What to Watch in Austin: Hiring freeze, ethics bill, sanctuary cities

Texas Capitol star

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — It was a headline-grabbing declaration that could boost Gov. Greg Abbott’s fiscally conservative credentials: An immediate state agency hiring freeze effective until the end of August.

But it’s also an order not likely to send shockwaves through state government, or the budget that pays for it all.

Abbott’s directive only applies to agencies under the governor’s direction. That exempts those run by other statewide officials, like the Land and Agriculture Commissions.

On its surface, the freeze could still mean belt-tightening at places like the roughly 60,000-employee Health and Human Services Commission. But Abbott excused one of that agency’s key arms, the Department of Family and Protective Services, as the state scrambles to hire new case workers and improve a foster care system so troubled that a federal judge has ruled it violates some youngsters’ constitutional rights.

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Also exempted are state positions directly affecting public safety. And, agencies can apply for waivers to get around the freeze on a case-by-case basis.

Abbott estimated in his State of the State address that the move should save Texas $200 million. That sounds impressive but gets less so when considering that the current state budget is worth around $106 billion.

While awaiting the full extent of the hiring freeze fallout — or lack thereof — here are some other events in Texas politics likely to make news this week:


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On track to be perhaps the first piece of legislation approved by the Senate is a bill removing from office and stripping of their state pension elected officials convicted of a felony. Sponsored by Sen. Van Taylor, the proposal would also prohibit former members of the Legislature from immediately become lobbyists.

Passed out of the chamber’s State Affairs Committee last week, it could hit the Senate floor in a matter of days. In addition to Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been indicted for defrauding investors, Democratic Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin is facing 15 counts of abuse of power and records tampering. She’s accused of misusing campaign funds and ordering state staff to work on non-official business.

The bill might not affect either Paxton or Dukes should it become law, though.

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In 2015, a sweeping ethics reform package that would have accomplished many of the same things stalled after versions approved in the Senate and House couldn’t be reconciled because of disputes over a “dark money” provision that would have mandated that political nonprofits publicly disclose their largest donors. Abbott also vetoed another 2015 ethics bill that was approved by both chambers.

Taylor’s bill avoids the “dark money” question, but the issue should roil the House as the lower chamber considers its own ethics reform proposals in coming weeks.



On a similar fast-track but garnering far more attention is the Senate’s hotly contested “sanctuary cities” bill.

The State Affairs Committee used a post-midnight vote to approve mandating police statewide to enforce federal immigration laws — despite hearing hours of sometimes tearful testimony from hundreds of Texans who warned that it would spark racial profiling and promote a culture of fear and law enforcement mistrust among the Latino community.

Similar proposals have stalled in the Legislature over the years. But with President Donald Trump vowing to get tough on immigration, Abbott offering his full-throated support and the bill set to hit the Senate floor this week, its chances of becoming law look stronger than ever.



Abbott’s three new choices for the University of Texas System Board of Regents, former UT regent Janiece Longoria, ex-state Sen. Kevin Eltife and businessman Rad Weaver, have already cleared the Nominations Committee and are expected to win full Senate approval soon. That should come easily despite the chamber’s only two black members objecting to the fact that the governor’s picks contained no African-Americans.

Still, speedy approval might be fitting since a UT regents meeting is set for Wednesday and Thursday, and the trio won’t be able to attend unless they’ve been confirmed.