Lawmakers moved closer Saturday to enacting the second landmark gun-rights bill of the 2015 session as senators approved compromise legislation permitting licensed concealed handguns at colleges and universities.
House approval on Sunday would send the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott just like a previous measure permitting Texans with concealed-weapons permits to openly carry firearms. Abbott has indicated that he would sign both measures, making this a banner year for gun-rights advocates.
As they approached Monday’s adjournment of the 140-day regular session, lawmakers also sent voters a proposed initiative that could pump $2.5 billion into the state’s traffic-clogged road system and authorized $3.1 billion for construction work at public universities, including more than $400 million at campuses in the Metroplex.
There were also legislative casualties as House and Senate members failed to break stalemates on major ethics legislation and a bill by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, to rein in the soaring cost of the popular Hazlewood free-tuition program for Texas veterans.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Star-Telegram
But Birdwell, a retired military officer who survived the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon, scored a striking victory when the Senate voted 20-11 to pass campus carry, which had been rejected in three previous sessions. Birdwell, whose Senate district includes part of Tarrant County, has carried the bill in two sessions.
“The prospects are very good that this will arrive to the governor just behind open carry,” Birdwell said.
He said the measure has a strong chance of passing in the House before a midnight deadline Sunday to act on legislation by House-Senate conference committees.
The bill would require universities to let people licensed to carry concealed handguns have firearms on campus. But under a compromise that emerged overnight, private universities could opt out. And public universities could establish “reasonable” restrictions on where weapons are carried and stored.
Officials at two private universities in Fort Worth — TCU and Texas Wesleyan University — said they are studying the measure.
“We continue to monitor this bill through the process,” said Michelle Clark, assistant vice chancellor of communications at TCU.
John Veilleux, vice president for marketing and communications at Texas Wesleyan, said university officials will “look at any legislation that is passed at the appropriate time and determine within the letter of the law what works best for our campus.”
“If there is an opt-out provision, the administration would determine whether campus carry was in the best interest of our faculty, staff, students and campus visitors,” Veilleux said. “After doing so, the administration would bring a recommendation to the board for its approval as it is the board’s role to set policy.”
Birdwell, in explaining the reworked bill on the Senate floor, stressed that the measure would not permit the open carrying of firearms on campuses.
Although the compromise softened opposition, several Democrats expressed misgivings about allowing guns on campuses as they announced their intention to vote against the bill. “I feel more guns on campuses will only exacerbate a dangerous situation,” said Sen. Jose R. Rodriguez, D-El Paso.
Just days earlier, campus carry seemed in danger of collapsing when House Democrats sought to bottle it up on deadline. But legislative leaders forged a last-minute deal to work on amendments designed to ease opposition.
Before senators plunged into the campus-carry debate, Birdwell somberly announced that conferees had made no headway on the Hazlewood legislation. He had pushed the measure to restrict participation in the program and control costs.
The program was designed to give free tuition to veterans, but after an expansion allowed veterans to pass unused benefits to dependents, the cost skyrocketed from $24 million to $169 million, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
The proposed changes caused a backlash by veterans groups and a standoff with the House, but Birdwell told colleagues that inaction this session puts the program at “even more risk in the future.”
After Birdwell’s announcement, fellow senators took turns praising his efforts in behalf of the program. “I want to thank you personally for your courage,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “You are a patriot.”
Transportation and corruption
Lawmakers in both houses spent the first day of a weekend session churning out pieces of legislation — the survivors from thousands of bills introduced since work began in mid-January.
They addressed one of Abbott’s top priorities — transportation — with a proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize $2.5 billion from sales tax revenue for the state highway fund beginning in 2017, creating a funding stream designed to last for 15 years.
A separate provision would dedicate an additional $250 million to $350 million from motor vehicles sales taxes beginning in 2020.
Coupled with other sources, including a transportation initiative that voters passed last year, the proposal comes close to producing the extra $5 billion a year that experts say Texas must have to keep pace with transportation needs resulting from a growing population.
Voters will be asked to approve the amendment Nov. 3, and Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he and other backers plan an education campaign to help secure approval.
The 2014 amendment was approved with more than 80 percent of the vote, and Nichols said he hopes for a similar showing this time.
The two chambers also passed and sent to Abbott legislation that would take anti-corruption enforcement away from the Travis County district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit and create a two-step process for investigating and prosecuting cases against public officials. The Texas Rangers would investigate the allegations, and district attorneys in the officials’ home counties would handle prosecutions.
Democrats charged that the bill was designed as retribution for several high-profile cases against Republicans, including an abuse-of-power indictment against former Gov. Rick Perry.
But Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who authored the bill, said the measure strengthens safeguards against corruption by placing investigations in the hands of a “world-class” law enforcement organization.
“We’ve taken politics out of it,” King said.
A multifaceted ethics package appeared dead late Saturday afternoon despite efforts by its Senate sponsor to salvage it.
Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, author of Senate Bill 19, floated an eleventh-hour compromise backed by at least 25 of the Senate’s 31 members.
But Taylor’s House counterpart, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, rebuffed the offer because it did not include a provision requiring the disclosure of “dark money” contributions to politically active nonprofit groups.
In a letter to House-Senate negotiators, Taylor said: “It would be an embarrassing failure of leadership if the House opts to let this important legislation die in conference committee, especially during a session supposed to be devoted to strengthening the ethical standards of elected officials. Texans expect us to deliver.”
Taylor’s compromise proposal dealt strictly with provisions governing elected officials and did not include House provisions dealing with dark money, outlawing the secret taping of lawmakers in the Capitol and preventing “robo-calls” to lawmakers’ offices. It also dropped a Senate-passed provision requiring elected officials to submit to drug testing.
Cook, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said he would not accept a compromise without the dark-money provision. Cook has said that Texas faces the prospect of a scandal such as the one that brought down the former attorney general of Utah unless it requires 501(c)(4) nonprofits to reveal their donors.
Despite SB19’s fate, ethics reformers remained hopeful about several single-shot bills designed to answer Abbott’s call to crack down on conflicts of interest and strengthen transparency.
Abbott, in his State of the State address in mid-February, urged lawmakers to dedicate this session to ethics reform.