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Texas Legislature: Senate OKs border security bills, stifles House

Dec 12, 2023

Continuing its business after a tumultuous start to the special session with both legislative chambers at odds over how to deliver tax relief, the Texas Senate on Tuesday advanced several border bills tied to Gov. Greg Abbott's call to crack down on human smuggling.

And though the Senate Committee on Border Security approved legislation to curb and toughen punishment for human smuggling to a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, the upper chamber again pushed through provisions to establish a state border police force and create a new penalty for illegally crossing the Texas-Mexico border.

It remains to be seen how far the Senate's proposals will advance this special session as the House adjourned sine die last week, seemingly leaving the upper chamber in a "take it or leave it" position on special session bills that still require bicameral agreements on any legislative changes.

After the 88th regular legislative session ended May 29 without agreements on delivering up to $17.6 billion in property tax relief and other GOP priorities, Abbott called a special session for lawmakers to advance a tax reform proposal and enhance punishment for those who help people illegally sneak into the country through the Texas-Mexico border.

In a news conference Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, blasted the House for wrapping up its involvement with the special session early, saying that flaws in the House proposals, including a bill the Senate Border Security Committee declined to advance Tuesday, can't be remedied.

"We have no one to work with," Patrick told reporters Tuesday, lambasting the lower chamber and pleading for House members to return to the Capitol. "The Senate continues to work, and the House continues to stay home."

While it is unclear whether the House will return this special session, Patrick said the Senate has not signed off on the House's request to permanently adjourn, which he and other Capitol observers have said leaves the door open for the House to convene again this special session.

"They can come back; I encourage them to come back," Patrick said.

While the division among the state's top three GOP state leaders — Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan — is mostly based on the ongoing property tax relief standoff, the fallout is affecting other bills.

For example, as the Border Security Committee advanced a bill from Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, seeking to increase sentences for a tier of felonies tied to human smuggling and operating stash houses, a nearly identical bill from the House was rejected based on a previously accepted amendment.

More:How did public education fare in the Texas Legislature? Which bills passed — and failed

In the Senate bill, smuggling operations are targeted with a 10-year minimum sentence for human smuggling and a five-year minimum sentence for operating a stash house, a location where people that are being trafficked across the border are housed.

Additionally, if the stash house is in a region that is under a border-related state of emergency, the minimum sentence for operating such house would rise to 10 years.

"Senate Bill 5 holds smugglers accountable for taking advantage of people and individuals crossing our Texas-Mexico border by justly punishing them for their crimes," Flores said while laying out the bill.

However, House Bill 2, which closely mirrors SB 5, was left pending by the Senate committee on account of a provision that had been previously accepted by the Senate in late May during the regular session.

The contested language allows for a lighter penalty of five years if someone is caught smuggling a relative of the third or fourth degree for a profit.

More:Texas House, Senate at impasse on tax plans; human smuggling bill could still get OK

Lawmakers did not delve into the details on why the consanguinity exception is no longer palatable, including Patrick who only said the bill has "flaws."

"That doesn't sound like something a family member with love does," Flores reasoned during the hearing.

Later in evening on Tuesday as the Senate convened as scheduled, members of the Border Security committee met briefly to amend HB 2, voting to remove the language allowing for the exception and sending the bill for consideration on the Senate floor.

The Senate then recessed until 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Since March 2021, the Texas Department of Public Safety has encountered 312 stash houses with 3,500 people having been moved out of those situations, agency director Steve McCraw told the committee Tuesday.

Outside of the crackdown on smugglers and stash houses through increased penalties as called for by Abbott in his special session order, the Senate committee passed legislation Tuesday to create a border force under the supervision of the Texas Rangers and to institute a Class A misdemeanor charge for anyone caught improperly entering a foreign nation.

These latest attempts by the Senate to advance those measures to the governor to sign into law — SB 8 for the border force and SB 2 for improper entry — might be as ill-fated in the House as they were during the regular session.

Last week, Phelan was quick to shoot down a Senate property tax proposal focused on increasing the state's homestead exemption to $100,000 and implements a modest school reduction on the tax rate, calling Patrick's plan not germane to the governor's specific special session directive.

Instead, the House approved a plan that focuses on reducing the rate at which school districts may tax property.

The same parliamentary roadblock could be used again on the Senate's border bills, as a border force and a penalty for improperly entering Texas could be seen as outside the purview of Abbott's call for a special session "solely for the purpose of increasing or enhancing the penalties for certain criminal conduct involving the smuggling of persons or the operation of a stash house."

More:Texas House rejects Senate tax plan, OKs its own and ends its part in special session

Additionally, the Senate has filed SB 16, which would allow the state to use eminent domain to construct a border wall. All three of the Senate's additional proposals did not gain traction in the House during the regular session, with neither chamber able to agree to the other's revisions.

However, the hope of an agreement between both chambers on border legislation and property taxes remains alive.

"The Texas Senate is the only chamber that has not passed property tax reform and border security legislation in a way that is germane to Governor Abbott's special session call," a spokesperson for House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement to media Tuesday. "In the special session, the House came to work, passed its bills with bipartisan support and adjourned — the Senate is keeping Texans waiting."

Before parting with reporters Tuesday, Patrick said he intends to be around the Capitol through Thursday to see if things thaw with the House. If not, he plans to hold on to the next week.

"Come back in Monday, and we'll see if there's any movement," Patrick said.

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