AUSTIN (KXAN) — While the mystery surrounding a missing transparency measure at the Texas Capitol remains, the attention it grabbed in recent days – from state lawmakers, frustrated families and open records advocates nationwide – ensured any movement to advance House Bill 30 would not go unnoticed. On Tuesday, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick finally signed the legislation, ending what he has essentially explained as an inadvertent organizational delay.

“That’s a whole long story,” Patrick told reporters when asked about the holdup Tuesday afternoon during a press conference. “It will take care of itself before you know it.”

As the Senate prepared to reconvene for its special session work that evening, those stakeholders had been waiting to see if Patrick would sign the “dead suspect loophole” legislation overwhelmingly passed by both chambers nine days earlier in the final stretch of the regular session. His signature is required in the Texas Constitution, and his House counterpart – Republican Speaker Dade Phelan – had already signed off more than a week before.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick addresses questions about what happened to HB 30 (Texas Legislature Video)

A Senate journal clerk previously told KXAN, following Phelan’s signature, HB 30 never made it to the upper chamber – which would have been the final step before being sent to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for review ahead of becoming law. Of more than 1,240 bills passed by lawmakers in the regular session, this was the only one that had yet to go to the governor’s desk, as first reported by KXAN Friday.

Phelan’s communications director, Cait Wittman, called HB 30 one of the speaker’s “many legislative priorities” – leaving those anxiously watching for an update to wonder whether the measure had become fallout from recent high-profile policy disagreements between Texas’ top leaders.

“It’s even more clear now that they lied and tried to blame it on us,” Wittman told KXAN Tuesday, indicating a belief the holdup was political.

What happened to the bill?

After Phelan signed off, records KXAN obtained from the House’s chief clerk through a public information request indicate HB 30 was among several bills prepared on May 29 – the final day of the regular session when property tax squabbles were already threatening a special session. It was then to be delivered to the Senate for Patrick’s signature.

But a source close to the process said legislative staff discovered it missing the next day as they readied that batch of bills for the governor. Phelan then signed a certified replacement copy, and records show that version was received by the Senate secretary on May 30. A week later, Patrick had yet to sign either version of the bill.

However, during that Tuesday press conference, Patrick gave the first public account of where the original copy of the bill might have gone when he indicated becoming aware of a “deal in the works” at the end of the regular session: if the House passed a certain Senate bill, the Senate would pass HB 30.

“(House members) killed our bill,” Patrick said, adding that he later “stuck (HB 30) on my podium, and it’s been there the last five days.”

Patrick also said HB 30 was “always intended to be signed.”

  • House Bill 30 signed by both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan, certifying passage in both chambers (Record provided by Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw)
  • House Bill 30 signed by Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw ahead of Gov. Greg Abbott’s final review (Record provided by Spaw)

“(The House) played games there and killed that Senate bill after we passed HB 30 – otherwise, I wouldn’t have even pulled it out of the stack. I just wanted to see what it was about,” Patrick closed, minutes before the bill’s status was updated online to “Signed in the Senate, Sent to the Governor.” “Let’s just say it’s been done, okay?”

KXAN’s multiple requests for comment from Patrick – beyond the press conference – have gone unanswered. KXAN is also awaiting a response after requesting copies of communication from Patrick’s office and other Senate staff members to further shed light on the timeline and verify his explanation.

Both Abbott and HB 30’s sponsor – Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford – have also not returned messages.

“I don’t mind waiting another week for the bill to come to the governor as long as Texas families don’t have to wait any longer for the answers they deserve,” Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, the bill’s author, told KXAN. “I appreciate Speaker Phelan making it a priority to shine a light on something that should never be in the dark in a free society.”

What does HB 30 do?

Moody had filed similar legislation every regular session since 2017, aiming unsuccessfully to close the state’s “dead suspect loophole.” It relates to an exception in the Texas Public Information Act giving law enforcement discretion to withhold details in closed criminal cases when the suspect does not go through the court process.

While that point was put in place to protect the privacy of people wrongfully accused of crimes, open records advocates say it had an unintended consequence of keeping information about a person who dies in custody secret permanently – because that person will never have a chance to go to court. KXAN has investigated the loophole’s widespread use for years, as police agencies have used it broadly across Texas to keep evidence from journalists, lawyers and families.

Though it faced heavy opposition from police unions over the years, the measure to close the loophole gained strong bipartisan support following the Uvalde school shooting in 2022 that left 19 elementary students and two teachers dead. There were fears officials would cite that legal exemption since the shooter had also died, preventing families from getting answers about possible law enforcement inaction. That concern led Phelan to become an early supporter before Moody re-filed the bill – one of the few pieces of Uvalde-related policy lawmakers eventually passed in the regular session.

“More than anything, the families of the #Uvalde victims need honest answers and transparency. Period,” Phelan tweeted shortly after the shooting. “It would be absolutely unconscionable to use the ‘dead suspect loophole’ to thwart the release of information that is so badly needed and deserved right now. I think it’s time we pass legislation to end the dead suspect loophole for good in 2023.”

The bill’s path to becoming law

Stalling at this stage is rare. Perhaps the last time legislation failed to progress as a result was 2003, according to an online archive analysis. Like Two bills in the first special session of the 78th Legislature were left with a final action of “Signed in the House.” Neither bill became law.

A group of Senate Democrats then – the so-called Texas Eleven – had fled the state for Albuquerque, New Mexico, for 46 days to prevent passage of controversial redistricting legislation. They broke quorum – which is necessary for a chamber meet. Without the Senate meeting, that lieutenant governor could not sign those two bills “in the presence of the House over which he presides … after their titles have been publicly read before signing,” as required in the Texas Constitution.

But that historic move in 2003 was part of the legislative process. If Patrick had not signed HB 30, what could have happened was not spelled out so clearly in any rule or law. Some sources suggest that could have amounted to veto power – which, by law, only the governor has. Others suggest Patrick and Phelan’s signatures are merely ceremonial and might not have even been necessary.

Historic explanations of signatures at this stage indicate they were once necessary to certify lawmakers’ votes actually happened and ensure the governor did not act on unapproved legislation. The constitutional stipulation in Texas dates back to the 1870s – well before voting records were kept in the chambers’ journals electronically and online, along with video recordings of those votes.

While Abbott has a constitutional deadline to act on bills sent to him, there appears to be nothing specifically addressing timing for the chambers’ presiding officers to sign bills and send them to the governor. Some sources suggest – without those signatures – HB 30 would have been invalid. Some suggest it could have become law without any signature, if it reached the date it was meant to go into effect – Sept. 1 – without any movement. And others suggest the legislature could have bypassed Patrick altogether or even involved a court to compel his signature.

By mid-Tuesday, there were inside rumblings something would happen with the bill soon, though it was apparent Patrick was still at odds with Phelan over other policy matters. The speaker had adjoured House members sine die a week earlier after they passed their own governor-backed property tax plan in the special session, further adding to the division between these leaders – and the meandering outcome of HB 30.

“The Senate continues to work,” Patrick said in the press conference. “The House continues to stay home.”

The governor has until June 18 to sign or veto the remaining legislation lawmakers passed – including HB 30. If neither action is taken, it will become law without his signature.