Area legislators focus on bills including those dealing with ethics, public education, water plan

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During the 83rd Legislative Session, lawmakers worked to pass more than 1,400 new laws. Below is a roundup of some of what Houston-area lawmakers pushed for, passed or had rejected by their peers during the 140-day session.

Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston

Bohac dabbled in plenty of subjects during the session, but perhaps his best known action was spearheading legislation to allow school districts to display traditional holiday scenes such as the Christian nativity scene, complete with Bible verses.

It also gives the nod to the use of traditional holiday greetings on school grounds, including “Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah and Happy Holidays” without fear of retribution. The bill passed without argument.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton

Bonnen helped author an ethics bill that was in several ways much stronger when he filed it than it was when it hit the governor’s desk. It was still praised as making the biggest strides in years toward keeping politicians and those who fund them accountable to taxpayers.

The bill requires groups that make robocalls—automated phone calls using an autodialer—to identify themselves and prevents lawmakers who become lobbyists from using leftover campaign contributions to influence their former colleagues.

Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston

Callegari was one of two co-authors of a bill giving retired teachers in Texas their first cost-of-living raise in 12 years. The bill also stabilizes the Teachers Retirement System by increasing the amount of money the state and teachers pay into the system, and for the first time requires districts to pay into the system as well.

The bill decreases benefits to some current teachers to help pay for the raise, but lawmakers promised to return next session and look at health care for retirees.

Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia

He passed legislation allowing commissioners courts, county fire marshals, fire departments and emergency management directors or coordinators to accept volunteer assistance from private citizens during emergencies without liability restraints.

He also created a program that pairs high school students and curricula with institutes of higher learning to produce graduates with training, experience and work opportunities in their selected fields.

Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe

As Chairman of the House Republican Caucus, Creighton was charged with directing the group strategy of the chamber’s majority party, including the largest freshman class. The party suffered some wins and losses through the session but counted an austere budget and school reforms among its successes.

He also passed legislation requiring drug screenings for some recipients of unemployment benefits. The bill affects recipients who plan to seek work in a field that already requires drug testing, such as aviation and logistics.

Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston

Elkins passed legislation barring temporary election workers from qualifying for unemployment benefits. Supporters say such workers sometimes only work for a day or a few weeks but try to collect benefits, which, if approved, cost the entity running the election.

He also sponsored several successful pieces of legislation dealing with cybersecurity, including a bill creating the position of state cybersecurity coordinator and strengthening protections under the Department of Information Resources.

Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Houston

He helped Sen. Kirk Watson pass a bill increasing penalties for drivers who leave the scene of an accident to match those faced by drivers accused of intoxication manslaughter.

The bill addressed an inequality in the law that gave drunk drivers an incentive to leave the scene of a crash until they could sober up, because the penalty for hit-and-run was lower than that of intoxication charges. Under the new law, the penalties are the same.

Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring

She co-sponsored legislation to ban the use of gas chambers to euthanize homeless pets in animal shelters. The bill was overwhelmingly supported in both chambers and signed by Perry, whose office called the practice expensive and cruel. She also passed a bill clarifying that the Texas Attorney General’s Office can issue an injunction against any local government that tries to restrict gun rights or impose limitations on its residents.

Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy

Hegar passed legislation that allows Texas college students with concealed handgun licenses to store their weapons in their locked vehicles while on campus. The bill is the closest gun-rights supporters could get to expanding the rights of students with CHLs.

He also passed a bill allowing drivers to use their cell phones to show their insurance identification cards in order to prove they are insured instead of being forced to carry a hard copy of their insurance card. Texas is the seventh state to pass such a bill, which Hegar said takes Texas into the 21st century.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston

Huffman teamed up with House Republicans to help pass a massive ethics reform bill that requires groups that make robocalls to identify themselves and prevents lawmakers who become lobbyists from using leftover campaign contributions to influence their former colleagues.

Senate negotiators successfully stripped language from that bill that would have required so-called “dark money” groups—nonprofit groups that engage heavily in politics—to disclose their donors.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston

As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Patrick took the lead on several education measures, including the shepherding of a massive school reform bill through the Senate. The bill reduced the number of high-stakes end-of-course exams from 15 to five, revamped graduation requirements and changed school accountability rating systems.

Patrick used his sway on the education committee to bargain for expanded access to charter schools in Texas. Lawmakers voted to increase the number of licenses but also to increase state oversight.

Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Spring

She sponsored a bill that allows prosecutors in some child sex-abuse trials to present evidence of other sex crimes against children that have been perpetrated by the accused.

Current law does not allow the admission of past criminal activity, but the new law expands abilities by the prosecutors to establish a pattern in some instances.

Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands

He made gun rights one of his priorities and pushed for legislation that would make any federal law banning semi-automatic firearms or limiting the size of gun magazines unenforceable in Texas. The bill did not pass, but Toth was active on similar resolutions that did pass to protect gun rights in Texas.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston

Whitmire passed legislation prohibiting the Texas Facilities Commission from leasing, selling or otherwise allowing private development at the Capitol complex.

Supporters of the legislation said the state had no business selling out the Capitol grounds to private interests.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands

As Senate Finance chairman, Williams oversaw the only constitutionally required job of lawmakers during the regular session—passage of the 2014–15 budget. After weeks of negotiations, the Legislature passed a $198 billion budget that included hundreds of millions in new funding for mental health and restored billions of education dollars cut from the budget in 2011.

Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond

Zerwas pushed hard for a “Texas solution” as a way to increase health coverage for poor adults without buying into federal Medicaid expansion, but he was unsuccessful. The legislation proposed using private insurance, cost-sharing and health savings accounts but was blocked by Republican House leaders.

He passed legislation banning the use of commercial tanning salons by minors, even those who obtain parental consent. Proponents said the law was necessary to prevent skin cancer in young people, but critics said it stepped on parental rights.

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