AUSTIN (Nexstar) — After a historic quorum-breaking effort by Texas House Democrats led to a nearly three-month stall on legislative action, House lawmakers debated and passed the elections bill that catalyzed the standoff.
“We did all that we could do,” State Rep. Nicole Collier said at a Tuesday news conference in Washington, DC. Collier was among several Texas House Democrats who broke quorum and went to the nation’s capital to call on Congress to pass federal legislation that could block Republican-led state laws to tighten election laws.
“We left Texas because we knew the fix was in,” Collier said of the effort to stall the Republican election bill in the Texas House. “We left Texas and came to Washington because the answer is here.”
A few hours after the news conference, Congressional lawmakers passed the John Lewis Act. The vote fell along party lines, with 219 Democrats voting in favor and 212 Republicans voting no. The act faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where a Republican filibuster could block the legislation from a final vote.
For Texas lawmakers, the focus on election legislation then shifted from Washington to the State Capitol in Austin. The Texas House of Representatives gaveled in at 10:45 a.m. Thursday and shortly after began debate on SB1, a bill Republicans say is needed for elections integrity and Democrats say will lead to voter suppression.
In anticipation of an impassioned debate on the controversial bill, Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, reminded his members of the House decorum shortly after gaveling in.
“Our rules require we conduct ourselves in a civil manner and treat our colleagues with respect,” Phelan said.
At one point during the debate, Phelan asked members to not use the word “racism” when Democrats were arguing that the bill would have disparate impacts on minority groups.
“We can talk about racial impacts without accusing members of this body of being racist,” he said.
Texas Democrats originally walked out of the House at the end of the regular legislative session on May 30, preventing Republicans from being able to pass the bill.
Gov. Greg Abbott then called on this legislature to have a special session that began in July. But the House’s agenda was quickly upended when Democrats fled the state to Washington D.C. to break quorum — the number of lawmakers needed present in order to pass legislation. Democrats held out throughout the duration of the first special session, leading to Abbott calling the second one in August. In all, it took 38 days before three Democrats returned to the Texas Capitol, giving the House the numbers it needed for a quorum.
Here are some of the things SB1 will do:
- Bans 24 hour and creates uniform voting hours for every county in the state
- Bans drive-through voting
- Adds more liabilities for those assisting Texas with disabilities in voting
- Gives more protections for partisan poll watchers
- Adds criminal penalties for poll workers if they do not allow a poll watcher to do their job
- Adds an extra hour of required early voting
- Adds voter ID requirements for voting by mail
Lawmakers spent the day barreling through dozens of proposed amendments to the bill, either voting to approve or deny them.
It is not unusual for the party in the majority to reject amendments proposed by the minority party when it comes to priority or controversial amendments. However, the House approved one amendment proposed by Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, to ensure SB1 is not used to prevent Texans with disabilities from voting.
At the end of the night, the bill passed the House, mostly along party lines. Only one Republican voted against the bill, San Antonio Rep. Lyle Larson. He posted on Twitter calling the bill a “solution to a problem that does not exist.”
Supporters of the legislation, like Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction), called the passage a victory for election integrity.
“It is the intent that the conduct of elections be uniform and consistent to decrease likelihood of fraud,” Murr said.
The bill is expected to reach Gov. Abbott’s desk in September to be signed into law.
Heartbeat bill set to take effect Sept. 1 now facing lawsuits
Senate Bill 8, known as the “fetal heartbeat bill,” officially takes effect next week on Sept. 1, and it’s already facing lawsuits.
The bill would allow any Texas citizen to sue someone who performs an abortion or aids or abets in the process, if a heartbeat is detected in the womb. That usually happens within the first six weeks of pregnancy.
The damage award could add up to $10,000.
‘Aiding’ could include anything from giving a car ride to someone receiving the abortion, to giving advice, to donating to clinics that perform abortions.
That’s why social workers and a woman who regularly donates to women’s health clinics are filing lawsuits against the state.
“My specific case regards donors, because the aiding and abetting definition — simply donating to places like Planned Parenthood — count as aiding and abetting an abortion,” Allie Van Stean, a lawyer in Plan, explained.
“If I’m donating to Planned Parenthood, I’m not necessarily giving with the intent to assist women in getting an abortion. Planned Parenthood and other places provide necessary and needed services like birth control at a lower cost, affordable option for women who can’t afford it. They provide other important and necessary reproductive services for women, like general pap smears,” Van Stean said, pointing to the ripple effect the bill could have on women’s health care overall in Texas.
Monica Faulkner is also filing a suit against the state. She’s a social worker and is concerned how this could affect her when she helps victims of sexual assault or abuse.
“I’ve been a social worker for 20 years now. I’ve worked with sexual assault survivors throughout my career in various capacities. And it just is absurd to me to think that my work with survivors would cost me $10,000,” Faulkner explained.
“Talking with a sexual assault survivor means providing them all the information and answering all their questions, because they’ve had so much power taken from them, that my job in my role is to give them information and to listen to them and to process that information,” Faulkner said.
She explained she works with survivors of all ages and just wants them to know all of their options.
“Some of them have had a pregnancy that was a result of that assault. Some of them chose to parent, some of them chose abortion, some of them chose adoption. It’s not my place to judge, it’s their choice,” Faulkner said.
These lawsuits are filed against the state. There’s also another lawsuit filed against the bill pending federal court, filed by 20 abortion providers.
Border county sheriffs paint grim picture, ask state lawmakers for funding help
House Bill 9, a bill that would provide $1.8 billion in funding to address the border crisis, received preliminary approval Friday in the Texas House.
It’s one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s priorities this session. He held a call with border county sheriffs last weekend and urged them to come testify Tuesday to lawmakers in committee.
“Thanks to the Texas Department of Emergency Management and Chief Nim Kidd for allowing us to have a portable morgue,” Brooks County Sheriff Urbine “Benny” Martinez began his testimony for the bill, painting a grim picture of what local law enforcement is having to deal with on a weekly basis now.
“We currently have 78 [dead undocumented migrants found] from a year to date. Thirteen of those bodies were recovered within six days, our temperatures have been high,” Martinez explained.
Border patrol reports an increase of more than 500% in encounters with undocumented migrants in the Rio Grande Valley Sector alone this year. The near-record numbers are why lawmakers are trying to help.
“House Bill nine includes $301 million to deploy an additional 1,800 guard along the border to support law enforcement and also participate in barrier construction activities,” Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, laid out the bill and its provisions Tuesday.
That would bring the total amount of guardsmen to 2,500 responding to the border crisis, which accounts for about 13% of the state’s 19,000 total. The Texas Military Department explained how they decide to assign guardsmen, as there have been multiple crises over the last year, in a statement to Nexstar:
Our state response missions derive from a request for support that is routed through both county and state agencies to determine how the support can be provided. The Texas Military Department initially responded as a temporary solution to support Food Banks across the state of Texas following the Covid-19 shutdown in March 2020, after the volunteer work force was sent home. As numerous Texans have returned to work and their volunteer organizations, the need for Texas Guardsmen in this capacity diminished. As these missions begin to come to a close, many of our service members supporting them have volunteered to support the border mission as an opportunity to continue serving their fellow Texans in need.TEXAS MILITARY DEPARTMENT STAFF
The bill also includes funding to make more room for migrant detentions. One of the state’s prisons, the Briscoe Unit, was already cleared of its prisoners and converted to a detention center for migrants charged with misdemeanors back in July.
“They are transported currently to the TRCJ Briscoe Unit in Dilley, Texas where they await trial,” Sarah Hicks with the Governor’s Office explained to lawmakers Tuesday.
The bill includes enough funding to convert two more state prisons, once the Briscoe Unit hits 500 migrants.
“Once the Briscoe unit reaches 500 inmates – and it has a capacity for approximately 978 – TDCJ in conjunction with the Texas Commission on jail standards will start bringing the other units up to code,” Rep. Bonnen said.
As of Wednesday, the Briscoe Unit currently has 486 migrants, according to a spokesperson for TDCJ.
Democrats, who voted against the bill, point to issues beyond state control.
“In 2019, for example, the UN talked about El Salvador and Honduras being the murder capital of the world,” Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, said in committee. She explained many of these migrants are coming to our country to escape hardship.
“I think what we want to get our heads around is, this is a multi-layered, complex issue,” Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, added.
But, the border sheriffs reiterated their need for immediate help, despite the complexity.
“It’s complex in nature, has a lot of layers that we need to look at. And you just got to peel one layer at a time. But the first layer is border security,” Martinez said.
Texas family works to educate students on fake pill risks
Dwayne Stewart swiped left on his phone, and there was a reminder.
“It said text Cameron,” Dwayne recalled. “And I’m sitting here to myself like, ‘why in the world would that be on there?’”
He texted often with his youngest son, but the reminder was from months ago before Cameron’s death.
“I just did it. I texted him. I said, ‘I love you, buddy,’ put a bunch of hearts after it,” Dwayne explained. “It’s just sometimes I got to play like he’s still here, just to sort of get through the day.”
The Stewart family lost Cameron in March. Their vibrant son with an incredible smile was gone overnight.
They explained they had tried to reach him but after not responding to texts and calls, they worried and drove to his apartment in Leander.
They said toxicology results showed the 19-year-old died after taking a fentanyl-laced Valium pill.
He had gone to bed and never woke up.
“He would just light up a room when he’d walk in,” said his mom Becky. “He was a great academic student. He was an incredible athlete. He was a hurdler.”
The Stewart family recently shared their heartache with KXAN investigators hoping to help other families.
“Nothing is ever going to be the same for us. And that’s what I want to let parents know is this can happen in a split second. You’re with your son or daughter the day before, and the next day they’re gone,” Dwayne said.
The family now has a mission called “A Change for Cam” and hopes it can bring awareness to schools about much-needed education regarding the dangers of counterfeit pills.
They recently began talking with nonprofit organizations including Song for Charlie, which raises awareness about fake pills made of fentanyl, and schools in Austin about implementing it in the curriculum.
“They’ve got to be aware, because these people who are selling these pills don’t care what age they’re selling to,” Becky said. “And if somebody is walking to school with lunch money, $10, that can buy him a pill or two.”
The Stewarts’ tragedy has been felt across the country. Thousands of miles away the Epsteins know the pain.
The family from Oregon lost their son Cal, 18, in December.
“He made a mistake, you know. It used to be kids made mistakes and learned from them. With fentanyl, if you make a mistake you die,” said Jennifer Epstein in a video posted on Beaverton School District’s website.
Cal’s father Jon said in the video he had come home for Christmas from college and one morning they found him unresponsive. He explained Cal thought he was taking an OxyContin, and he ended up with fentanyl.
“The best we can tell, he sought out some Oxy from the street dealer,” Jon said. “Cal had long-term plans, he had short-term plans. In no way did he desire to harm himself. We’re certain of that.”
The parents partnered with their school district in Beaverton, one of the largest in Oregon, after the loss of several students in the last 18 months.
“We felt compelled to do something to prevent future losses,” said Shellie Bailey-Shah, public communications officer with the Beaverton School District. “And these, you know, were teenagers who had hopes and dreams and plans, and they had families who love them and are still coming to grips with their loss.”
Students in health classes have been learning about the dangers of buying fake pills on social media. Pills they think are OxyContin, Percocet and Xanax but are laced with fentanyl.
“The pills are nicknamed ‘Blues’ for their common color or ‘M30s’ for the stamp on the bills. The tablets are so well made that even experienced users say that they can’t tell the difference between a counterfeit pill and a pill manufactured by a pharmaceutical company,” said the district online.
Students also hear Cal’s story and learn how the synthetic drug can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine and how just one pill can kill.
“We had trainings for all our administrators in our district about how to handle fentanyl-related incidents and how to handle the drug itself, because it can be very, very dangerous,” Bailey-Shah said.
She explained another important thing the district did was host community conversations with experts and Cal’s family.
“I think that there is a certain amount of disbelief amongst parents like, ‘oh, that would never happen to my child,’” said Bailey-Shah. “And what we’ve learned from the families in our district who have dealt with this, that we’re not talking about a stereotypical drug abuser, these are kids who are experimenting. And what we’ve learned about fentanyl is that it only takes one pill. So, there is no such thing as drug experimentation anymore. One pill can kill.”
The district explained online already this year in its county more than 17,000 pills have been seized by narcotics teams, most suspected as counterfeit Oxycodone. In all of 2020, fewer than 14,000 pills were seized.
Bailey-Shah, a parent herself with two boys, said it’s too early to know what kind of impact this campaign will have, but not talking about it is no longer an option.
She explained when her district was looking for guidance and education, there wasn’t much out there to help with the curriculum.
“I would strongly encourage, you know, families to partner with their school districts, their law enforcement, their public health departments, because all these people play such an important role in getting this message out,” explained Bailey-Shah. “And if our resources that we’ve already developed can help spread the message more easily and more widely — that’s gratifying to us.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health alert in December 2020 because of an increase in deaths due synthetic opioids across the country.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott warned about fentanyl seizures being up already this year almost 800% over last year.
KXAN investigators found deaths are up too in Central Texas. Court documents detail a wave of overdoses between March 2020 and this January — 17 deaths from counterfeit Oxycodone and illegal prescription pills in Austin and surrounding cities.
The Stewart family said implementing education in the classroom will be key in preventing more deaths.
“Important for kids to be educated on… how to be bold, and how to not give in to peer pressure,” Becky said. “And so, to be able to keep saying no, and be persistent, because those people don’t give up when they’re trying to sell their product.”
Becky said she also learned after talking to other organizations that there needs to be a change in terminology when talking about fentanyl deaths.
“Cam didn’t die of an overdose. He was poisoned with a pill containing fentanyl. The very word overdose indicates that someone took too much of a substance they knew they were taking. Cam had no idea he was taking a pill containing fentanyl, so in essence, he was poisoned,” said Stewart.
She said organizations working to raise awareness worry misinterpreting these deaths as overdoses instead of poisonings could mean many families will ignore the warning and think overdoses happen to only families dealing with addiction and or substance abuse issues.
The Stewart family said it doesn’t have to be somebody who’s having a problem with alcohol and drugs.
“It could be a kid at a party for the very first time, and someone hands them a pill and that’s it,” Becky said.