WEEK IN REVIEW
FIRST BILLS OF THE SESSION MOVE OUT OF COMMITTEE
(AUSTIN) — The Senate State Affairs Committee approved a number of bills this week, the first to be voted out of committee on the Senate side in 2023. The state constitution prevents the Senate from taking up and considering any legislation in the first 60 days of a given session, save those tagged as emergency items by the governor. That doesn't mean members can't consider and vote on bills in committee, however, and on Monday the State Affairs Committee approved one of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick's top priorities in the form of Senate Bill 2. Committee chair and bill author Senator Bryan Hughes of Mineola presented a bill that would revert the penalty for illegal voting back to a felony and would clarify the threshold of proof required for conviction for that offense.
Hughes was also the author of last session's omnibus election integrity bill, a controversial measure which took one regular and two called sessions to pass. Included in that bill was an amendment that would lower the penalty for in-person voter fraud from a felony to a class A misdemeanor. A conviction under the former carries a prison sentence of two to twenty years, while misdemeanor offenders face no more than a year in jail. It was a provision that Hughes initially opposed, but he said there was too much he liked in the election security bill to let that one clause kill it. "Back in 2021, there was so much positive reform in SB1 that it made sense to pass the bill even with this amendment included, knowing that we could come back and clean it up and that's what we're doing now," said Hughes. The bill would also clarify that a person need not know that they are prohibited from voting because of some status: such as lacking citizenship, only that they are that status. A recent Criminal Court of Appeals ruling said current law requires that the person know they aren't allowed to vote. "Under SB 2, if you are a felon, and you know that you are a felon, you don't have to also know that it's illegal for felons to vote," said Hughes. "If you're not a citizen, you have to know that you're not a citizen, but you don't have to know that [non]-citizens cannot vote." The committee advanced the bill to the full Senate on a vote of 7 to 3. As this issue is not on the governor's emergency list, it must wait until the 60th day - March 10 - before it can come before the full Senate.
Thursday, the committee held a second hearing, this time on a bill that would prohibit foreign nationals from certain countries considered hostile to US interests from buying land in Texas. Bill author and Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst told members that this was a major concern raised by her constituents during her most recent campaign. Allowing the governments of countries like North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia to buy up agricultural, mineral, and timber producing lands is itself a national security risk, she said. "Ceding control to authoritarian nations in crops, energy deposits, and rare earth materials…is something that I think is a national security measure," said Kolkhorst.
The bill offered Thursday had some significant clarifications after naturalized citizens and legal permanent residents who originally hail from those countries worried it would affect them or people trying to immigrate here legally. Kolkhorst presented a committee substitute that exempts homesteads, meaning anyone purchasing a home to live in could do so. It clarified that it would not apply to naturalized US citizens or legal permanent residents. It would not forbid the particular foreign governments from conducting business in Texas, but they could only lease and not buy real estate or they could partner with an American firm. It remains pending before the committee.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 7 at 11 a.m.