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Sept. 1 brings bounty of new Texas laws

Texas State Capitol Building

More than 660 bills passed by the 87th Texas Legislature become law on Wednesday, Sept. 1. Here is a list of several new laws, not in any particular order, that could be of interest to Highland Lakes residents. 

As these laws and others take affect on Wednesday, the Legislature is in its second special session working on more bills, including voting and bail reform, two of Gov. Greg Abbott’s priorities that didn’t make it through the regular session.

Firearms Carry Act 2021 (House Bill 1927)

This law allows Texans 21 years and older who can legally possess a firearm to carry one in public without obtaining a license. Previously, someone carrying a concealed weapon had to have completed a license-to-carry class and maintain certification. 

The new law eliminates the need for the class, though licenses remain optional for people who want to have reciprocity with states that allow concealed carry but haven’t passed similar legislation. 

Under this law, law enforcement officers may disarm someone if the officer, in the lawful discharge of their duty, “reasonably believes it is necessary for the protection of the person, officer, or another individual.” If the officer determines the person is not a threat, they must return the firearm to the individual.

Texas Heartbeat Act (Senate Bill 8) 

Under this law, an abortion cannot be performed or induced once a fetal heartbeat is detected in the womb unless in the case of a medical emergency. The previous law banned abortions or similar procedures after 20 weeks of pregnancy. 

The law also allows for a private person to bring civil action against an individual who provides an abortion or “knowingly aids or abets” in an abortion. It also allows for a minimum $10,000 fine for a person found violating this law.

Prekindergarten class cap (SB 2081)

This law limits the number of students in a prekindergarten class to 22 and no more than 11 students per teacher or aide in a classroom with more than 15 students. The legislation does allow the Texas Education Agency to grant waivers if needed for programs that can’t meet this standard. 

In 2019-20, the average number of students in prekindergarten classes was 19 with an average teacher-student ratio of 1:17. A 2021 TEA report revealed that there were “hundreds” of prekindergarten classrooms in the state with an average teacher-to-student ratio of 1:30 or higher.

Studies, including TEA reports, back up the importance of high-quality, prekindergarten education for the future of students.

Social studies curriculum change (HB 3979)

Under this law, the Legislature is changing, or amending, the manner in which social studies is taught in the classroom. Some people state this is to counter the rise of Critical Race Theory, which looks at how race and racism might have shaped the United States.

House Bill 3979 restricts teachers from “being compelled to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs.” If they do tackle those topics, teachers must, to the best of the their ability, “strive to explore those topics from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”

The authors of the bill also want students to study the founding documents of the United States, which include: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, including Essays 10 and 51, excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” the transcript of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, and the writings of the founding fathers.

Texas 1836 Project (HB 2497)

The Texas 1836 Project seeks to promote “the storied and unique history of Texas, reaching back before the founding of the Republic of Texas following independence from Mexico in 1836.”

This isn’t a school curriculum but aims to educate all Texas residents on the history of the state. Under this law, the project would include the history of indigenous people, Spanish and Mexican heritage, the Texas War for Independence, the annexation of Texas by the United States, Christian heritage, and Juneteenth.

One way of sharing the project is through a pamphlet handed out by the Texas Department of Public Safety when a person gets a driver’s license. The DPS would also make the pamphlet available online. 

Simplifying SNAP enrollment (SB 224)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program covers some food costs for seniors and individuals with disabilities, but many are not enrolled in the program because of the complex process. Under the new law, the Health and Human Services Commission must simplify the application and recertification process for people 60 years and older and disabled individuals.

According to a 2018 report, “Texas had the fifth-highest rate of senior food insecurity in the nation, with 11 percent of Texas seniors at risk for hunger.” The authors of this legislation feared that with the COVID-19 pandemic, even more seniors and disabled residents face the tough choice between food and medicine and/or food and utilities. 

Simplifying the application and recertification process should help alleviate some of those issues.

Leilah Hernandez Act (HB 103)

This law directs the Department of Public Safety to create a Texas Active Shooter Alert System to notify people if an active shooter situation is in their area. The act is named for Leilah Hernandez, a high school student who was the last person murdered during the August 31, 2019, Midland-Odessa shooting that left seven people dead. 

According to the author of the bill, the perpetrator killed Hernandez an hour after the murder spree started, and if an alert system such as this existed at the time, she could have been alerted to the situation and stayed out of harm’s way. The system would alert by phone people within a 50-mile radius of an active shooter situation. Local law enforcement could request its activation when necessary.

Blocking emergency vehicles (HB 9)

Under this law, if a person “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly“ blocks an emergency vehicle that has its emergency lights or siren operating, or a hospital entrance, they can face a state jail felony charge. Previously, if a person took such action, it was only a Class B misdemeanor. 

Along with a stiffer penalty, the law would require at least 10 days in jail.

Botham Jean Act (HB 929)

Law enforcement officers wearing body cameras will be required to keep them on during the entire course of an investigation. In 2015, the Legislature “established comprehensive statewide policy on the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement.” 

One of the issues regarding that legislation was when and under what conditions should an officer activate, and then deactivate, their body camera. House Bill 929 amends the rule to provide additional guidance for those situations.

The act is named after Botham Jean, who was killed on Sept. 6, 2018, in his apartment by an off-duty Dallas Police Department officer who thought she had entered her own apartment and mistook the victim for a burglar. 

National Anthem and professional sports (SB 4)

This law requires professional sports teams in the state of Texas to play the “Star-Spangled Banner” prior to all events. Under this legislation, a government entity must get in writing that the professional sports organization will play the National Anthem if the team is receiving any government financial commitment, including using a taxpayer-subsidized facility or stadium.

Several other laws passed during the 87th regular session and, signed by the governor, went into affect earlier than Sept. 1, including the allowance of to-go alcohol sales, the reform of the electric power grid, and a ban on vaccine passports in Texas.

daniel@thepicayune.com