June 9, 2021 414 PM
WEST TEXAS – State legislators have left the Capitol, and Governor Greg Abbott is busy signing the remaining bills that landed on his desk, as Texas marks the end of another legislative session, which takes place once every two years. Some bills that will benefit West Texas residents have passed or been signed into law, but others died during the session or won’t be decided until an upcoming special session the governor is planning to hold. The local representative, senator and a city-hired lobbyist this week reflected on the session, highlighting the good and the bad.
Legislators and lobbyists alike celebrated the passage of Abbott’s priority broadband bill, which Sen. Cesar Blanco said was a priority for his office this session.
Justin Till, a lobbyist hired by the City of Marfa to advocate for city interests in Austin, told council on Tuesday, “It will allow broadband providers to foray into rural communities to lay lines where it wasn’t economically feasible for them. We expect the governor to sign it pretty soon.”
Sul Ross stays put
The bill to move Sul Ross State University out of the Texas State system and into the A&M system failed to advance this session, despite local Rep. Eddie Morales and Sen. Roland Gutierrez filing bills to that effect. Morales, whose district also covers Del Rio and Eagle Pass, lamented the lack of support and infrastructure given to Sul Ross’ Rio Grande satellite campuses.
“There’s no infrastructure investment in Del Rio and Eagle Pass, and those are the biggest cities that are serviced by Sul Ross,” he said, pointing to the growing populations in both border towns. He also mentioned declining enrollment at the campuses as a reason for change. “They were asking to be moved to another university or do something drastic because obviously attention is not being paid,” he said. Morales said he will continue to support a move from the Texas State system, urging A&M alumni to reach out to their school’s chancellor in support of Sul Ross joining the system.
Earlier this year, faculty at the Rio Grande campuses voted to support the move to A&M, a sign of discontent among the employees at the satellite campuses. School President Pete Gallego however stuck with Texas State and instead supported an omnibus bill that would have secured additional funding for SRSU.
That omnibus tuition revenue bonds bill initially did not include Sul Ross at all, and although it was eventually added in, the bill failed in the Senate, meaning there will not be additional dollars coming in to be spent on new facilities or renovations of existing ones. Still, under the current formula for all state schools, Sul Ross is set to get a little extra money going forward.
Dark skies bill dies
Representative Morales filed legislation that could have opened up Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to be used to preserve the dark skies in Far West Texas, and while the Senate changed it so that only cities – including Alpine, Marfa and Presidio – instead of counties would be included in the law, the bill died on the final night the House was in session. The majority of House Democrats walked out in protest of a voting restriction bill, which ran out the clock, inadvertently killing the dark skies bill.
New designations of roadways and towns
“SCR 11 and SB 633 names Fort Davis the Official Highest Town in Texas and designates state highways 118 and 166 as the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop Highway and a historic highway, respectively,” Sen. Blanco said, adding, “These bills will help increase revenue from tourism.”
Another bill, supported by Morales, allowed Texas to become the 50th and final state to tap into the federal scenic byway program and its accompanying federal funds.
Border Patrol officers in the region also successfully supported an initiative to honor Agent Rogelio Martinez who died in the line of duty. The initial bill would have created a rest stop on Interstate 10 to remember the Van Horn agent, but by the time the bill reached the governor’s desk, it instead offered to name a portion of I-10 in his honor, from mile markers 135 to 140.
Till, the Marfa lobbyist, said that while short-term rental regulatory authority bills did not pass as the city had hoped, he and his colleagues were able to successfully carve out small towns from the bill that would punish cities that decreased budgets of police departments.
“If an economic downturn happens and you’re required to shift funds around from public safety to elsewhere, you will not be penalized by having your tax rate or revenue frozen as is contemplated under those bills,” Till said. Larger cities face retribution if they lower budgets for police departments under the new bill.
A bill on “Constitutional carry” that passed the session will allow Texans without a license or training to carry a firearm in public, joining at least 20 other states in the nation. “Anyone who is legally authorized to qualify for a permit to carry a handgun under current law will be able to do that without a permit, without a background check or training course,” Till said. Marfa Councilmember Irma Salgado remarked, “It’s horrible, horrible.”
Rep. Morales had a different perspective, saying, “I voted for Constitutional carry and this came from numerous calls that came out from West Texas in support of this. While I may feel personally that there should be more regulation when it comes to guns, I have to take into account the calls that are coming in, the emails coming in from within the district.” Morales said he believed it would reduce the use of pat downs by police, which can inadvertently lead to people being arrested for having other illegal substances on them.
Meanwhile, Sen. Blanco was busy passing his “Lie and Try” bill, which he brought in response to the El Paso shooting that took place in his district in 2019. The bill will make it a state crime in Texas to lie on a background check form to illegally purchase a firearm.
“With the approval of Senate Bill 162, we are putting words into action by delivering a solution that will curb gun violence. We owed this, and much more, to the 23 lives we lost so their deaths would not be in vain,” Blanco said. “This bill is one small way to honor those lives by trying to prevent future tragedies.”