While subjects that spark heated debate, like border security and healthcare district legislation dominated headlines during the 84th legislative session, hundreds of other bills passed Gov. Greg Abbott's desk — signed and unsigned — and dozens were authored by political representatives across the Rio Grande Valley.
Authored by State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, one piece of legislation that was signed into law allows Hidalgo County to collect extra filing fees for civil cases in an effort to offset the cost of building the new Hidalgo County courthouse. An estimated $1 million is anticipated to be raised as a result of the new fee rates.
He also authored several “pocketbook” bills, which offer sales tax holidays for emergency preparedness equipment like generators or water conservation tools like rain barrels or soaker hoses. He also authored a bill to revamp the Texas Enterprise Program and expanded the regulations to include smaller businesses to participate in the economic development incentive tool. Hinojosa also spearheaded a bill that reformed the Texas Inspector General’s office.
One bill that didn’t make it past committee for the second year in a row that aimed to put more accountability rules for the Hidalgo County auditor isn’t something that is likely to show up again, Hinojosa said.
Nearly all Valley legislators voted in favor of HB40, a new law that prohibits ordinances by local municipalities that would effectively ban hydraulic fracturing, a type of oil and gas drilling.
“The first draft I did not support, but a compromise was worked out after we negotiated,” Hinojosa said.
Representative Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, was the only local representative that voted against HB40 during the session.
“I grew up on a ranch where there were oil and gas wells and I just don’t think its right for local municipalities not to have a say about how companies drill,” Canales said. “We had the issue come up recently when a company wanted to drill more within the city limits of Edinburg,” he said.
Another bill now law, HB311 clarifies contracts for deeds of homes should be on file with the county and creates more legal protection for often low-income property owners.
“Here in Hidalgo County is where many executory contracts are used and are highly associated with colonias, basically they are contracts in some instances that allow the seller to take all the equity in a property if the owner is late on a payment or missed a payment,” he said. “The buyer would pay for years and think they are going to get their deed, and never gets it — this requires the seller to record the contract and create a warranty deed.”
Another bill passed was inspired by a loophole used by the Panama Unit, he said.
“They were drafting search warrants and scribbling the names (of judges), because Texas did not require the name of the magistrate to be type written so there was no transparency and no recourse,” he said.
A new border prosecution unit was a bill similar to the border security measures but it establishes new positions in the district attorney’s office meant for experienced specialists to assist with drug trafficking crimes and other border issues. In an effort to ease strain on local law enforcement, the positions are funded with federal money.
“That’s something that will have a big impact on us,” said state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya.
A lesser known law that recently passed seeks to incentivize banks and credit unions to open branches in low income communities.
“We noticed that there are a lot of individuals in communities that don’t save or use banks,” Longoria said.
It offers tax abatements and other incentives in certain districts hoping that new financial institutions will open and offer financial literacy courses in addition to checking and savings accounts.
“We just wanted to incentivize banks to open in areas that may not be obviously as financially profitable,” he said.
On the prosecution end of the spectrum, Longoria tried to pass a bill that would allow some first time non-violent drug offenders who are charged with state jail felonies flexibility to have the charges dropped to a misdemeanor after probation.
He said convicted felons have fewer choices after probation and it’s difficult for people to move forward in life — but that bill died.
REP. MUÑOZ JR.
One law authored by state Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr., D-Palmview, changes the payment date for retired teachers across the state.
Another issue he sponsored that will be on the ballot in November deals with the approval for homestead exemption for surviving spouses of veterans.
Another bill permitted small law enforcement agencies to request donations of surplus equipment for specific purposes within the department.
“It’s sometimes difficult for smaller communities to buy surplus vehicles and equipment even at auction,” he said.
Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, co-authored a bill that provided a mechanism for residents living in colonias to pay for conventional streetlights.
“That’s going to provide lighting to colonias which haven’t been able to have light for years — we came up with an idea on their tax bill to have a fee at the end of the year,” Martinez said. “It’s needed for safety, in the morning you can’t see students waiting for buses along the road — this is something that will provide the colonias more protection for its children and it’s not free.”
Another bill now law amends the Texas Workers Compensation Act to include more protections for first responders injured on the way to emergencies.
“You have a lot of first responders that volunteer their services and on the way back from a call have an accident,” he said. “It just provides coverage for them before and after the service.”
Martinez also signed on to a bill that passed allowing Water Improvement District 18 to develop infrastructure — Mike Rhodes is the long time owner of the district.
Residents that are sometimes forced to pay a balance bill for dental work as a result of a loophole for insurance companies was closed. Many patients have dental insurance through a primary medical provider but also purchase dedicated dental coverage too. Some medical providers were only using one insurance provider when it came time to bill for care which meant patients paid out of pocket, he said.
Guerra also voted for the limitations on local fracking bans but said his local leaders didn’t have an issue with it.
One bill that died before being signed, that focused on a “pay for success” program that would have offered an incentive for businesses that showed proven success on contracts.
Overall though, Guerra said he felt like a lot of bills died because hot button issues were taking up too much time.