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Legislative Session Comes to Bitter End

- Despite Rancor, Some Good

The 2021 regular session of the Texas Legislature came to a bitter end this week with rancor and recriminations flying between House and Senate leaders over the failure of various measures they espoused, and the governor possibly prompting a constitutional crisis over his threat to eliminate the Legislature’s budget starting in September.

The final weeks of the session stunned even some of the longest-toothed Capitol observers for the extraordinary bitterness that suffused many policy deliberations outside the typically partisan fights over elections, civil rights and healthcare.

The session began under the heavy weight of the COVID-19 pandemic disaster amidst safety precautions and related, near universal unhappiness among lawmakers with Governor Greg Abbott’s leadership on that front.

Just a month later, lawmakers were confronted with the catastrophic failure of the state’s electrical grid during a winter storm, killing as many as 700 people by one estimate and causing tens of billions of dollars in damages, but ultimately working as designed by their predecessors in concert with the energy industry.

Further, the normal degree of partisan division expected in years when lawmakers rewrite electoral districts was exacerbated by GOP leaders’ determination to change voting laws ahead of the next election, moves characterized as voter suppression on the one hand and election integrity on the other.

While lawmakers already are expected to reconvene in an October special session to be called by Governor Greg Abbott to dispense with redistricting, it’s possible they could meet sooner in another special session to address the losses GOP leaders suffered involving elections and transgender children in school sports, among other topics.

Primary Elections Unchanged
None of the bills that would have altered the March primary election dates went anywhere, but that could change in the redistricting special session to come.

The session and potential change in primary dates stem from the delay in completing the 2020 Census. Lawmakers are slated to receive the census data needed for redistricting in late summer.

Outcome on Business Front
The outcome on business measures important to broadcasters was generally positive as lawmakers tackled a host of pandemic-driven concerns and refused to advance other longstanding proposals we oppose.

Ad Tax – Lawmakers had no appetite for different ad tax bills filed in the House and Senate. One was a digital ad tax targeting Facebook, Twitter and other digital behemoths filed by Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio.

The other was a straightforward sales tax on all forms of advertising advanced by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster.

Franchised Auto Dealerships – Lawmakers preserved the state’s automobile franchise system despite pressure from Tesla which is building a huge factory in Austin and whose sister companies are expanding their operations in Central and South Texas.

Meat Substitutes – Once again, TAB helped defeat legislation that would have barred the advertising of cell- and plant-based meat substitutes, a measure advanced by the cattle industry.

Trucking Accidents – The legislature did rein in the ability for consumers harmed in accidents involving delivery vehicles to sue for redress, but so-called tort reformers didn’t get everything they wanted in their battle with trial lawyers.

Daylight Saving Time – Similarly, the plethora of bills seeking in one way or another to modify Texas’ observance of the federal Uniform Time Act were all for naught as not a single one got a committee hearing.

TAB opposes state-by-state changes in observing that federal law because of the implications for national programming and the impact on Texas’ five cross-border DMAs. None of these bills has been scheduled for hearing yet, and each would require an amendment to the Texas Constitution.

No state may adopt DST year-round without Congressional approval.

PPP Loans & Texas Franchise Tax – Texas broadcasters and other businesses whose Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government are forgiven will not have to report that funding as revenue for state franchise tax purposes under legislation already signed by Abbott.

Alcohol To Go – Restaurants may continue selling alcohol to go under another bill already signed into law. The practice, which was permitted temporarily by the governor during the COVID-induced lockdowns last year, proved popular with customers and so important to many dining establishments’ survival that lawmakers decided to make the practice permanent.

The bill includes several safety precautions for restaurateurs, but no restrictions on advertising.

Gaming Hopes Dashed
Hopes for new tax revenue – and ad buys – from gaming endeavors were crushed as lawmakers refused to entertain measures legalizing fantasy sports wagering, live sports betting, or casino gambling.

Lawmakers’ animus toward gambling extended even to the Texas Lottery where they continued their practice of malign neglect by cutting the advertising budget almost in half.

Some capitol observers suggest that this year’s efforts by gambling interests were merely a precursor to a more concerted, and potentially successful, effort in the next regular session, but the state’s GOP leadership actions and words suggest otherwise as they continue to press a wholly conservative agenda in every respect.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Oscar Rodriguez or call (512) 322-9944.

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