State of Texas: Texans weigh in on guns, voting and the coronavirus

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas may soon become the largest state in the country to allow permitless carry — carrying a handgun without a license and training.

A newly formed special committee in the Texas Senate, the Special Committee on Constitutional Issues, heard more than nine hours of testimonials before approving a bill to remove the permit and training requirements for Texans over 21 years of age.

Angelica Halphen was among more than 170 people who signed up to testify on House Bill 1927. Her son Harrison Schmidt was shot and killed in a 2019 road rage incident, Houston police say.

“As you sit and as you think, think about these future generations that have been taught to take a test, and they don’t know how to play together— they’re going to be adults soon— and that’s what scares me the most,” Halphen said. “They don’t know how to handle situations.”

Supporters of the bill, such as Open Carry Texas Legislative Director Rick Briscoe, argue permitless carry removes barriers for Texans who want to protect their families.

“Very frequently, people of lesser means are more directly affected by such restrictions, because they may or may not have the means to apply for a license to carry a handgun,” Briscoe said. “Or they may have had some minor scrape with the law which, under present Texas law would disqualify them from being able to obtain a license to carry, and yet they have the same need to protect their families and themselves.”

However, opponents worry HB 1927 takes away the only safeguards against gun violence, including background checks and training. Gyl Switzer, director of Texas Gun Safety, held a press conference early in the week to voice concerns about the legislation.

“The permitless carry bills call for no background check, no training, no demonstration of proficiency,” Switzer said.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, plans to introduce six amendments when he brings it to the Senate floor: adding back the offense of carrying while intoxicated, removing fees for licenses to carry, removing the section that says officers cannot profile someone based on carrying, enhancing penalties for felons caught carrying, ensuring schools and similar places can still stop people from carrying on their property, and requiring the DPS to launch a free and optional online course on gun laws and safety.

This Tuesday in a radio interview on WBAP, Gov. Greg Abbott said he would in fact sign a permitless carry bill if it reached his desk.

“I support it, and I believe it should reach my desk, and we should have constitutional carry in Texas,” Abbott said.

LT. Gov. Dan Patrick previously said HB 1927 did not have enough votes to pass the Texas Senate, but in a radio interview this week he said that may no longer be the case. Patrick expects the bill to come up for a vote on the floor next week.

Sunset bill giving TCOLE more power to police Texas officers likely dead until 2023

Of the many things uncovered in the Bargaining the Badge investigative series, one thing is certain: Texas peace officers who give up their police licenses rarely serve jail time.

Our investigation found that since 2015, only 444 peace officers accused of crimes surrendered their license — a lifetime ban from working in law enforcement. Based on records KXAN able to obtain on these 444 license surrenders, only 17 served at least one day in jail.

Most of the surrenders happened amid criminal investigations. Others happened to stop a criminal prosecution.

Analysis of court records we could obtain on permanent surrenders since 2015 showed all were related to some sort of misconduct. Every surrender was voluntary.  

The opening paragraph of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s report into the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement’s ability to regulate peace officer licensees describes the agency as “toothless” as a result of the limitations placed upon TCOLE by current law limiting its ability to sanction licensees.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission opened its review of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement in 2019.

The Sunset process in Texas is a way to determine whether a state agency is needed and should continue to exist. The Sunset process typically reviews each state agency once every decade and recommends legislative fixes for problems identified through the process.

It took the Texas Sunset Review Commission 4,000 hours, 69 meetings and 11,647 anonymous survey responses to figure out the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement’s job of regulating law enforcement is ineffective.

Comments included: “toothless,” “outdated” and “poor accountability.” All of that taken from the opening paragraph of the Sunset Advisory Commission’s summary of its 2020 review of TCOLE.

The report also made clear this outcome isn’t TCOLE’s fault.

The 63-page report — one of the more scathing Sunset reports in recent years — found state lawmakers are the reason for TCOLE operating on 40-plus year-old standards with practically no way to sanction its licensees for misconduct.

The public presumes TCOLE is a fully capable professional licensing and regulatory agency, similar to the Texas Medical Board or Texas Pharmacy Board, with broad authority to set high standards for individuals to receive and maintain a law enforcement license, and to hold these licensees fully accountable,” the Sunset staff report published in November stated.

But the report says TCOLE has relatively limited authority to set or enforce anything but minimum licensure standards — deemed to be “outdated” and “insufficient.”

Texas officers accused of violence, other crimes avoid prison in deals with prosecutors 

“We have 21 agencies that we’re reviewing under this Sunset cycle. TCOLE I’ll have to say is our most important,” Sunset Commission Chairman Rep. John Cyrier, a Lockhart Republican, told KXAN in January.

Cyrier, who authored House Bill 1550, said he’s continued to call for modernization.

The bill is supposed to fix the problems with TCOLE discovered during the Sunset review. But the bill, as currently drafted, does not appear to provide TCOLE authority to sanction licensees for misconduct.

“It’s no question in anybody’s mind that it [TCOLE] is broken and we need to do a complete overhaul of our law enforcement in the state of Texas. And what I keep saying is a modernization; we need to bring up to modern times laws and rules and things that were done, even just 10 years ago have changed,” Cyrier said.

The representative said he’s been working closely with colleagues and stakeholders on the legislation but many questions will need to be addressed before debate on the floor. Cyrier said that while he won’t publicly comment further at this time, work on the bill will press on. He declined to be interviewed for this report.

“So there’s nothing in HB 1550 that would enact a statewide standard of misconduct immediately upon enactment?” Rep. Matt Schaefer asked Sunset’s Project Manager Andrew McConnell during an April 1 House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee hearing.  

NOVEMBER 2020 TEXAS SUNSET COMMISSION REPORT ON THE TEXAS COMMISSION ON LAW ENFORCEMENT

“No sir,” McConnell responded. “And there’s nothing in HB 1550 that would authorize TCOLE to do that by rule?” Schaefer asked.

“No, sir,” McConnell replied.

Cyrier’s bill, as written, would delay Sunset’s TCOLE reform effort with respect to sanctioning licensees for misconduct until at least 2023. Instead of proposing new laws, HB 1550 would create a “blue ribbon panel” to figure out what lawmakers need to do to reform TCOLE.

“In all of our offices, we have a lot of black binders with contents from Blue Ribbon Commissions, okay?” Committee Chair James White said to Cyrier during the April 1 hearing.

In this January 2021 interview with KXAN, Rep. John Cyrier discussed what he saw as a “broken” Texas Commission on Law Enforcement based on the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s findings regarding the agency’s lack of authority to sanction problem peace officers in Texas. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“So, what is the blue-ribbon commission, what is it supposed to be doing? I’m not going to use the euphemism kick the can down the road. But what do we need to wait on the blue ribbon commission to do?” White asked Cyrier.

“We consider ourselves a blue ribbon committee, okay? And we’re hearing – and some of these people may be in the audience, they may be on the video stream, and they’re hurting right now. So, I need to be able to explain to them: When is the kickoff of us having a restored TCOLE?” White asked Cyrier.

The Sunset report explained the blue-ribbon panel’s role is simple: to comprehensively review and recommend needed changes to improve law enforcement regulation in Texas.

Of the state’s largest law enforcement associations, only one spoke out against HB 1550 during the April 1 hearing. The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, known as CLEAT, told lawmakers HB 1550 is a “direct attack” on TX law enforcement and would “severely constrict” agencies if passed.

Texas police bargain their licenses to avoid prison. New bills could end those deals 

CLEAT bills itself as the “largest police officers’ union” with more than 25,000 members and is recognized as one of the most powerful law enforcement organizations in Texas.

“CLEAT has identified several portions of the bill that demonstrate a shift in TCOLE responsibilities from licensing and training, which has always been their intended duty, to an investigative agency,” Jennifer Szimanski with CLEAT’s Public Affairs said.

Szymanski told lawmakers “all of the legislation” aimed at reforming Texas law enforcement this session was an attack on “working cops” and is “punitive in nature.”

“TCOLE was designed and should continue to be the agency that oversees licensing and training,” Szymanski told lawmakers, suggesting legislators should leave investigations of peace officers to the Texas Rangers and the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Funding TCOLE should be limited to providing better training for peace officers, Szymanski argued.

“We’re in full agreement that there is there are a lot of things that need to be improved, a lot of things that need to be done better,” Texas Municipal Police Association Executive Director Kevin Lawrence told lawmakers on April 1.

TMPA’s testimony was neither for nor against the bill, but Lawrence said he and his associations more than 30,000 law enforcement members are “in full support” of reforming TCOLE in giving it more authority to regulate its licensees.

“But there’s one major caveat we throw in and that is there has to be due process involved,” Lawrence told KXAN in March. “That there has to be some process by which that thing is fully vetted, and we have determined that beyond whatever that level of proof is that we’re expecting, that that burden has been met.”

Lawmakers looking to give TCOLE more power to regulate its licensees will likely have to wait until at least the 2023 legislative session. If Cyrier’s HB 1550 passes this session, it would continue TCOLE for the next two years.

It would also allow a blue-ribbon panel to put together the plan for lawmakers to reform TCOLE, but the panel’s report would not be due until June 1, 2022.

The proposed panel would contain a majority representation of law enforcement. Cyrier’s bill calls for a 15-member panel with nine members, or 60%, described as “law enforcement industry members.”

“Certainly I agree that there’s a heavy presence of law enforcement and I hear often from the TMPA, the Texas Municipal Police Association, that they believe that there is some room for improvement,” Rep. Vikki Goodwin, a Travis County Democrat and member of White’s committee told KXAN.

“They believe that they do have some bad law enforcement officials. So, perhaps bringing them to the table and saying, ‘Look, we know we have problems. How do you suggest that we fix them?’ You know, they’re there day in and day out so let us know what we can do,” Goodwin said.

Some lawmakers aren’t waiting for Cyrier’s bill to give TCOLE the regulatory authority to sanction peace officers for misconduct. In early March, Goodwin filed HB 2488, a bill that would give TCOLE the authority to suspend or revoke a peace officer’s license if an officer is found to have committed a list of misconduct – even without a criminal conviction.   

“I told my staff, let’s try to help work towards better policing. I believe in the police. We need our law enforcement. But we need them to be behaving appropriately and serving, protecting the public; they should not be above the law,” Goodwin said.

HB 2488 would also allow TCOLE to revoke a peace officer’s license at the first dishonorable discharge from a law enforcement agency in Texas. Current law allows two dishonorable discharges before TCOLE can take action. The discharge information is noted on what’s known as an F-5 form, which is confidential by law in Texas.

STATE REP VIKKI GOODWIN
State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, introduced a bill this session that would allow TCOLE the authority to suspend or revoke a peace officer’s license for less than a criminal conviction in some misconduct cases. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

If Goodwin’s bill becomes law it would also require departments to tell the state whether an officer resigned or retired while under investigation for misconduct or criminal acts.

Goodwin said the discharge information should be made public and if necessary, Goodwin would introduce legislation to open those files to the public.

The bill would also allow TCOLE the authority to revoke a license for a range of misconduct including drug use, lying in court and on reports, evidence tampering and demonstrated patterns of excessive force, abuse of official capacity, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct and acts of discrimination.

“These things really are not behaviors that we want to see in our law enforcement. So, we wanted to spell them out and make sure that TCOLE has the ability to revoke a license of an officer who is not serving well,” Goodwin said of her bill.

Some officers accused of violent crimes receive plea agreements without jail time 

Goodwin’s bill had a hearing before the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on Thursday. The bill was left pending in committee.

Heated conflict in committee over maneuver to move bill

Senate Bill 7, an election regulation bill which has been stirring up controversy, was passed out of committee in an unusual move on Thursday.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Baytown, pushed SB 7 out of committee without a public hearing. He was able to do so by submitting a committee substitute that made the language exactly the same as House Bill 6. The substitute allows the committee to vote without holding a public hearing.

HB 6 passed out of committee, but not before a heated 22 hours of testimony in the Texas House. It proposes restrictions on how counties can distribute vote-by-mail applications, restrictions on partisan poll watchers and tightens the rules on people assisting voters for language or disability reasons.

Cain had only dropped off the substitution minutes before the vote, so several lawmakers immediately rejected his move since they say they did not have a chance to read the new version.

“It’s absolute crap,” Rep. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton) said.

“So you’re not gonna recognize the amendments that I offered? It’s bull—-,” Rep. Jessica Gonzalez (D-Dallas) said, as Rep. Cain moved forward trying to get members to vote.

After the heated exchange, Rep. Cain postponed the vote until Thursday evening.

Committee member Rep. John Bucy III, D-Cedar Park spoke at a news conference with voting rights advocates after the postponement.

“For all the talk we’ve heard of election integrity and upholding the public’s trust, why would we go about it in this way that would cause our constituents to question our integrity and the integrity of the legislative process? We cannot do this in the dark,” Bucy said.

When the committee reconvened, the modified version of SB 7 passed on a party line vote, meaning Democrats had no chance of stopping the bill. It will now move to the full Texas House.

A new poll from the Texas Politics Project and the Texas Tribune shows that most Texans do not believe the state’s election system discriminates against racial and ethnic minorities. Although, more than a third of respondents said yes, the majority said no.

One issue Texans are split on is whether the state should ban drive-thru voting locations. While 44% support the ban, 47% of respondents were against it. However, more than half of Texans polled want to prohibit counties from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who have not requested one, but just over one-third of respondents oppose the idea. While nearly half of Texans polled are against a ban on counties offering more than 12 hours a day for early voting, just over a third support the restriction.

The poll provides insight on how Texans view some of the specific proposals in HB 6 and SB 7.

Texas poll shows lower level of concern over COVID-19

President Joe Biden announced it’s time to relax recommendations on when to wear a mask in public — if you’re vaccinated. His announcement is based on new CDC data that shows people who are fully vaccinated have an extremely low risk of transmitting the virus.

“If you’re fully vaccinated, and you’re outdoors, and not in a big crowd, you no longer need to wear a mask,” Biden said.

At the same time, Texas lawmakers are easing up on mask-wearing restrictions at the State Capitol. With a 99 to 46 vote, House Resolution 333 was adopted this week, lifting the mask requirement in the Texas House. Previously, everyone was required to wear a mask on the floor and in committee rooms, but as of Thursday it is optional.

While cases are dropping, a new poll shows Texans concern about COVID-19 is decreasing. Jim Henson from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas has been tracking Texans’ concern about the spread of Coronavirus for the past year. Recently, overall concern has been falling but it varies greatly by demographics.

“The level of concern among Texans overall has decreased a lot since the outbreak of the pandemic a little over a year ago, and noticeably since the fall and winter when the pandemic was really raging,” Henson said. “But the pattern isn’t uniform, and the differences are most evident by party and race.”

A year ago, Democrats reported nearly twice as much concern as Republicans. Now, Democrats are almost four times more concerned than Republicans.

The poll also asked the question of what activities Texans view as safe or unsafe. The results show three things a majority of Texans feel unsafe doing now are going to the gym, going to large indoor events and going to a club or bar.

“The list of things, as you know that a majority of people felt safe doing, was three times as long in April as it was in February. So people are easy enough about going out even though there are still areas of concern, and again, still partisan differences,” Henson said.

President Biden said the country is on track for normal Fourth of July celebrations assuming vaccinations continue at the current rate. While Texans’ resistance to vaccines is decreasing overall, there is still a partisan divide. While an estimated 72% of Democrats are vaccinated, only 44% of Republicans reported receiving the vaccine.

“That’s still a big share, even if you account for people that may not be planning on getting the vaccine because they’ve been infected or for other medical reasons,” Henson said. “So there’s still what seems to be a kind of persistent pocket of resistance to getting vaccinated out there.”

Building better brain research

A bill that could funnel $3 billion toward brain research in Texas passed on the Texas House floor on Wednesday.

House Bill 15, filed by State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D – Houston), would establish the Brain Institute of Texas.

“What inspired me about the bill, in the beginning, was the uptick of suicide and depression among very young children,” Rep. Thompson explained. Mental health was the motivation behind the bill when she first authored it in 2017, but then it quickly became much more than that.

“What are those problems that are causing us Alzheimer’s, bipolar, dementia and many, many other conditions? People are waiting, hoping that we can come and do this research and find out answers and be able to help them,” Rep. Thompson said on the House floor Tuesday.

Mental health advocates are watching the bill’s progress closely, including NAMI Texas.

“Of approximately the 30 million people that are in Texas, approximately one in five have a diagnosable mental health condition,” Matthew Lovitt with NAMI Texas said the impact of the research would be groundbreaking.

“If we can conduct or do research, that makes it easier for people to receive care or maintain any kind of treatment that they may need for their mental health concern. Of course, this is going to have huge benefits for the individual, but also Texas collectively,” Lovitt said.

Rep. Thompson has been able to rack up bipartisan support this session, but asking Texans to support the $3 billion price tag made some Republicans hesitate.

Lovitt explained the upfront investment would pay off in the long run.

“When we do make that investment, we’re gonna save a significantly greater amount of my downstream when people who are maybe not cycling in and out of the criminal justice system, or they’re not utilizing the emergency room as much as they otherwise may, or they’re able to maintain stable housing, get a job and then start contributing to the tax base and buying products,” Lovitt said.

Rep. Thompson’s same bill stalled during the last session, passing in the House but never making it on the Senate’s calendar. She’s hoping the pandemic’s impact on mental health will push it through this year.

“I’m hoping that is going to be something that will help motivate those who may be on the fence to support this legislation,” Rep. Thompson said.

If the bill passes in the Senate and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, voters would then decide in November whether to approve the $3 billion price tag. If voters give it the greenlight, the Texas Public Finance Authority would issue bonds that taxpayers would pay out over a 10-year period.

It’s the same funding structure that was used for a cancer research bill in 2007.

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