AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A special committee formed after last year’s school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde met Monday to consider 17 bills aimed at enhancing school safety.
The House Select Committee on Youth Health and Safety held its hearing just hours after another mass school shooting left three children and three adults dead in Nashville, Tennessee.
House Bill 3 is the legislature’s sweeping school safety bill and was at the top of the committee’s agenda. It is authored by State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who also chaired the House’s investigation into the Robb Elementary school shooting.
HB 3 requires Texas schools to meet enhanced security standards for their physical infrastructure and mandates school districts place at least one armed security officer at every campus. It also requires districts to implement a “multihazard emergency operations plan” and perform intruder detection audits every year.
Under that bill, school districts would receive at least $10 per student in average daily attendance and $15,000 per campus every year to fund infrastructure enhancements, purchase security cameras, hire security officers, provide mental health services, and more. The Legislative Budget Board anticipates all of the bill’s provisions to cost the state about $293 million for the next two years.
HB 13 by State Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, requires every school district employee who interacts with students to complete a “mental health first aid” training program to learn how to recognize mental health issues that may threaten school safety. It also authorizes and funds schools to designate “school guardians,” who are school employees trained to carry a firearm on campus.
Under this bill, each school district would be required to implement an active shooter preparedness plan that provides law enforcement in the area the opportunity to walk through campuses and learn about their security infrastructure.
School districts across Texas largely support the sweeping new security requirements under consideration in the legislature, but some witnesses at the hearing on school safety stressed one thing: they need the money to implement them.
“There are a significant number of mandates that are placed on school districts that have a tremendous amount of cost,” former state representative Paul Colbert testified.
West Sabine ISD, for example, said the costs to implement just physical improvements would be prohibitive under current levels of state funding.
“Currently, my district has a school safety allotment of about $4,700,” West Sabine Superintendent Carnelius Gilder said. “The average cost of just fencing alone is about $204,000.”
The requirement under HB 3 to require school districts to staff at least one armed security officer at every campus also raised calls for more state funding.
“They have to have the ability so that every school district can actually afford an officer, and without funding, they’re not going to be able to do that,” said Chief Charles Ramirez of the Eagle Mountain Saginaw ISD Police Department.
HB 3 and HB 13 were left pending in the Texas House Select Committee on Youth Health and Safety Monday. Both have broad bipartisan support.
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, has filed a series of bills also hoping to enhance school safety. He hosted families of victims killed in Uvalde at the Texas Capitol for a series of weekly press conferences demanding firearm restrictions.
SB 145 by Gutierrez would raise the age to purchase firearms to 21. A gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde with an assault-style rifle shortly after his 18th birthday.
Gutierrez told KXAN multiple Republican senators have privately expressed their openness to the ban, but none have done so publicly. The legislation faces slim odds in the Texas Senate.
SB 737 would create a new arm of the Department of Public Safety called the Texas School Patrol. The agency would staff every public school in Texas with at least one armed officer.
SB 738 addresses the systematic failures of the law enforcement response to the Robb Elementary shooting on May 24, 2022, in which hundreds of officers waited for 77 minutes to confront the gunman inside a classroom. The bill would require each law enforcement agency to have functional radios and interagency mass shooter training after communication and chains of command broke down in Uvalde.
Bill aimed at oversight for Texas Vet Board advances
Jodi Ware and Judy Santerre made their way into the Texas Capitol early Monday morning, but it wasn’t their first time there.
Both women lost pets to what they believed was veterinary malpractice. Both women claim the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (TBVME) mishandled their cases. For years, they have sat in on hearings and meetings — testifying when possible — about ongoing problems at the state agency in charge of Texas animal doctors.
They watched as several, different legislative reviews highlighted the same issues with data management and complaint resolution at the agency.
“Despite my past pleas, the Board’s abject failures…worsened,” said Ware during her testimony to the Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture, & Rural Affairs on Monday.
Ware reached out to KXAN investigators in 2021 to alert them about her concerns. KXAN ultimately found dozens of disciplinary records still missing from the agency’s public website and a backlog of complaints, leaving pet owners and veterinarians, alike, in the dark.
Steven Ogle, the Deputy Director of the Sunset Advisory Commission (which conducted the legislative reviews of TBVME) described the board over the years as an “agency in crisis” and a “mess.”
Earlier this year, Sunset recommended the legislature temporarily attach TBVME to another state agency, in order to help with data management, rulemaking and administrative tasks. The recommendation was filed as a bill this legislative session, and if passed, would allow the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) to step in and help for the next four years.
Ware and Santerre both testified in favor of this bill, Senate Bill 1414, which was ultimately passed by the committee and forwarded to the full Senate for consideration.
“We, the public, need good veterinarians, and we deserve a good board,” said Ware to lawmakers.
Santerre told KXAN she is still checking TBVME’s website for missing records.
“They have not ever, in all these years, they have not gotten their database up and running,” she said.
In 2022, KXAN interviewed Heather Kutyba, who waited more than 700 days for TBVME to resolve her complaint over how a Texas veterinarian treated her horse.
At the time, Kutyba said, “I felt that there were other people at risk because of their inaction.”
However, she testified against Senate Bill 1414 on Monday, telling KXAN she has seen major changes at the agency over the last six months as new leadership took over.
TBVME’s new Executive Director Brittany Sharkey testified to lawmakers about how her team has tried to “right the ship” by doing more inspections so far this year than the last two years combined and by focusing on case resolution times.
In addition to the recent changes, Kutyba said she had another reason for urging lawmakers to say “nay.” She said, as someone who worked in the veterinary industry for years, she would like to see someone with veterinary expertise, or even a consultant, step in — rather than TDLR.
She believes “that would allow the agency to remain independent, keep its regulatory capacity and serve the public in every which way.”
Dr. Jodi Long, a practicing veterinarian and the president of Texas Veterinary Medical Association, also had concerns about TDLR having veto power over board decisions concerning medical expertise.
“Administratively, they are great at what they do,” Long said. “TDLR doesn’t have the expertise, education and opportunity to be experts in veterinary medicine, but we do need that still.”
Long said those were conversations she and her association would continue to have with lawmakers because they recognize oversight for the board is necessary.
“The board needs to be functional,” she said.
Long also testified on a second bill, Senate Bill 1523, that would allow TBVME to dismiss meritless complaints. She pointed to other agencies who have similar processes for evaluating complaints and noted that this would help the board better function.
KXAN’s original investigation and the Sunset reviews documented a backlog of complaints and cases, pending at TBVME.
“Having those frivolous cases that come through just take up very finite resources that the board has. We want the board to be able to concentrate on those cases that truly need intervention,” she explained.
But Ware and Santerre both worry that given the agency’s history this could allow serious cases to fall through the cracks.
“To give them supervision is a great thing, but if you take away a lot of what they are supposed to do before you do that, it seems to be pointless,” Santerre said.
SB 1523 passed through committee and will advance to the full Senate for consideration. Additionally, there are two House companion bills similar to the Senate bills.
‘You should be fired,’ Texas Senators press Homeland Security Secretary on border policy
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas faced tough questions on Capitol Hill over border policy. Some of most heated exchanges at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing came from Texas Republicans, who called on the secretary to resign.
“You should be fired,” said Sen. John Cornyn to Mayorkas at the hearing. “But you haven’t been fired because you were carrying out the policies of the Biden administration.”
The exchange was part of ongoing criticism from Republicans who blame the Biden Administration for the influx of migrants and fentanyl at the southern border.
Sen. Ted Cruz fired a series of questions at Mayorkas, frequently cutting him off as he tried to answer. Cruz ended by blaming Mayorkas for crimes committed against migrant children.
“Your behavior is disgraceful. The deaths, the children assaulted, the children raped, they are at your feet,” Cruz said at the hearing. “If you had integrity, you would resign.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, gave Secretary Mayorkas a chance to respond to Cruz. He refused to do so.
“What the senator said was revolting. I am not going to address it,” Mayorkas said.
“Your refusal to do your job is revolting,” Cruz fired back.
At a House hearing Wednesday, Mayorkas defended the administration, saying the President’s proposed budget includes critical resources needed to prevent illegal border crossings.
“We are very focused on filling the positions of the Border Patrol,” he said.
However, U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, says that won’t be enough.
“The (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) chief says you need 22,000 agents total to counter the crisis,” she said. “That’s a total of 3,000 more agents. This request only provides for 350 more.”
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said every dollar Congress approves needs to be maximized.
“I just want to make sure that we put the focus and the money’s for we need to look at and look at, you know, not 14th-century solutions, but 21st-century solutions,” he said.
‘Major problem’: Lawmaker’s bill would end paper tags
A years-long series of KXAN investigations into paper license plate fraud is helping drive change at the Texas Capitol, according to a state lawmaker who wants to do away with the state’s paper tag system.
“The more we dove into it, and the more we saw stories, like what you do,” said State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth. “We realized what a major problem it is.”
In February 2020, an undercover sting operation at an Austin Walmart led law enforcement to a trove of paper tags. Investigators with the Travis County Constable’s Office Precinct 3 found more than 450 phony license plates saved on a cell phone. As KXAN previously revealed, it’s part of a booming $200 million black market with sales to all 50 states. The bogus tags turn vehicles into “ghost cars” making them virtually untraceable by law enforcement.
“The only fix, in our opinion, is to get rid of paper tags altogether,” Goldman said at his Capitol office.
Goldman filed two bills this session, including House Bill 718, which would eliminate paper tags in favor of only metal ones. The bill received a hearing with the Texas House Transportation Committee on March 29.
Goldman credits KXAN’s investigations for helping to spark his legislation. He said news reports helped make him aware of the “extent” of the problem. Before the hearing, a stack of news articles were stacked on his desk, including several from KXAN’s “Risky Rides” series of investigations.
“It’s a major issue,” Goldman said.
Law enforcement packed Wednesday’s hearing in a show of support for the bill. Among them was Sgt. Jose Escribano, with the Travis County Constable’s Office Precinct 3. Escribano has led the statewide charge to stop the “scourge” of tax fraud.
“Make no mistake, there is no other way out of this mess other than the total elimination of paper tags,” Escribano said. “The Texas DMV has tried to change the appearance of the paper tag with countermeasure after countermeasure to no avail.”
“At the end of the day, this is still a piece of paper,” he said, holding a temporary tag. “You can dress a pig in a suit, but at the end of the day, he is still a pig.”
Tawny Solbrig also testified in favor of the bill. She told lawmakers what she told KXAN in January 2022 — that her 18-year-old son, Terrin, was killed by a driver with a fraudulent paper tag.
“This is not a victimless crime. People’s lives are in danger,” she said. “My son just turned 21 and I had to go visit him at the cemetery because the State of Texas did not take it seriously. When all these law enforcement back here told y’all y’all had had a problem, you didn’t listen. What are you going to do today? Are you going to listen? Are you going to take action?”
The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles declined to comment on any legislation. The agency touted its efforts over the past year to work with law enforcement to “prevent, detect, and investigate temporary tag fraud schemes on Texas roads.”
The TxDMV notes car dealers suspected of fraud are now able to be immediately cut off from its eTAG system and are reported to law enforcement for criminal investigation.
“The department is not currently aware of any actions, processes, or interventions that would guarantee elimination of all possible future fraud,” TxDMV spokesperson Wendy Cook said. “While criminals will continue to seek ways to circumvent the law, Texas has addressed the outstanding administrative concerns with the temporary tag process and will continue to prioritize the further reduction of fraud as additional solutions are identified.”
A new concern for law enforcement is the ease with which Texas’ new security-enhanced tags can be altered. Central Texas Deputy David Kohler said computer software is being used to alter dates and manipulate watermarks and QR codes.
Kohler, and others, testified at a different hearing this month for House Bill 914, filed by State Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mt. Pleasant. His bill would make clear paper tags are “government records” when it comes to tampering. Law enforcement said the clarification would make this type of fraud easier to prosecute.
At that hearing, Kolher held up an altered paper tag that was manipulated in several ways with computer software, including changing the expiration date to a made-up date of “Dec. 45, 2056.”
“I’ve been working on this for the last five years,” Escribano said. “We’re still not finished with this. There’s still more work to be done.”
Escribano described the current situation as a “tagdemic.”
Back at Goldman’s office, he holds up an altered temporary tag sent to him by law enforcement “within one hour” of the TxDMV releasing its new security-enhanced temporary tags. It was for a car that didn’t exist sold by “Craig Goldman Auto.”
“No, I do not own an auto dealership,” Goldman said, laughing. “But other than that, everything on here is real, including the QR code.”
The Texas Automobile Dealers Association, which represents 1400 dealerships, expressed concerns when it comes to storing and securing metal license plates. TADA also wants to see “some type of remedy” in the event a dealer doesn’t have a hard plate in stock at the time of a sale — asking for a “safety valve.” The Texas Independent Automobile Dealers Association did not respond to requests for comment.
If passed, Goldman’s bill wouldn’t take effect until March 2025, he said — enough time to iron out details.
“The amount of crime that is caused with these paper tags, the amount of criminal activity…the amount of loss of life because we allow paper tags in this state is through the roof,” said Goldman at the hearing for his bill, “And we didn’t know about it, until we filed the bill.”