, House Bill 11 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and House Bill 12, by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, were presented to House members as part of a broad border security package.

Thompson’s bill would increase the penalties for human trafficking, Bonnen’s bill would increase the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border, establish a catchall intelligence center in Hidalgo County to analyze border crime data and create a voluntary corps of retired DPS officers all in the span of two years.

Longoria’s bill would fund the Border Prosecution Unit, a body that was established to help border prosecutors handle increased caseloads. It consists of 17 jurisdictions that include counties on the state’s border with Mexico and other surrounding areas.

Gov Greg Abbott has stated in the past that the Obama administration has done a poor job of securing the border.

Pertinent legislation:

HB 10 Status: approved by House HB 11 Status: approved by House HB 12 Status: approved by House

4. Gun Rights and Marijuana

Gun Rights

Since the start of the session, Texas legislators have taken aim at gun rights in the state and the possibility of expanding them.

Senate Bill 17 from state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, and House Bill 910 by Committee Chairman Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, would allow concealed handgun license owners to openly carry a handgun in public.

Since 1995, Texans have been able to carry concealed handguns if they complete a training class and obtain a license. However, the state is also one of six states that prohibit unconcealed display of handguns outside of private property.

Senate Bill 11 from state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and House Bill 937 by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, would allow students to carry concealed handguns on a college campuses.

Both Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven sent letters to be read during the hearings for “campus carry.”

McRaven is opposed to the idea of having guns on university campuses and stated that doing so would create less safe environments.

In contrast, Sharp stated that he felt that he could trust “his students, faculty and staff to work and live responsibly under the same laws at the university as they do at home.”

Gov. Abbott stated in the past that he would support any form of legislation aimed at expanding gun rights in the state.

“I will sign whatever legislation reaches my desk that expands Second Amendment rights in Texas,” Abbott said during capitol hearings.

Pertinent Legislation

SB 11 Status: approved by Senate  HB 937 Status: filed

SB 17 Status: approved by Senate HB 910 Status: approved by House

5. Decriminalizing marijuana possession

Texas lawmakers have also looked at marijuana during this legislative session, as five bills have been brought forward to the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence in efforts to decriminalize the use of the substance in the state.

House Bill 507 from state Rep. Joseph Moody, D-El Paso, would reduce penalties for possession of less than one ounce to a $100 fine and no jail time.

House Bill 325 from state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, seeks to reduce possession of 0.35 ounces of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor. Currently it’s a Class B misdemeanor. House Bill 414, from state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, also seeks to lower the charges on marijuana possession.

House Bill 3326 from state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would decrease the punishment for certain misdemeanors and felony offenses involving drug possession, and House Bill 2165 from Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), would repeal current provisions to end state-level prohibition on marijuana.

All bills have been left pending in committee.

HB 325 Status: filed 

HB 414 Status: filed

HB507 Status: filed

HB 2165 Status: filed

HB 3326 Status: filed

6. Tuition Revenue Bonds

Tuition revenue bonds are how the state funds campus construction projects at public universities, every other session. The last time this was done was in 2006.

In the last legislative session in 2013, a plan to provide more than $2.7 billion to support about 60 campus construction projects around the state failed to gain final approval before the legislative session ended. Because of the lack of funding, many universities, including UTEP, have had to delay construction projects.

Senate bills related to this by senators Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin are all in the higher education committee.

Pertinent Legislation

SB 21 Status: filed

SB 150 Status: filed

SB 245 Status: filed

7. Anti-Gay Rights Legislation

In this legislative session, more than 20 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced, a 30 percent increase from the previous legislative session. Among them are HB 1747 and 1748, both authored by state Rep. Debbie Riddle R-Tomball. HB 1747 would prosecute transgender individuals for using a public restroom that is appropriate for their gender identity, but that does not coincide with the gender on their driver’s license.  HB 1748 is similar, but it would prosecute a transgender person for using a public locker room, shower facility or toilet facility, appropriate to their gender identity, but not to the individual’s chromosomes. While HB 2801, authored by state Rep. Peña R-Pasadena, would fine school districts up to $2,000 for allowing students to use a bathroom or other public facilities that do not coincide with their sex chromosome.

A number of cities, such as El Paso, Houston and San Antonio, have passed nondiscrimination ordinances that offer some protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Legislation by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, seeks to protect the religious liberty of small businesses. Critics say their proposed constitutional amendments, SJR 10 and HJR 55, would limit the ability of cities to enforce nondiscrimination ordinances.

Meanwhile, several Democratic lawmakers have filed legislation to recognize same-sex marriage in the state, such as SJR 13 and HJR 34. These Democrats are also pushing for legislation to allow both same-sex parents to be included on a child’s birth certificate, as well as to repeal the state law that states homosexual conduct is an offense.

Pertinent legislation

HB 70 Status: filed

HB 130 Status: filed

HB 304 Status: filed

HB 453 Status: filed:

HB 537 Status: filed

HB 547 Status: filed

HB 553 Status: filed

HB 582 Status: filed

HB 627 Status: filed

HJR 34 Status: filed

HJR 55 Status: filed

SB 98 Status: filed

SB 148 Status: filed

SB 250 Status: filed

SB 343 Status: filed

SJR 10 Status: filed

SJR 13 Status: filed

For more information on these and all bills filed during the 84th Texas Legislature, please visit: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/

Alonso Moreno may be reached at [email protected]