Texas legislature sets stage for education, immigration, gun fights

Bills just introduced were among the priorities Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick laid out in advance of this year’s session.
FILE – Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Aug. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Top Texas lawmakers on Friday set the stage for a contentious legislative session ahead as House and Senate leaders introduced bills to tackle a flood of migrants at the southern border, overhaul education from kindergarten to college and impose new penalties on criminals who use firearms.

The key bills were all among priorities laid out in advance of this year’s session by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who controls the state Senate, and House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) in recent months. The exact details of what those proposals would do have been under wraps — until lawmakers dropped the bills late last week.

Texas Republicans have long been at the vanguard of conservative policy, especially as Patrick has grown in power and influence. This year, though, the GOP is moving late to catch up to other red states that have advanced similar legislation in sessions that got underway months ago.

Here are some of the key bills that will make headlines in the coming months:

Immigration: Phelan said Friday he would back a bill to create a new state law enforcement unit with the authority to repel and arrest migrants who cross the border outside of a port of entry. The bill would give the new Border Protection Unit the authority to employ civilians. It would make it a felony for migrants who enter the country from Mexico to trespass on private property.

Patrick said he would back separate legislation introduced by state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R), which would make crossing into Texas illegally a state crime punishable by one year in prison, or two years if they are caught a second time. The bill would allow those entering the country illegally to be jailed for life if they have been previously convicted of a felony.

“The Texas Senate’s dedication to securing our southern border is unwavering,” Patrick said in a statement endorsing Birdwell’s bill. 

Democrats lambasted both measures. House Democratic Caucus chairman Trey Martinez Fischer (D) called the House bill “a tinderbox waiting to explode that will leave this session in flames.” 

K-12 Education: State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R) on Friday introduced separate measures creating a Parental Bill of Rights and a Teacher Bill of Rights that emulates much of what several other red states have tackled this year.

The Parental Bill of Rights would establish Educational Savings Accounts of up to $8,000 per student that would allow parents to spend taxpayer money on private or religious schools or on homeschool costs. The bill also restricts teaching on gender identity or sexual orientation, and it requires school districts to notify parents of changes to their child’s mental, emotional or physical health — a provision that LGBTQ advocates say would require districts to out students to their parents.

“Giving parents the power to determine the best school for their child will encourage competition and innovation, ensuring that each Texas student has the opportunity to succeed,” Creighton said in a statement.

The Teacher Bill of Rights would provide substantial pay raises to teachers and increases funding for an incentive pay plan.

Both Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have made school choice legislation key pillars of their agendas for the year. Creighton’s bill establishing the education savings accounts aims to address concerns that have come up in recent years among rural lawmakers who are concerned that students who flee to private or religious schools could blow a hole in local budgets. The bill would provide rural districts with $10,000 per year for every student who uses the education savings account option. 

Higher Education: Creighton also authored two bills that would make major changes to public colleges and universities in Texas. 

One bill, SB 18, would prohibit colleges and universities from offering tenure to any faculty member after September of this year. In a statement introducing the measure, Creighton called teacher tenure a “costly, unnecessary and antiquated burden.” 

Patrick called for an end to tenure after the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin approved a resolution backing the right to teach racial justice and critical race theory in 2022. 

Creighton’s other bill, SB 17, would eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion policies at state institutions. Several Texas colleges have already ended the practice of considering diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring practices, after Abbott’s office said last month it considered those factors a violation of federal and state employment laws.

The bill would prohibit colleges and universities from conducting training related to race, gender identity or sexual orientation. Those who violate the law, if passed, would be barred from employment at state schools.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), a close Patrick ally, introduced legislation to ban critical race theory in public universities.

Gun Crimes: State Sen. Joan Huffman (R) on Thursday introduced legislation that would impose a 10-year prison sentence on those who use a firearm to commit a felony, putting into legislative language a proposal Patrick pitched on the campaign trail last year as he pledged to tackle a rise in violent crime.

The bill would prohibit judges from sentencing felons who used a firearm to commit their crimes to lesser penalties like community supervision or parole.

Huffman’s legislation made strange bedfellows of criminal justice advocates and gun rights supporters, both of whom criticized the measure imposing new mandatory minimum sentences. 

“Frankly, a lot of times lawmakers proposed mandatory minimums because they want to look like they’re doing something about violent crime and the only thing they really know how to do is increase penalties,” Molly Gill, vice president of policy at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told the Texas Tribune.

Power Grid: Two years after a vicious winter storm brought down the Texas power grid, Patrick and two Republican senators introduced several measures aimed at bolstering the system.

One measure would require the state to hire companies to build 10,000 megawatts of gas-fueled power that could be activated in the event of a future emergency. Another would create a marketplace for backup power generators who could operate in an emergency, in a way Patrick said “levels the playing field” between wind and solar and “dispatchable energy.”

“Our slate of legislation focuses on putting protections in place to ensure that our energy market remains fair for all participants while keeping costs for consumers low,” Patrick said in a statement. “We are going to pass legislation to improve transparency and protect against market abuses.”