It’s Time For Another Legislature Update

Texas State Capitol Building
Texas State Capitol building

With less than a month left in the Texas legislative session, it seems like time for another update. Here’s a few eco- and Austin-related bills that we’ve got our eyes on:

The issue: Air Quality – As you might know, ozone pollution is a major problem in many US cities. (Ozone is basically just a fancy word for smog).  Ozone forms when the emissions from cars, trucks, and industrial facilities combine and “cook” in the heat of the sun. It also causes a lot of health problems for children, the elderly, and anyone with asthma.

ozone

The Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP for short) is designed to reduce air pollution and smog by providing financial incentives to eligible individuals, businesses, or local governments to reduce emissions from polluting vehicles and equipment. But now, the program is in danger of expiring unless the Texas Legislature decides to renew it this legislative session.

The bill: There are currently several bills that have been filed that call for the extension of TERP, including SB 26, HB 1979, SB 1046, and HB 2682. While they’re all slightly different, each of these bills extend TERP in some way or another.

What’s Next?: The Alliance for a Clean Texas (coalition of environmental organizations from throughout the state who have joined together to advocate for strong environmental policies during the Texas legislative session) is now advocating for all of the above bills that support the renewal of TERP, saying that it should be continued until Texas can prove that all of the state’s cities have clean air. Currently, four cities (El Paso, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio) are in “non-attainment,” meaning that their ozone levels are higher than the national safety standard.

 


The issue: Drinking Water – You’ve probably heard about Flint, Michigan and its severe problems with lead in the drinking water. Well, now’s there’s a fear that a similar situation could happen in Texas if the state doesn’t get more vigilant about the potential problem. According to Environment Texas, 65 percent of Texas schools that have voluntarily done water testing found lead levels greater than that recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Why does this matter? Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to children, who absorb about 90 percent more lead into their bodies than do adults. Lead can also cause longterm health impacts, including brain damage and behavioral disorders.

However, Texas currently has no universal standards for testing water in public schools for lead.

Water

The bills:  There are currently two bills making their way through the Legislature that deal with lead testing and removal in Texas schools. HB 2395 would create standards to test drinking water in both public and charter schools for lead, as well as make sure parents are notified if any of the tests come back positive.

On the Senate side, SB 1587 would also require schools to test annually for lead and notify parents, as well as to get the lead of schools entirely, by removing old pipes and other transmitters of lead.

What’s next?:  A public hearing for SB 1587 was held last week and a hearing for HB 2395 was held earlier this month. Both have been left pending in committee. In order for them to even have a chance at passing, they have to be voted out of committee. HB 2395 is is in the Public Education Committee and SB 1587 is in the Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs Committee.

 


The issue: Ride-hailing apps -In the past few years several Texas cities (including Austin) have passed regulations on ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, prompting them to leave.

The main point of contention is over fingerprint-based background checks. Uber and Lyft both say that fingerprint-based background checks are overly burdensome (both companies already conduct their own non-fingerprint-based background checks) and interfere with their ability to quickly onboard new drivers and provide a high quality of service. Cities like Austin who have passed ride-hailing rules say that fingerprint-based checks are the safest option, as they’re the only way to ensure that a person really is who they say they are.

Uber No Pick Up

The bills: Ride-hailing is a hot topic this legislative session, so several bills have been filed aimed at overturning the many different locally-passed ride-hailing rules throughout the state. One of them is HB 100, which would establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies (like Uber and Lyft). If passed, HB 100 would effectively overturn local ride-hailing ordinances (including Austin’s) and replace them with a new statewide rule. The bill would require ride-hailing companies to have a permit from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, as well as to pay an annual fee in order to operate in the state. They would also have to perform local, state, and national criminal background checks on drivers annually (but not fingerprint-based background checks).

What’s next?: Last month, HB 100 passed out of the Texas House of Representatives and has moved over to the Senate. In order for the bill to become a law, the Senate must also pass the same exact bill. Similar ride-hailing bills have also already been filed in the Senate (SB 176 and SB 361).

 


The issue: Plastic Bags – As you know, Austin (along with several other cities across Texas) have instituted plastic bag bans in order to protect agriculture, livestock, animals, natural resources, and waterways. These so-called bag bans are always under fire at the Texas Legislature, and many bills have been filed over the years aimed at “banning the bans” (although none have been successful).

However, in August, a San Antonio state appeals court ruled to overturn Laredo’s plastic bag ban, saying that the ban was preempted by a state law that says cities cannot “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package.”

The bill: Although this court ruling doesn’t technically affect Austin (we’re not located in the court’s district), in has caused quite a bit of concern amongst those that favor the bans. In response, Representative Gina Hinojosa (who represents the Austin area) has filed HB 3482, which seeks to protect cities from potential court rulings by stating that plastic bags should not be classified as containers or packages (in the eyes of the law).

What’s next?: Last week, HB 3482 had a hearing which was attended by two 11-year-olds from Houston, who started an organization called Bag-free Bayous and are in support of plastic bag bans. They were joined by a cast of colorful characters, including people dressed up as cows and sea turtles (both are animals who are affected by plastic bag pollution)  for a press conference at the Capitol building. The press conference was organized by Texas Campaign for the Environment, which is now encouraging the public to sign onto their petition of support for HB 3482. Even though the bill had a hearing, it still needs to be voted out of committee in order to move on in the law-making process.

Bag Ban Press Conference
photo from the Bag Free Bayous Facebook page

On the legal front, the San Antonio court case is being appealed all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, in an attempt to receive greater clarity about the legality of plastic bag bans statewide.

 


So how can you actually get involved in the state legislative process?

If these (or any other) bills are of interest to you, you can track them online (so you never miss an opportunity to get involved.

Here’s what you have to do:
All bills filed in the Texas Legislature are given a number so that they can be tracked as they flow through the legislative process. Before the number, most bills will also be listed as either an HB or a SB for House Bill and Senate Bill. This simply identifies which chamber the bill came from. You can track the progress of bills, as well as read through them here>>

If you’d like to stay up-to-date on the bills as they move into committees and receive hearings (so that you can go to the Capitol and testify) you can add them to your alert list on the Texas Legislature’s website. Simply click the “Add to Alert List” button in the upper righthand corner of the bill’s page and you’ll never be left out of the loop.

You can also contact your state elected officials to share your opinions about any bills currently making their way through the Legislature. If your favorite bill is stuck in committee, tell your representative that you’d like them to do something about it (especially if they serve on that committee). If you disagree with a bill that is about to receive a big vote, be sure to contact your representative and tell them how you feel in advance. You can figure out who represents you here. And you can learn more about how to get involved with the state legislative process with our latest blog post here.

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