More than 750 new Texas laws go into effect Friday. Here’s a quick breakdown of the highlights
Every odd-numbered year, state lawmakers convene in Austin and debate hundreds of proposed bills with potential to affect tens of millions of Texans who call the Lone Star State home. More than 750 new laws take effect Friday. That’s on top of 321 passed this year that took effect immediately after being signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, along with another 30 taking effect in 2024.
The Texas Newsroom and partner stations across the state break down some of the key items below.
A ban on gender-affirming care.
One of the year’s most controversial measures, Senate Bill 14, bans transgender people under 18 years old from accessing puberty blockers and hormone therapies — two of the most common forms of gender-affirming care. It also prevents trans minors from having gender-transition surgeries, which are rare.
The bill was part of a slew of measures filed this year targeting people in the LGBTQ+ community.
The law was blocked last week after a state district judge ruled that it was likely unconstitutional and discriminatory. But the Texas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that SB 14 can go into effect Sept 1. while that case plays out. The law was one of several “culture war” debates that took place under the pink dome this year, but opponents of the bill said it’s a serious issue and the law would have devastating effects on Texas youths already receiving some of the care.
Transgender athletes in collegiate sports
Senate Bill 15 mandates that college athletes participate in sports on teams that match their gender as determined at birth on their official birth certificates.
Like SB 14, this legislation was controversial and inspired intense debate among Texas lawmakers. The bill's author, Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, pushed back against those who criticized him for the bill, and said it was about “fairness.”
"We hope every woman in this great state has a fair opportunity at athletic achievement and this bill protects that opportunity,” said Middleton in March.
One exception to the new law allows for “female athletes to compete on a male team if there is not a corresponding female team offered” according to the analysis of the measure.
While Senate Bill 1070 formally takes effect Sept. 1, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office began complying with its terms more than a month ago. The law requires that Texas withdraw from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), an interstate compact designed to clean voter rolls and reduce the chances of illegal voting.
The Texas Secretary of State’s Office submitted its 91-day notice of its intent to withdraw from ERIC on July 20. That means that as of October 19, less than a week before the start of early voting for the fall elections, Texas will no longer have any means of checking its voter rolls against those of other states to determine the eligibility of would-be voters.
Texas Republican officials have long argued about the need to strengthen the integrity of elections, but many have grown skeptical about ERIC’s ability to do this. They argue that ERIC’s requirement that members identify eligible but unregistered voters and encourage them to register is an improper use of tax dollars.
Further, since Texas first joined ERIC in 2020, numerous conspiracy theories have taken root falsely claiming that the organization is funded by left-leaning entities and that the requirement to promote voter registration is designed to benefit Democrats. While ERIC received initial seed capital from the Pew Charitable Trusts, it has received most of its funding since from dues paid by member states.
Reigning in the power of local district attorneys
Locally elected prosecutors lost a good portion of their discretionary power now that House Bill 17 is in effect.
The new law allows the courts to remove district attorneys for misconduct if they choose not to pursue certain types of crimes — such as those related to abortion, elections or marijuana possession.
Republican lawmakers said this law will rein in “rogue” district attorneys in bigger, left-leaning counties — and, indeed, some DA’s offices have policies that appear to run afoul of the new law. In 2019, Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot announced his office would not prosecute first-time marijuana offenses and thefts of personal items under $750 stolen “out of necessity," according to reporting by the Texas Tribune.
And, after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, five Texas prosecutors signed a national letter saying they wouldn’t pursue abortion-related charges.
While Harris County DA Kim Ogg said the law won’t impact any policies in her office, she expects it to have a wider, chilling effect on district attorneys across the state.
“We see this as an overreach by the legislature,” she said. “I see it as a huge expense and distraction potentially, and that's a shame. We've got a lot of big problems in Texas. There are solutions to them, and unfortunately, I don't think this is one.”
Ban on race-based hair discrimination
The CROWN Act, short for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, is designed to protect people of color from race-based hair discrimination.
According to a recent survey commissioned by LinkedIn and Dove, 66% of Black women surveyed changed their hair for a job interview to avoid discrimination. Twenty-five percent believed their hairstyle cost them a job interview.
State Rep. Rhetta Andrews Bowers, D-Rowlett, authored the measure and believes it will make a positive difference for many.
“It would impact men, women, and children … whether it was in the classroom and children were being kept from instruction because of their hair and looked at as a distraction — because of the style they are wearing their hair in — or people on a job being held [back] from promotion because they are choosing to wear their hair in braids,” Bowers said.
She has spent years fighting to pass the law. The 2023 legislative session was the third time she filed the measure.
Ultimately, the Texas Legislature passed the CROWN Act in May with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Targeting “reckless driving” and street races
Street racing became more popular in Texas during the COVID-19 pandemic, when reduced traffic on roadways tempted some to use public thoroughfares for their personal fun. Flash mobs of vehicles would block off intersections to create temporary arenas for drivers to show off their stunting skills.
They also led to disaster, like a 2020 street race crash in Fort Worth that killed Ben and Meg Arbour, parents of four young children.
“These types of incidents are all too common,” said Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said.
In February, Gov. Greg Abbott created a statewide task force to address street takeovers. That effort led to two new laws. House Bill 2899, which became law in June, allows law enforcement to impound the vehicles of those arrested for racing or reckless driving exhibition.
House Bill 1442, effective Sept. 1, now allows authorities to confiscate those vehicles permanently. The law also prohibits the promotion of takeovers and races on social media, as well as the posting of videos of the events. Such violations would be Class A misdemeanors, which have a statute of limitations of three years.
“We want to make it perfectly clear that we’re coming after you,” Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn said. “The light will be on at the jailhouse regardless of jail overcrowding. We’ll always have room for them… We’re going to take your car, and we’re going to take your freedom.”
Prioritizing murder cases in state court
As a court backlog continues to persist in the state’s largest county, Harris County officials are hopeful that a new law will help expedite pending murder cases. But it's still unclear if the law will bring about drastic change.
Under Senate Bill 402, district judges in Texas are required to give preference to hearings and trials for murder and capital murder offenses. The bill was authored by state Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston and a mayoral candidate. He said the new law would make the state’s criminal justice system “a lot more fair and just.”
“It’s my opinion that this would do justice to those that are waiting for trial to be either found innocent or guilty and get them out of a dangerous county jail,” Whitmire said. “To move justice along to prevent evidence from getting old witnesses lost. It just makes sense to me to move some of these more serious cases to the front of the line.”
This comes after pending cases in Harris County’s courts began piling up after Hurricane Harvey closed the county’s criminal courthouse for nearly a year. As of now, the backlog still surpasses 100,000 cases in both criminal and civil court in Harris County.
Plugging leaking water wells
House Bill 4256 establishes a grant program to help plug leaking water wells in rural areas, with $10 million earmarked for the effort.
That’s good news for the Fort Stockton area, where nestled into the aging oil fields of the Permian Basin, around 40 water wells have been allowed to release salty-toxic water from the depths for years.
Unlike oil and gas wells, Texas does not plug water wells. It’s left up to landowners to try to find the money to properly plug them. In Pecos County, that’s led to a huge sinkhole and the formation of an approximately 60-acre salt lake.
“The state recognized it’s an issue,” said Tye Edwards, the manager of the Middle Pecos Groundwater District. “We have buy-in from all the legislature and it’s a major success, but it’s not the end of the game, it’s just the beginning.”
While this law went into effect a few months ago, the funding for it is just now becoming available.
Lawmakers didn’t hold back on border security spending this year, and appropriated $5.1 billion for the effort in Texas’ next two-year budget. The bulk going toward Operation Lone Star, a state-led border security mission Gov. Abbott launched in 2021.
Lawmakers also passed a lot of other border-related bills going into effect Sept. 1. That includes Senate bill 602, which gives agents of the United States Border Patrol the ability to search, detain and arrest people suspected of committing state crimes, vastly expanding the power of the federal agents.
Before the law was passed, Border Patrol agents were only authorized to detain people suspected of committed state offenses pending a transfer to a peace officer. But state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said that more than a dozen federal agencies allow their agents to enforce state law in some capacity and Border Patrol agents shouldn’t be excluded.
“The limitation on where Border Patrol can detain individuals means that they cannot detain any person suspected of committing a state felony when they are on patrol along the border,” Birdwell said during a committee hearing earlier this year.
Senate Bill 1403 authorizes Texas to create and execute an interstate compact for border security purposes. Under the legislation, participating entities will share intelligence and other information about illegal activity on the state’s southern border. It also allows for sharing “funding and other assistance in creating and maintaining defensive border structures”— which likely means a border wall.
Senate Bill 1900 designates Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations and essentially treats alleged cartel members the same way the state treats members of street gangs.
Abbott already declared Mexican cartels as FTOs in a 2022 executive order, but that was mainly seen as a symbolic action because that designation is usually issued by the federal government. By approving SB 1900, lawmakers made cartel members susceptible to the same punishments gang members currently incur when convicted of crimes like criminal mischief, coercion, firearms violations and a host of other infractions.
The legislation also allows Texas to seize property owned by FTO members and adds information about alleged cartel members to the state’s criminal database.
Millions for fire prevention in Abilene
Texas' dry weather has led to a large number of wildfires. This year, lawmakers allocated additional money to improve the state's fire response capabilities.
Currently, when conditions warrant, the Texas A&M Forest Service activates a wildfire tanker base at Abilene Regional Airport. It readies pilots and equipment to respond to any wildfires that break out.
Thanks to a $20 million slice of HB 1, the state’s budget new two-year budget, Abilene can now build a longer ramp and permanent facilities for the fire crews.
Abilene Regional Airport currently has only two passenger gates, which Abilene’s Director of Aviation Don Green said can lead to crowded conditions for wildfire aircrews.
“A concern of the Forest Service at other airports is where do they fit in in that traffic flow when you’ve got so many airline aircraft in and out all day long. So it works very well here,” said Green.
While local officials see it as a huge win for Abilene, they add that the benefits will reach anyone facing a wildfire in Texas and beyond.
“Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado — they can access some of those other states as well. Abilene is a better location for that," aid state Rep. Stan Lambert, R-Abilene.
Once the funding kicks in, airport officials will be able to select an engineering firm and anticipate that construction will begin next summer. A permanent tanker base could be up and running in 2025.
Reporting by Sarah Asch, The Texas Standard; Mark Haslett, KETR; Lucio Vasquez and Andrew Schneider, Houston Public Media; Mitch Borden, Marfa Public Radio; Heather Claborn, KACU; Sergio Martínez-Beltrán and Julián Aguilar, The Texas Newsroom.
Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.