SENATE APPROVES SCHOOL SAFETY MEASURE AS SESSION'S FIRST BILL
(AUSTIN) — The Senate unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would seek to prevent firearms falling into the hands of juveniles that have a record of mental health issues. Following the Ross Elementary shooting in Uvalde in 2022, the Congress passed and the president signed a bill that required enhanced background checks for individuals 21 or younger who are trying to buy a gun. Part of this background check includes mental adjudications, that is, whether an individual has been institutionalized by a court or otherwise has a of record of mental health problems known to the criminal justice system. This check is conducted through an FBI system that relies on state databases, but Texas keeps that information at the county level. SB 728, by Houston Senator Joan Huffman, would require counties to report that information to the Department of Public Safety in order to comply with the new federal standards. Huffman said she worked carefully to ensure she crafted an effective bill that could win the support of lawmakers in the generally pro-gun rights Texas Legislature. "It has been a long time to get it to a place where it works, it complies with federal law, it will require DPS to do what they need to do, make it clear to the clerks that they have to comply, but yet still fit in a way and work in a way that I felt like I could pass it out of the Legislature," she said. "We can have good ideas, but if we can't get it passed, it's not going to make a difference. I wanted this bill to make a difference, and I think it will."
The Senate unanimously passed its first bill of the session on Wednesday, a measure from Houston Sen. Joan Huffman that would create a statewide database of juvenile mental health records to comply with recent federal legislation.
While neither the Uvalde shooter or the perpetrator of the 2018 Santa Fe shooting had mental health records, Huffman hopes this bill, in conjunction with expanded mental health care services for juveniles, will help the state reach people who might be considered potential mass shooters. "Those two juveniles who committed those unspeakable, heinous, tragic killings clearly had mental health issues or they couldn't have done what they did," she said. "I think our challenge is to increase the mental health treatment that we provide for communities for our juveniles and we have an obligation to make sure that we are reaching the kids, and when that happens, then perhaps there will be some kind of record of their background when they try and purchase a weapon." The base budget Huffman filed in her capacity as chair of the Senate Finance Committee includes $200 million to construct two new secure state juvenile facilities with mental health services, and $9 billion across 26 agencies towards a bevy of mental health services, including services for children and at-risk teens.
Sen. Roland Gutierrez represents Uvalde and has been a tireless advocate for reforms that will prevent another shooting like the one that devastated that community. He said while this bill is a good first step, he hopes to see much more done as the session progresses. "It is important that we continue to move on to create more school hardening bills, more school safety bills, and hopefully, common sense gun safety solutions that people in this state are certainly asking for," he said. "We have a long way to go."
There's even more money for mental health in the supplemental budget, approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. Because Texas budgets are written two years in advance, every session, lawmakers have to balance the books and ensure that actual revenue and spending corresponds to what was forecast two years prior. Some expenses come down, the state share of school funding, for example, was about $8.2 billion less than was budgeted in 2021 because of rising local property values. Most of the items, however, are covering unexpected costs or one-time outlays. In addition to $600 million for school safety and $2.3 billion for mental health institutions, the bill also includes $3.8 billion to offset energy rate hikes for customers in the wake of 2021's Winter Storm Uri. It also includes a billion dollars as earnest money towards additional benefits to Texas retired teachers that are still being worked out in legislation. In all, the bill would spend $5 billion in discretionary state revenue and $6.8 billion in dedicated state and federal funds, for a total of $11.8 billion in all funds.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 13 at 2 p.m.