FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 30, 2015
A monthly column from Sen. Robert Nichols
It is spring outside, and flowers are beginning to bloom. Inside of the Capitol it is a different story as bills are beginning to wilt and die. With less than 40 days left in the session, members are working hard to get their bills through the process.
Here are five things that happened this week at your Texas Capitol:
1. Voter ID Laws
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals began hearing arguments this week regarding the state's case on voter id laws. Last October, a U.S. District Judge ruled against the law, stating it was unconstitutional and could have a negative effect on minority voters. The State appealed and are presenting their case as they feel stricter voter id laws will prevent voter fraud.
The law was passed in 2011 and enacted two years later when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, stating Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination no longer automatically needed federal preclearance when changing election laws. It requires most voters to show one of seven kinds of ID when voting which can include a driver's license, U.S. passport or a military ID. Other states have similar laws, but Texas' is considered one of the toughest.
2. Body Cameras
Senate Bill 158, which passed the Senate this week, would create a statewide policy for body camera programs used by law enforcement agencies. Agencies may apply for a grant to provide body cameras if they have officers who are engaged in traffic or highway patrol, regularly stop or detain motor vehicles or respond to calls for assistance.
This bill makes the program voluntary, but states there must be a uniform policy for those agencies who are using cameras which have been provided through a grant. Each officer must receive training including when an officer must activate or discontinue recording with the camera, as well as storage of data and backup. It must also take into consideration the need for privacy in certain situations and locations.
3. Veterans Organizations
This week I passed SB 918 out of the Senate with a unanimous vote of support. This bill adds veteran's organizations to a list of organizations which are exempt from filing an annual application for property tax exemption. Currently, veteran's organizations, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), are required to file annually which can be an unnecessary hardship for these organizations.
These organization support and provide camaraderie for veterans and those currently serving in the military and their families. They also promote Americanism and serve their local communities. I was proud to author a bill which benefits these organizations across our state.
4. Ethics Reform
The Senate has passed an ethics reform bill for elected officials. This bill includes additional disclosure requirements for the state ethics report. It requires legislators to disclose all sources of income, not currently required, and states all personal financial statements would have to be made available online.
In addition, legislators and candidates would be required to submit themselves to drug tests, which would then be submitted to the Texas Ethics Commission and published online. A legislator would also have to wait one legislative session before they could become a paid lobbyist after leaving office. This is the first ethics reform package passed by the Senate in many years.
5. A Hat, a Steak and a Bee
While the Legislature is tackling some heavy issues such as tax cuts for businesses, funding for transportation, gun laws and ethics reform, we are also considering bills to formally designate new state capitals and symbols. Some of these include naming Jasper the Official Butterfly Capital of Texas, Hico the official Steak Capital and Terry County the Official Grape Capital. In addition, after much consideration the House has honored the hard work of the western honeybee by naming it the Official Pollinator of Texas.
Texas is known for a few things, two of those being the cowboy hat and being known as the 'Lone Star State' in recognition of the star in our state flag. There are currently two pieces of legislation which would name the cowboy hat the Official Hat of Texas and make the phrase 'Lone Star State' the official nickname of our state.
So when you set out on your next road trip across our great state, I hope you get the chance to buy a cowboy hat and visit some of the natural and cultural treasures around the 'Lone Star State'.