Texas Legislature concludes its third special session with a flurry of bills passed

Looking upward into the Texas State Capitol dome.

On Tuesday, the Texas Legislature adjourned sine die, putting an end to a packed third special session. The primary focus was redrawing district maps for Texas’ State Board of Education, Senate, House, and U.S. Congress—all of which passed—but Gov. Greg Abbott also added several other items to the agenda. Passed legislation also included bills that discriminated against transgender student athletes, appropriated federal stimulus money, funded an opportunity for a “premium holiday” for TRS healthcare, provided a tax break to homeowners, and increased funding to institutes of higher education across Texas.

Redistricting complete, but faces legal action

All four redistricting maps have been continuously attacked throughout the process for underrepresenting voters of color. MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) filed suit against the state on all four maps on behalf of individual voters and a coalition of Latino organizations committed to securing fair redistricting plans. The lawsuit asks the federal court to toss out the new maps because the maps are unconstitutional and violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. According to the complaint, the new maps for Congress, and the Texas House, Senate, and State Board of Education do not reflect the growth of the Latino community.

Lawmakers carve up billions in federal pandemic aid, with possible ‘premium holidays’ for TRS retiree healthcare members

The Legislature also passed SB 8, which appropriates federal stimulus funds given to Texas as part of the American Rescue Plan.  SB 8 appropriates over $286 million to the Teachers Retirement System of Texas to offset COVID-19 costs. TRS is considering creating a premium holiday for a certain number of months in which eligible retirees would not pay TRS-Care premiums. The funds will also be used to reduce additional premium increases for TRS-ActiveCare members that otherwise could have occurred in the 2022-2023 plan year. More specific information on TRS-Care and TRS-ActiveCare plan premiums will likely become available this December.

The bill also allocates more than $7.2 billion to the state’s unemployment compensation fund, which was overwhelmed with claims last year during the pandemic.

Transgender sports bill passes as President Biden calls it “bullying disguised as legislation”

In a huge blow to LGBTQ+ students and activists across the state, the Legislature finally passed HB 25, which would discriminate against transgender student athletes. The bill would prevent transgender students from competing in sports with their own gender group. This bill and similar bills filed across the country have caused the issue to gain national attention. The Biden White House released a statement this week condemning the passage of HB 25 and calling that bill and similar bills like it “bullying disguised as legislation.” At least five state legislatures across the country have also passed similar bills.

Voters will decide on property tax break with homestead exemption increase

Voters will have the last word in May 2022 on property tax changes that sailed through both chambers Monday. Passed unanimously, SJR 2 would raise the state homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000 for school property taxes, saving the average homeowner about $176 in savings, according to the bill’s author, Sen. Paul Bettencourt.

After lawmakers were unable to agree on other forms of property tax relief—including one-time rebates to homeowners—lawmakers immediately fast-tracked the homestead exemption proposal. The Senate passed the proposal without hearing from a single member of the public before the language was publicly available, with the House passing the bill later in the evening.

If approved by voters, the constitutional amendment would cost the state about $600 million annually. Bettencourt said the amendment would be paid from state surpluses the first year. However, it is not clear how the measure would be paid for in the future.

College campuses get a funding boost for renovation, construction

In the last week of the special session, the Legislature passed a bill authorizing the issuance of $3.3 billion in tuition revenue bonds for institutions of higher education to finance construction projects. While these “tuition revenue” bonds are the primary mechanism for funding university capital projects, the Legislature had not passed a package since 2015. 

Note: At press time, special session bills passed still await the governor’s action with his signature for approval, no action taken for approval, or a veto.

What failed to pass

Two of the governor’s agenda items that did not pass the legislature were bills to increase penalties for illegally voting—or making honest mistakes when voting—and to block COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all entities in Texas. Although no legislation was passed to prohibit COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the governor had already released an executive order blocking these mandates, and the legal fight over that issue is ongoing. Even without these two agenda items passing, it currently seems unlikely that the Legislature will enter a fourth special session any time soon. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Abbott stated that “there is no need for another special session at this time.”