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Hundreds of new Texas laws go into effect Thursday

Posted Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Texas

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Come Thursday, there will be some new laws in town.

No longer will most Texans have to worry about leaving guns in their cars while at work. Drivers won't have to worry about slowing down on some highways at sundown. Teens caught "sexting" face misdemeanor charges - and attending state-sponsored classes about the dangers of sending sexually explicit messages and texts with their parents. And most women seeking abortions will first have to undergo a sonogram and learn the results.

Those new laws - along with the new state budget, which includes billions of dollars in cuts - are among the hundreds of new laws that go into effect Thursday. State lawmakers earlier this year passed more than 1,400 new laws, nearly half of which go into effect Sept. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

"These laws are a lot of small things that might add up to be something big," said Brandon Rottinghaus, assistant political science professor at the University of Houston. "You have a fairly conservative agenda that manifested in the grouping of these laws.

"Collectively, people may feel a trend toward more conservative governing," he said. "Among the bigger things, the general scope of the budget and the major issue - the need to cut billions of dollars and the way in which it was cut - shows a distinctly conservative stamp on the Legislature."

A sampling of some of the new laws that go into effect Thursday:

Budget

Facing a multibillion-dollar shortfall, state legislators earlier this year passed a $172.3 billion budget for the next two years that whittled more than $15 billion from state spending in areas such as public schools, higher education and social services. Critics say cuts went too deep and bookkeeping maneuvers - such as delaying certain state payments - were used to balance the budget. Supporters say lawmakers passed a conservative budget that answered taxpayer demands to reverse government growth. House Bill 1

Sexting

Texas minors who like sexting - or sending sexually explicit pictures or messages, generally from one cell phone to another - better watch out. Until now, prosecutors either dropped the case or had to prosecute minors under adult pornography laws. Starting Thursday, youth who sext and get caught can be charged with a misdemeanor - which can lead to jail time with repeated offenses. Not only that, but underage Texans convicted of sexting will take a state-sponsored educational class about the dangers of sexting - with one of his or her parents. However, the sexting conviction may be removed from the youth's record at the age of 18. "Here's the message to parents -- pay attention to this new technology," said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who carried this bill. "Pay attention to your kids. Know what it is they're doing with regard to text messages, sending images and that sort of thing, and take the time to talk to them." Senate Bill 407

Guns

Under a new law, most employers will no longer be able to prevent employees who legally own guns and ammo from storing them in their locked, private vehicles parked in company parking lots during business hours. There are a few exceptions, such as preventing the guns and ammo in cars parked in school and federal building parking lots. And the law only allows those guns and ammunition to be stored in parking lots, garages and other parking areas provided to employees - not inside actual businesses. SB 321

Speed limits

Texas motorists no longer have to worry about slowing down at sundown, now that the state won't have separate speed limits for day and night driving. The black nighttime speed limit signs that required motorists to drive 5 mph slower at night than during the day will start coming down Thursday, but officials say it will take months to remove all of them. Officials say uniform speeds for vehicles during the day and night can cut down on problems such as tailgating and vehicles changing lanes to pass slower-moving vehicles - actions that play a role in some accidents. New Texas laws also let transportation officials raise limits to 75 mph in some remote areas, none of which are in Tarrant County. HB 1353

Romeo and Juliet

This law is geared to spare teens and young adults who have consensual sex from being labeled sex offenders. It prevents a young defendant from having to register as a sex offender if he or she had consensual sex with someone 15-years-old or older and there is less than a four-year age gap between the couple. SB 198

Respectful language

Over time, the term "mental retardation" will be weeded out of state statute and use, as officials say the term can be hurtful and offensive to those with developmental and intellectual disabilities. "There is a stigma associated with the 'R' word," said state Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, who carried the bill. "It costs nothing to adopt verbiage in state statutes to reflect the fact that we recognize individuals and their uniqueness, without using offensive terms to categorize and label these good Texans." HB 1481

Homestead exemption

Starting Thursday, Texas homeowners who apply for a homestead exemption on their primary residence must show ID, mainly a driver's license or ID card and a copy of their vehicle registration receipt. The address on the ID and receipt must match the address for which they seek an exemption. Those without vehicles may submit a notarized affidavit certifying they don't have a vehicle - and a current utility bill that lists the person's name and address that is on the homestead exemption application. State officials say they hope to cut down on fraudulent homestead exemption claims, such as those by people who own vacation homes in Texas. "Right now, residents of other states can claim the homestead exemption even if they only come to Texas one weekend out of the year," said state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville. HB 252

Radioactive waste

Low-level radioactive waste generated from foreign countries will not be shipped to Texas, but similar waste generated in dozens of states in the U.S. may ship their waste to Texas' Waste Control Specialists site in Andrews County, which is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. SB 1504

Innocence Project

A package of bills proposed by the Innocence Project of Texas will go onto the books, overhauling eyewitness practices by law enforcers, ensuring that if DNA evidence exists and is available to prove a person's innocence then it will be tested and creating uniform standards regarding the collection, retention and storage of biological evidence. Cory Session - brother of Tim Cole, a Fort Worth man who died in prison for a crime he didn't commit - now serves as the policy director for the Innocence Project and supported these bills. HB 215, SB122, SB 1616

Driver's ed

Driver's education instructors will have to undergo background checks and the Texas Education Agency may revoke licenses given to people who have been convicted of certain felonies, such as sex offenses. HB 2678

Missing Texans

Statewide AMBER Alerts will now be able to call attention to missing adults with diagnosed intellectual developmental disabilities, in addition to alerting the public about abducted children. HB 1075

Boating

Texas boaters born on or after Sept. 1, 1993 must complete a boater safety education course. This is a new effort by lawmakers to phase in more safety requirements for Texans using personal watercrafts and boats, especially since there are about 600,000 registered boats in this state. Boaters must keep a valid ID and documents showing that they passed a boater education course with them. The new law also says those operating a motorboat with a motor of more than 15 horsepower must be at least 13 or supervised someone older than 18 who can legally operate the motorboat and is on board. HB 1395

Rape kits

Law enforcers will have to more quickly test biological evidence collected from sexual assaults. They now must give evidence to a crime lab within 30 days of collection for testing or test it themselves. "This bill will give victims of sexual assault some peace of mind, knowing that these evidence kits will not just sit on a shelf collecting dust," said state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who carried this in the Senate. SB 1636

Daycare

This bill was passed in the memory of Nathan King, who died after day-care workers gave him medication that his parents had not approved. Under this bill, daycare workers need written parental permission to give medicine to a child or face prosecution. HB 1615

Domestic violence

Victims will now be able to not only cover themselves, but also their pets, under protective orders. Victims have said this is important because they often have to leave pets behind when fleeing violence and their abusers may threaten to kill or injure the pet. SB 279

Noodling

Texans will be able to fish with their bare hands - using their fingers as bait in underwater catfish holes to catch and haul out catfish, officially legalizing "noodling." This lets those with state-issued fishing licenses and freshwater fishing stamps fish with their hands. HB 2189

Loser pays

The goal of creating a "loser pays" system is cutting down on frivolous lawsuits in Texas, potentially making the court system more affordable for all Texans to use. The bill calls for some civil plaintiffs who sue and lose to pay not just the court costs, but also the legal fees, of those they are suing. HB 274

"Generally, the new laws reflect a conservative point of view," said Allan Saxe, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Arlington. "However, the biggest impact was the budget cuts that still were not nearly as profound as some believed they would be a year ago."

ONLINE: governor.state.tx.us/news/bills/

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