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Capital Highlights

Spate of new laws effective Jan. 1


After the Texas Legislature spent much of 2023 in session, a bevy of new laws go into effect on New Year’s Day, though some have been delayed by lawsuits challenging their constitutionality.

The Austin American-Statesman reported on SB 17, a new law that institutes a ban on programs and policies “designed or implemented in reference to race, color, or ethnicity” at Texas public universities or colleges —  commonly known as diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI.

GOP lawmakers who pushed the ban through argued that DEI programs are divisive. Those opposing the ban said it would eliminate initiatives designed to help people of color feel more included on campus. Universities have already begun the process of renaming and eliminating the types of programs that will be outlawed under SB 17.

Another law taking effect in 2024 doubles the state franchise tax exemption, with up to $2.47 million of a company’s annual taxable revenue being exempt.

Another measure that passed with bipartisan support creates a diversion program for juveniles accused of low-level offenses. Local governments now will be able to turn to rehabilitation services, job training, and alcohol and drug awareness programs as alternatives to more punitive measures.

HB 4758 makes it a crime for companies to target minors with advertising for e-cigarettes, the use of which by teens has increased markedly in the past decade.

Not all laws passed by lawmakers will take effect on Jan. 1 because of lawsuits filed after their passage. As The Dallas Morning News noted, a bill that prohibits sexually explicit performances in front of minors — and was targeted toward drag shows in particular — was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner ruled the ban violated performers’ free speech rights under the First Amendment. That decision is being appealed.

Another law that would regulate what books children can read in schools is still in effect. An initial ruling that it was unconstitutional was appealed to the 5th Circuit, which has yet to issue a ruling.


Medical board silent on abortion laws

The Texas Medical Board remains silent on how to interpret the state’s abortion laws, The Texas Tribune reported, despite a call from the Texas Supreme Court to offer more guidance to doctors on how to interpret the laws.

This came after the high court rejected a Texas woman’s bid to terminate a nonviable pregnancy that she maintained threatened both her health and ability to have future children. Kate Cox later obtained medical care out of state.

“While the judiciary cannot compel executive branch entities to do their part, it is obvious that the legal process works more smoothly when they do,” the justices wrote. In response, Dr. Sherif Zaafran, board chair, said the Texas Medical Board is not likely to do so while other court cases were proceeding.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to start making any kind of movement or decisions while all that is out there still being adjudicated,” Zaafran told the Tribune.


Paxton must testify in whistleblower trial

A state district judge ruled last week that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton must testify in a whistleblower case that led to his impeachment and subsequent acquittal. That case revolves around Paxton’s dealings with developer Nate Paul, who is under federal indictment for wire fraud, The News reported.

Four top deputies were fired after reporting Paxton’s dealings with Paul to the FBI. A $3.3 million settlement with the whistleblowers fell apart when the Legislature refused to fund it. The former deputies claimed, among other allegations, that Paxton “created a legal opinion to prevent the foreclosure sales of several of Paul’s properties.”

Paxton’s attorneys are appealing the judge’s ruling. The whistleblower case is more than three years old. Paxton remains under federal investigation and faces trial in early 2024 for a nearly nine-year-old state securities fraud indictment.


RRC inspectors out checking natural gas facilities

Inspectors for the Texas Railroad Commission were out in force in December, conducting weatherization inspections at hundreds of critical natural gas facilities across the state to ensure adequate gas supply this winter.

The RRC said inspectors have checked 99% of the facilities that directly connect to electric generating plants — including gas processing plants, underground storage facilities and pipelines.

“The commission will continue to inspect these facilities multiple times during the winter season,” Wei Wang, executive director, said. “In total, we expect to conduct more than 5,600 inspections of critical gas facilities on the electric supply chain map.”

Another important factor is the amount of natural gas stored in underground facilities that would be available if the state is hit with another severe winter storm, such as Winter Storm Uri in 2021, or the ice storm last February. The amount stored is up 6% from the same time last year and is the highest winter level seen in the past six years.


Unclaimed pot of money grows to $9 billion

Texas has almost $9 billion in “unclaimed property,” according to kut.org. This includes funds from paychecks, refunds, deposits and dormant bank accounts. If the money hasn’t been claimed after a few years, the asset holder, such as a bank, must send the funds to the Texas Comptroller.

The amount that gets returned to the rightful owner is only a fraction of the amount sent to the office. For example, in fiscal year 2023, the state collected $1.1 billion but only returned about a third of that amount, or $340 million.

Folks can find out whether the state is holding money that belongs to them by going to ClaimItTexas.gov.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches, Lufkin and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.


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