The Texas Legislature is currently in its second special session, where lawmakers have been working on a number of bills deemed high priority by Gov. Greg Abbott: bail legislation, voting restrictions, and teacher retirement pay, among others.
Beyond that, the Legislature has more business to attend to in coming weeks: redistricting, and the allocation of federal COVID-19 relief money.
But while Capitol business continues, there are already 666 new bills passed into law during the legislature’s regular session that will go into effect Wednesday.
Reporters from The Texas Newsroom partner stations broke down some of the key items.
‘Fetal Heartbeat’ Abortion Ban
Texas Lawmakers earlier this year passed into law a bill that could ban abortions before many even know they’re pregnant.
SB 8, one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, prohibits Texans from getting an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which experts say could be as early as six weeks, reducing the deadline down from 20 weeks.
Unlike other similar bills across the country, though, Texas’ law doesn’t set criminal penalties for violating the ban. Instead, the law allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps a woman get an abortion.
Providers say the new constitutes an abortion ban, and will almost completely strip peoples’ access to its services.
Zaena Zamora, the executive director of abortion financial support group Frontera Fund, said SB 8 could put it and other abortion funds like it in legal peril.
“It kind of makes our job kind of impossible, because we’re always going to be putting ourselves at risk of getting sued,” Zamora said.
On Monday, Texas abortion providers petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the law.
Texans have had the right to carry a gun in public since 1995. Since then, more gun-friendly legislation has followed, but you’ve always needed to obtain a license to be able to take your gun outside your home or vehicle.
Starting Wednesday, that’s no longer the case.
SB 1927 allows anyone who can legally own a firearm to carry it in public, as long as it’s in a holster. That’s a first since Reconstruction.
Texas is now the 20th state to enact what supporters call “constitutional carry” – something they say is a right granted by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The law doesn’t change eligibility for gun ownership. Texas handgun owners must still be at least 21 years old and can not have served a sentence for a felony or family violence within the last five years. The new law also adds several misdemeanors to the list, including assault causing bodily injury, deadly conduct, terroristic threat, and disorderly conduct with a firearm.
The law was opposed by gun safety advocates, law enforcement and vocal firearm instructors. And according to April polling data from The University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, almost 60% of Texans oppose permitless carry.
“I think it will mean more handguns in public,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “And data show us time after time after time that guns don’t make us safer.”
New Voting Laws. (No, Not That One)
While the main focus of this special legislative session has been Senate Bill 1 — a GOP-backed voting bill that would ban things like drive-thru and 24-hour voting — some less talked about voting laws have already passed.
Among them: SB 1111, which bans Texas voters from registering using a post office box as their address; SB 1113, which allows the Secretary of State to cut funds for voter registrars who fail to remove certain people from the rolls; and House Bill 3920, which makes it harder to apply for a mail-in ballot for medical reasons.
But there’s also other, less controversial legislation.
House Bill 1382 is a bipartisan measure that allows people to track mail-in ballots online to make sure they’ve been received.
HB 1128, meanwhile, makes it very clear who can be in a polling place during elections: Voters, election workers, poll watchers, election judges and law enforcement are all allowed.
Election administrators and staff are, too, but only to drop off materials and provide tech support.
Republican state Rep. Jacey Jetton from Sugar Land, one of the bill’s authors, said nothing will change for the average voter.
“If you were able to vote last year, you’re not going to find differences with this next time around,” Jetton said. “You’re going to go in, you’re gonna show your ID, you’re going to go to a polling booth, you’re going to cast your vote, and be done.”
Felonies For Protesters Blocking Roads, Hospitals
Texas protesters could face felony charges for blocking a roadway or entrance to a hospital after a new law goes into effect Wednesday.
HB 9 was introduced after a protest in California last year that resulted in anti-police protesters blocking two deputies from entering an emergency room.
In Texas, protesters had faced a misdemeanor with up to six months in jail for that offense. The new law increases the penalty to two years.
The law will also require 10 days in jail if the alleged offense is committed while a person is out on probation.
“As a nurse, who’s worked in the emergency setting, seconds matter,” said state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, one of the bill’s authors. “A delay of only a few minutes to emergency care can mean the difference between life and death.”
Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, though, said the punishment is too severe.
“What we’re doing here is creating a mandatory minimum that is not congruent to anything else that we have,” Moody said. “In our law for first offenses, the only place we find something like this is when we have repeat offenders.”
Banning ‘Critical Race Theory’
Teachers say they don’t teach it. Educators say most people — including critics — don’t know what it is. Still, this spring, lawmakers in Texas passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory in school.
This spring, Texas passed laws taking aim at critical race theory, even though teachers say they don’t even teach it, and educators say most people — including critics — don’t even know what is.
Nikki Jones, who teaches African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, described critical race theory as a way to understand how race has influenced the historical laws of this country — laws that justified everything from slavery to violence.
“It’s a way to see race,” Jones said. “To see understandings of race, to see racism, in places where it may not otherwise on the surface of it be apparent.”
HB 3979 takes on critical race theory without ever naming it. House bill sponsor Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, says the new law is aimed at teaching complex subjects like slavery and racism without making white children feel guilty.
“We need to teach about the ills but you can’t blame this generation,” Toth said. “Kids are being scapegoated.”
Texas history teachers say they don’t scapegoat anyone. The bill’s critics, meanwhile, call the bill and those like it in other states a political football.
A Ban On Homeless Encampments
Another new Texas law bans homeless encampments across the state.
HB 1925 makes it illegal to set up shelter or store belongings for an extended period of time, creating a new class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Many believe the legislation is a response to Austin effectively decriminalizing homeless camping in 2019 — a measure that Austin voters voted to overturn in May. The law also limits cities from using parks for temporary camps.
Expanding Medical Cannabis Access
Thousands more Texans will on Wednesday become eligible for low-THC medical cannabis oil through the state’s compassionate use program.
Not only that, the maximum amount of THC allowable in that oil is being doubled.
Under HB 1535, medical cannabis oil’s percent of THC — the ingredient in marijuana that can produce a psychological high — can increase from .5% to 1%.
The law also makes all forms of cancer eligible for the program. Previously, only patients suffering from “terminal” cancer were eligible.
“It’s arguable that any form of cancer could be terminal, right?” said Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “So it felt like a very arbitrary descriptor.”
It also expands use for people with post traumatic stress disorder. Originally, only veterans suffering from PTSD were eligible. That was changed in part after an outpouring of support from veterans who testified before lawmakers, saying that everyone with PTSD should have the same access.
The state’s program, though, remains one of the most restrictive in the country.
According to a poll this year from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, just more than 10% of Texans believe marijuana should remain illegal in the state.
Education Credits For Veterans Service
A new law could help the roughly 1.5 million veterans living in Texas get academic credit for skills they learned in the military.
HB 33 aims to create a universal catalog to translate which military training would apply to certain degrees and certificate programs at Texas trade schools and colleges.
State Rep. Alex Dominguez, D-Brownsville, who co-authored the bill, said it was about reducing redundancy for veterans and giving them quicker entry into the civilian workforce.
“My goal is to publish this list, so that the veterans themselves can see what they would qualify for,” Dominguez said. “A veteran might be leaving military service having always done work in, say, infantry. But they might notice that they have developed enough skills that would help them get a job in, say, law enforcement, or to be a paramedic, for example.”
Right now, Texas has about 600 institutions of higher education, combined from trade schools, community colleges and universities. Currently only 15 of those have partnered with the American Council on Education to evaluate whether or not a person’s military coursework applies to a degree or certificate program.
Dominguez said the Texas Workforce Commission will work with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to hopefully complete the catalogue by January 2023.
Making It Harder To Sue Trucking Companies
Texas has more fatal crashes involving large trucks than any other state — and drivers may want to be even more cautious on roadways starting Sept. 1.
That’s when a new law goes into effect making it more complicated to sue commercial trucking companies after crashes.
HB 19 lets a trucking company ask for a two-part trial. The truck driver’s actions can be looked at first, and if the driver is deemed negligent, then the trial can look at the company’s role.
Trial lawyer Lin McCraw said this “bifurcation” will make the process longer and more costly.
“We’re going to have these experts come in and testify in the first part of the trial, and then have to bring them back to testify again with all the attendant costs of doing that,” McCraw said.
That could make it harder for people bringing a lawsuit to recoup medical expenses and lost wages, McCraw said. Road safety advocates were against the legislation when it was heard by lawmakers last spring.
But the Texas Trucking Association says the law will curb abusive and shallow lawsuits.
Reporting by Houston Public Media’s Paul DeBenedetto, Florian Martin and Andrew Schneider; KERA’s Bret Jaspers, Haya Panjwani, Ana Perez and Bill Zeeble; KUT’s Ashley Lopez, Jerry Quijano and Andrew Weber; and Texas Public Radio’s Carolina Cuellar and Carson Frame.