Texas Democrats say marijuana bills address criminal justice reform, budget woes

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Members of the Texas Legislature will return to the state capitol in January tasked with confronting the coronavirus pandemic, a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall and the once-in-a-decade redrawing of political maps—likely foregoing many of the culture war battles familiar to previous legislative sessions.

Texas Democrats believe, however, that a renewed push to legalize marijuana can find space in a crowded session because of its ability to address criminal justice reform and budget woes.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Hays County Democrat, sponsored a bill that would essentially decriminalize personal marijuana possession. A similar bill passed in the Texas House in 2019, but failed to gain support in the Senate.

A bill from state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso would create a retail marketplace for marijuana products.

“I think the revenue and cost-saving issues are always going to be a priority, especially in a budget year like this,” Zwiener told KXAN. “Local budgets as well as state budgets are facing some challenges.”

Texas faces a $4.6 billion budget shortfall caused by oil prices that plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic. While state lawmakers are hopeful more federal financial support is coming, agencies throughout state government are anticipating and preparing for difficult cuts.

Not only are Democrats enticed by the financial opportunity that legalized marijuana presents—estimates suggest the state could gain $1 billion of new annual revenue—but they see an opportunity to lower incarceration rates.

“I think it’s a perfect time to have this conversation,” Moody said. “You’re talking about disentangling a substance issue from the criminal justice system and rejecting the status quo.”

State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and member of the committee that crafts the state budget, believes the legislature will have to have a narrow focus on the budget in the upcoming session but says the potential financial benefit of legalized marijuana could give the movement a renewed boost.

“Certainly, I think there’s more appetite to look at things like that now more than there may have been in the past,” Howard said.

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