The 87th Texas Legislature's regular session—which Gov. Greg Abbott called "one of the most conservative legislative sessions our state has ever seen"—ended Monday. State lawmakers passed bills allowing the permitless carry of handguns, restricting abortion and limiting the teaching of "critical race theory" in public schools, overriding opposition from Democrats. They also passed bills drafted in response to local policy, including one that financially punishes large cities that cut their police budgets and another that bans homeless encampments.
But lawmakers will have to return to the Capitol later this year for a special session after failing to pass a number of Abbott's priority items, including a voting bill that would tighten state election laws. "We will be back—when, I don't know, but we will be back," House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told members Monday. "There's a lot of work to be done, but I look forward to doing it with every single one of you."
Here are seven pieces of legislation you should know about at the close of the regular legislative session:
1. Homeless camping ban
State lawmakers sent House Bill 1925, which would ban camping in public spaces and require local governments to seek state approval when designating campsites on public land, to Abbott's desk on Wednesday. The governor has said he would sign the bill, which was filed in response to homeless camps in Austin.
Austin voters chose to reinstate a citywide ban on public camping during the May 1 election, after City Council lifted it in 2019. Local elected officials are now in the process of trying to designate sanctioned campsites, which has prompted pushback on the dais and from constituents.
City staff presented a list of 45 possible campsites last month, many of which were on public parkland. If signed into law, HB 1925 would ban cities from using public parks without first gaining approval from the state, compounding the challenges of establishing such sites.
2. Police defunding
After Austin City Council voted unanimously to cut the Austin Police Department budget by around 5% last August, along with a series of other reforms, Abbott began seeking out legislative penalties.
On Friday, just over a year after George Floyd's murder and nearly a year since thousands of Austinites protested police violence, state lawmakers approved House Bill 1900, which applies to cities with a population of more than 250,000 and would restrict their ability to raise property tax revenue, among other financial penalties, if they reduce their police budgets. Abbott has said he will sign the bill into law.
APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon spoke in opposition to HB 1900, which he called a legislative "overstep," during a March committee hearing: "These decisions must be made at the local level by our community when and to the degree needed to help build and maintain trust," he said.
3. Winter storm response
After the February winter storm, which left more than 200,000 Austin Energy customers without power and caused at least 12 deaths in Travis County, there were loud demands for an overhaul of the state power grid. State lawmakers approved sweeping legislation to address some—but not all—of the issues that contributed to the catastrophe.
Senate Bill 2 would change the makeup of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which maintains around 90% of the state grid. If signed into law, it would shrink ERCOT's board of directors from 16 to 11 members and increase the influence of the state's top politicians in the selection of those members.
SB 3 would require some natural gas generators to weatherize. During the winter storm, ERCOT projected the state would lean heavily on natural gas, but wells froze up and icy roads made it impossible to transport it, leading to days-long blackouts and the possibility of a total grid collapse.
4. Permitless carry
House Bill 1927, which would see Texas join 19 other states that don't require a permit to carry holstered handguns, has the governor's support and is celebrated by "constitutional carry" proponents. But some law enforcement agencies and other public officials worry about the risk permitless carry poses to public safety amid already-rising violent crimes rates.
APD Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon joined other police chiefs in speaking out against the bill, which he said would lift training and safety requirements currently in place, during an April 29 press conference. He also pointed to an increase in gun violence locally.
Although not all violent crime involves guns, gun violence is increasing and may involve stolen guns or illegally manufactured "ghost" guns. "I'm just very concerned about the number of illegally possessed firearms and how we can curb that," Chacon said during an April 15 press conference, where he announced a new gun crime prevention program in partnership with the Travis County District Attorney's Office.
5. Abortion restrictions
Abbott signed Senate Bill 8—one of the strictest abortion measures in the country—into law on May 19, which would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which supporters say can be as early as six weeks, before some people know they're pregnant. It does not include exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.
The bill, which takes effect in September, leaves enforcement up to private citizens, whom it allows to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, according to The Texas Tribune. This is intended to make the law harder to challenge legally because the state plays no role in enforcing it.
State lawmakers also approved House Bill 1280, which would ban abortion in Texas if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
6. Critical race theory in public schools
Today I killed HB 3979—the bill that attempted to teach our students a whitewashed version of American history—with a Point of Order.— James Talarico (@jamestalarico) May 28, 2021
If kids are old enough to experience racism, then they're old enough to learn about it. #txlegepic.twitter.com/Xg5vmm4Bvh
House Bill 3979, which would limit how current events and the country's history of racism can be taught, is awaiting Abbott's signature after a contentious approval process and significant opposition from Democrats, educators and education advocacy groups.
After State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, raised a procedural violation on Friday, the bill appeared to be dead. But lawmakers removed the amended language that prompted Talarico's concern and ultimately passed a stripped-down version. If signed into law, the bill would ban the teaching of The New York Times' 1619 Project, which argues that the country began when enslaved people first arrived.
Supporters of the bill, which is one of many similar efforts at state legislatures across the country, say it will help prevent personal biases from entering the classroom, according to the Texas Tribune.
7. Voting rights (and a special session)
An hour before the midnight deadline, House Democrats left the floor, blocking a bill that would upend Texas voting laws and prompting Abbott to call a special session.
The bill would add restrictions to early and mail-in voting as well as prohibit drive-thru and other after-hours options. Republican supporters say the bill would improve "election integrity" and prevent voter fraud, despite virtually no evidence that such fraud has occurred. Democratic opponents say the bill is tantamount to voter suppression.
Abbott had declared the bill an emergency priority, along with bail reform. After state lawmakers failed to pass either, he called for a special 30-day session later this year and vowed to defund the state Legislature, threatening salaries, as a penalty. State Rep. Donna Howard, D- Austin, tweeted in response: "This would eliminate the branch of government that represents the people and basically create a monarchy."
It isn't yet clear when the special session will occur. Lawmakers are expected to reconvene this fall to redraw the state's political maps after the 2020 census.
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The original Z’Tejas location on West 6th Street is closing its doors after more than 30 years on the lot to make way for new development.
Z'Tejas owner Randy Cohen told Austonia the restaurant will be open at least through the end of 2022, possibly through March 2023.
Cohen said the owners—Larry McGuire of McGuire Moorman Lambert Hospitality—of the land have something new planned, though he’s not exactly sure what. Additionally, Cohen said maintenance costs for the old building were becoming prohibitively expensive.
“I think the people who own the dirt will tear it all down and build condos or some other development,” Cohen said. “I mean, it's a 60-year-old building, Z'Tejas has been here for 33 years and before that, it was something else. So it's just progress, that's all."
The restaurant isn’t going away though—Cohen said Z’Tejas is already looking for a new spot in the downtown area to move into. Z’Tejas also has a location in Avery Ranch, another in the works for Kyle and two in Arizona.
“We have all our ducks in a row right now and the management team is all rowing in the right direction,” Cohen said. “We're just excited, we're excited to build this iconic brand back.”
Once he finds a new place, Cohen plans to bring along its mural, “The Last Zupper,” which features Willie Nelson, Matthew McConaughey and Barbara Jordan. Cohen also plans for the adjoining ghost kitchen, Woo Woo Burgers, to follow to the new downtown location.
“We're still booking events through the end of December,” Cohen said. “Come ‘Z' me at Z’Tejas, we'd love to see you before we’re gone.”
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Two towers could be coming just south of the Austin American-Statesman’s former headquarters in the South Central Waterfront district.
According to city filings, the proposed planned unit development agreement is set for 200 East Riverside Drive, an area Project Connect’s Blue Line is slated to pass by someday.
Carrying this out involves removing the existing building, which is a state office complex and surface parking.
The new towers in place would reach just over 400 feet at their maximum and include office space and space for retail on the ground level. The mix of office and retail is a trend that’s been cropping up in downtown sites like the Perennial and the Meta tower.
The proposal on a plot of about four acres aims to incorporate green infrastructure and create a lively environment for pedestrians. It’d also be adjacent to the 118-acres of the South Central Waterfront Initiative, which is aimed at enhancing connections to and along the waterfront over the next couple of decades.
The filing lists architects STG Design, a group involved with work on the sailboat-like Google tower.
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