AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Crammed into Texas Sen. Joan Huffman’s office chanting “shame,” a group of Texans confronted staffers on Thursday, demanding the senator uses her influence to take action on legislation related to addressing the fentanyl crisis.

The protests highlight differences over how to reduce fentanyl deaths, pitting advocates for harm reduction against those calling for tougher drug penalties.

The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance is calling on Huffman — a Houston Republican who is a member of the Criminal Justice Committee — to advance several bills that aim to decriminalize the use of fentanyl testing strips. Currently, under the Texas Controlled Substances Act drug testing equipment such as these strips are classified as drug paraphernalia, making it illegal for people to recreationally test.

The test strips cost roughly a dollar and can be used to test drugs, powders and pills for the presence of fentanyl, which is significantly more powerful than other drugs and can be fatal.

Earlier this month, the Texas representatives overwhelmingly passed House Bill 362, which would allow people to safely test their drugs for fentanyl “without the risk of prosecution.” Governor Greg Abbott has indicated he would sign this into law if it were passed.

But the broad support in the lower chamber has not been echoed in the Senate. Two similar bipartisan bills, Senate Bill 207 and Senate Bill 868, have been referred to Huffman’s committee but have not yet received a hearing.

Nexstar reached out to Huffman’s office for comment but did not hear back.

The group took their protest to the House gallery, where they continued to chant “no more drug wars,” in opposition of House Bill 6, which would increase criminal penalties for selling and distributing fentanyl. In the event that fentanyl kills the user, the person who sold or gave the drug could be charged with murder.

A group from Texas Harm Reduction Alliance protests in the House gallery to object HB 6, which would increase penalties for distributing fentanyl when it ends up killing people. The protest lasted a few minutes before DPS escorted the group out. (Nexstar Photo/Monica Madden)

The bill’s author, Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, said their vote is a message to those who are dealing fentanyl that “we’re coming for you.” Lawmakers gave the bill initial approval with 121 voting in favor and 24 voting against it.

Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, echoed the concerns raised in the House gallery earlier this morning about how the legislation might impact the state’s criminal justice system. Wu said he is proud of the work the chamber has done to decriminalize testing strips, but said historically increasing penalties around drugs has not led to a reduction of usage in the United States.

“I know everyone is decided on how they will vote, but I am here to speak against the continuation of the drug war,” he said. “All it has resulted in is more of our citizens in prison, more broken families and more broken communities.”

Abbott made addressing the state’s “growing fentanyl crisis” one of his key legislative priorities this session. During his State of the State address, Abbott expressed he wants prosecutors to have the ability to charge those who make, distribute or sell fentanyl with murder.

Huffman wrote SB 645 to add that penalty, which the Senate has already passed. Huffman’s bill is identical to HB 6.

The governor has also backed certain harm reduction measures. One bipartisan bill written by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, and Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood would decriminalize fentanyl testing strips and other tools used to detect fentanyl in other drugs. It’s a measure the governor previously opposed but now supports.

At a summit in early April, Abbott announced the state will allocate millions of dollars to take immediate action while the legislature works on passing bills aiming to curb the crisis.

At that summit, the governor directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to begin distributing Narcan, an opioid reversal tool, to every county in Texas. Additionally, he announced a $10 million multimedia PSA-style campaign to educate Texans on the dangers of the drug and how to prevent and reverse fentanyl deaths.

Texas House passes bipartisan school safety legislation

Eleven months after the Robb Elementary mass shooting, the Texas House of Representatives on Monday initially passed broad, bipartisan legislation intending to make schools safer.

House Bill 3 dedicates new funding for districts to improve physical barriers and security technology, requires every district to place an armed guard on every campus, and gives the state more oversight responsibility for safety protocol compliance.

After winning preliminary approval Monday, the bill won final approval with a 119-25 vote on Tuesday. The legislation now heads to the Senate.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, shepherded the bill through with Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, after the two led the House investigation of the Robb Elementary mass shooting.

“The state of Texas must make fundamental changes the way we protect our school communities,” said Burrows on the House floor Monday afternoon. “It is clear that we must not only beef up on campus security staffing, but also establish statewide standards for the security measures campuses must deploy.”

The bill creates a minimum school safety allotment for every district of at least $100 for every student and $15,000 per campus. That per-student allotment increased tenfold from the original bill’s allocation after a successful amendment from Moody.

Districts must use that additional funding to improve school safety in ways such as hiring officers and school safety directors, installing barriers and security cameras, and providing mental health personnel.

The provision to require armed security on every campus drew heated debate on the floor from some Democrats.

“How are we going to make sure that those people who are armed on school campuses are making them safer, not making them more dangerous?,” said Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin. “There are some precautions that we could take, such as a trigger lock, so that the only person that can shoot an armed personnel’s gun, is that particular armed personnel.”

Goodwin offered an amendment to require security officers to use trigger locks, but that amendment was voted down.

House Bill 3 would allow districts to fulfill that armed guard requirement with commissioned police officers, private security guards, or trained school staff. Burrows defended that provision, which could lead more districts to arm teachers.

“We give the school districts a variety of options to choose from,” he said. “Especially in some of the rural communities, some of our school districts are not going to find a full-time law enforcement officer to be able to do this. And so we utilize the guardianship marshal program in order to fulfill this requirement. I can tell you talking to parents, grandparents, educators, even classroom teachers from Uvalde, having somebody there as a security guard is a sense of safety.

Name calling and a shirtless picture spotlight dispute over Texas tax relief

Property tax relief is a key priority at the Capitol this session. But when it comes to how to provide relief, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan have different ideas, a divide that is getting more heated.

The dispute is fueled by different tax relief plans approved in the House and Senate.

Patrick leads the Senate, which pushed a plan to cut property taxes by raising the homestead exemption, which is the amount of a home’s value exempt from property taxes. Currently the exemption is $40,000 and the Senate plan would raise the exemption to $70,000.

House lawmakers are aiming for a different approach. After hearing concerns from constituents over rising property valuations, House members passed a plan tightening the cap on home appraisals.

Currently, the state puts a 10% limit on how much a home’s taxable value can rise each year. The House plan aims to control tax bills by cutting that cap to 5%.

Now it’s up to the budget conference committee to work out the differences. That usually plays out behind the scenes at the Capitol, but Patrick is putting a spotlight on his differences with Phelan.

Patrick has, in TV interviews, started calling Phelan “California Dade,” a reference to problems in California after that state approved appraisal caps.

“It’s very clear that they don’t get along,” said Texas Tribune Politics Reporter James Barragán about the dynamic between Patrick and Phelan.

Phelan responded on Twitter with a bit of humor. He posted a shirtless picture of himself standing between two surfboards – making fun of the “California Dade” reference. The message said he’s “Stoked for some tasty waves on the Texas Coast this summer” after the end of the regular session.

House Speaker Dade Phelan responds to criticism from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick over his support for property tax appraisal caps.

Patrick responded with his own humorous Twitter post. The image shows Patrick’s face edited onto a picture of a surfer. He wrote, “the Senate’s Homestead Exemptions are the better wave to ride.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responds to House Speaker Dade Phelan’s post.

This seems silly. But there’s a lot at stake here.

Patrick also told reporters he could force the Governor to call a special session by not moving key legislation that needs to pass. He did that before at the end of the 2017 session. That led to a special session focused on conservative priorities like school vouchers and a bill to restrict bathroom access for transgender people.

Similar to the situation back then, the current session has seen some frustration over legislation that’s stalled in one chamber or the other.

“I do sense a little bit of frustration, perhaps from members in both chambers who have priority bills that are perhaps not making as much headway in the opposite chamber,” noted Niki Griswold, a state politics reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.

That frustration could be fuel for a potential special session. And there are several issues still in play. Barragán laid out a long list, from property taxes and school choice, to bills targeting transgender people and higher education bills limiting diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

“Those are really big issues for social conservatives that they want to see moved as expressed by the lieutenant governor. If they don’t move, I think that the probability of a special session becomes larger,” Barragán explained.

“I think that’s certainly the dark cloud hanging over the Capitol right now,” Barragán said.

Texas Senate passes bill pushing for medical billing transparency 

The Texas Senate passed medical billing transparency legislation Thursday to require hospitals and other providers to send patients an itemized invoice before attempting to collect money from them.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, authored the legislation — Senate Bill 490. The bill would require a plain language description of each health care service or supply so patients can better understand charges. 

The full Senate voted unanimously in favor of the legislation.

Hughes testified last week at the State Capitol and laid out the bill to members of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee. 

“It’s pretty straightforward. Not a radical concept,” Hughes testified. 

Last session, a similar Senate bill — also filed by Hughes — cleared this same stage in the legislative process — but never received a House committee hearing to advance further. However, the current Senate legislation is two weeks ahead of its predecessor in process, which supporters say gives it a greater chance of making it to the governor’s desk before the session winds down in just over a month. 

An identical bill filed as a companion in the House is also moving forward and recently cleared its committee. Supporters point to House Bill 1973’s progress and the likelihood that its author —  Rep. Caroline Harris, R-Round Rock — could serve as a sponsor for Hughes’ Senate bill as stronger indicators the issue of itemized invoices for Texas patients is closer to becoming law than ever.

However, the House bill did face pushback from a Houston health system and some lawmakers during its initial committee hearing. Those opposed to the bill have said it would present significant challenges and costs to implement, but Harris offered a substitute she said would address concerns — which later led to it advancing to the full House where it has more than 100 co-authors. A committee report has now been filed, and Harris could lay the legislation out on the House floor in the coming days. 

Michelle Ledesma sorting through documents she's collected after being sued for medical debt. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)
Michelle Ledesma sorting through documents she’s collected after being sued for medical debt. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Lawmakers and KXAN investigators continue to hear from patients who said they received vague bills from a Williamson County hospital but were unable to get an itemized invoice. When they didn’t pay, they got sued for medical debt.

Last week, Michelle Ledesma told KXAN her case resulted in a judgment in her favor in March. She said she recently learned the hospital is appealing in a higher court. 

“To have this hanging over me it’s created so much stress,” said Ledesma – who also said she’s reached out to lawmakers – during an interview.