AUSTIN (Nexstar) – In the days leading up to the end of Title 42 immigration restrictions, state leaders made moves to prepare for an anticipated surge of migrants.

On Monday, Governor Greg Abbott deployed a newly-formed unit he calls the Texas Tactical Border Force. He announced the deployment at a news conference at an airport runway in Austin. Behind him, military aircraft loaded with equipment prepared to take hundreds of National Guard troops to their mission.

“They will be deployed to hotspots along the border to intercept to repel and to turn back migrants who are trying to enter Texas illegally,” Abbott told reporters.

The Governor ordered a similar deployment last December – when he sent troops to El Paso to seal off areas where people were crossing the border illegally.

Border enforcement is supposed to be handled by the federal government. But Texas lawmakers are moving closer to creating a way for the state to have more enforcement ability.

House lawmakers approved HB 7, which includes an amendment that would create a new Border Protection Unit under the Texas Department of Public Safety. That unit would have the authority to arrest unlawful border crossers, build border barriers, and search vehicles, among other powers.

Supporters of the provision say the unit would allow the state to do essential work to protect Texans.

“Our communities along the border are being overrun and overwhelmed. And it is our responsibility as a state to support the local communities. But we have to stop the illegal activity in between the ports of entry,” State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler said.

A group of people from border communities protested at the Capitol before the vote. They say state leaders too often see their communities as places to police, not protect.

“We need to find another solution that’s not going to militarize our border even more,” Joaquin Garcia, the Director of Organizing at La Unión del Pueblo Entero said at the Capitol protest.

“Operation Lone Star is costing more than $4 billion, and people are still crossing. That’s just not the solution. And we need to invest those funds in creating other means for these people to be able to seek shelter or refuge in a humane and dignified way,” Garcia added.

The legislation still needs Senate approval. If it becomes law, it would likely face a challenge in federal court.

Some supporters of the Border Protection Unit hope it will force a change to that precedent by challenging Arizona v. US, the 2012 Supreme Court case which asserted the federal government’s preemption of immigration law.

“I sincerely hope that we do land in a court of ‘Texas v. U.S.,’ and revisit that issue,” Executive Director of the Texas Sheriffs’ Regional Alliance AJ Louderback said. “We must strive to solve this the border issue. And I believe the real route to this is ‘Texas v. U.S’ and getting that before the Supreme Court where we make and restore some state rights as border state, which carries the brunt of this problem.”

Raise-the-age gun bill briefly revived, but fails to advance

Two days after a deadly mass shooting at a mall in Allen, Texas, legislation that aims to raise the age for purchasing certain semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 years old advanced through a Texas House committee.

The language in the bill would prevent anyone under 21 from purchasing “a semiautomatic rifle that is capable of accepting a detachable magazine and that has a caliber greater than .22.”

House Bill 2744 passed with an 8 to 5 vote. The bill had been stalled in committee since a public hearing in April. Republicans Sam Harless and Justin Holland joined Democrats to pass the bill out of committee. Parents of children killed at Robb Elementary last May erupted into cheers and embraced lawmakers after the committee vote.

“This just kind of solidifies that every day that I would go and sit with my daughter and tell her, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ This was her telling me that we’re doing the right thing,” said Veronica Mata, who lost her daughter Tess in the Robb Elementary shooting.

“We don’t want another Uvalde to happen. We don’t want another Allen to happen. It should have never happened. It should have been done a long time ago. Why hasn’t it been stopped? I don’t know why. But we’re going to continue fighting,” Mata said.

But the celebration by supporters did not last long. One day later the bill failed to advance out of the calendars committee, meaning it would not get a vote before Thursday’s House bill deadline.

Democrats tried to revive the bill by adding it as an amendment to other pieces of gun-related legislation. State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, tried to win support for one amendment a few hours before the deadline.

“If we’re going to talk about the problems of mass violence, we have to talk about every single one of them,” Moody said, adding that he believes “common sense” reforms to gun policy are part of the solution.

Families of Uvalde shooting victims have advocated for the legislation. The gunman in that school shooting bought two AR-15-style rifles just days after his 18th birthday. The gunman in the Allen mass shooting was 33-years-old, and would not have been affected by this legislation.

Republican lawmakers blocked efforts to amend the legislation onto another bill.

While the raise-the-age bill failed, lawmakers did pass legislation to relax the enforcement of carrying a handgun in a prohibited place.

HB 2960 creates a “good faith exception” to the law, allowing people to avoid a penalty if they mistakenly carry a gun into certain places where firearms are not allowed.

Democrats spoke against the bill, often heatedly, with some voicing feelings that it was wrong to consider the bill so soon after a mass shooting.

“You can’t offer thoughts and prayers on Monday, and then debate a bill to loosen gun regulations on Tuesday,” State Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin said.

One day earlier Rep. Jeff Leach, R-McKinney, gave an emotional speech on the House floor, as he introduced a memorial resolution in honor of the victims of the deadly mass shooting in Allen.

“There’s a lot we don’t know, but one thing I do know is that this is happening way too much,” Leach said, speaking at the front of the chamber, with several of his fellow House members standing nearby in support.

“I don’t have the answers,” Leach continued. “I don’t have a bill in front of you. I’m not sure there are any bills in front of us this morning, this session that could have prevented this. I don’t know. But I do know that it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Leach said he believed that the House will respond “boldly, swiftly, smartly, and do everything we possibly can to address this head-on.”

House members passed HB 2960 on Tuesday afternoon. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Tollway fixes once again face bumpy ride at Texas Capitol

As state lawmakers wrap up their work for the 88th regular legislative session, it appears efforts to address drivers’ continual complaints about tollway operations in Texas will meet the same fate as previously proposed reforms: not gaining much steam.

Texas legislators only have 140 days to wade through thousands of bills filed this year, and the issues that emerged as the main priorities in the Republican-led statehouse included things like property tax relief, school safety measures and transgender health care restrictions. With those topics taking up so much debate and time, reforming the state’s toll systems barely made a splash in the legislature despite it being one of KXAN’s biggest viewer complaints for years.

A few lawmakers did put forward a limited number of proposals — just eight bills that KXAN could identify — to change how the state’s tolling systems operate. However, those bills mostly remain stalled, as the legislative session winds down soon.

Sen. Bob Hall, a Republican from Edgewood, introduced Senate Bill 316, which is the latest version of legislation he’s filed every session since taking office in 2015. The bill would create a uniform billing system for toll operators throughout the state and limit the fees they can charge if a driver does not pay on time.

“This is one of those things that I think is the proper role of state government,” Hall said, “looking out for the people of Texas and protecting them.”

He said his office constantly hears from constituents about issues with their toll bills and the added costs that can come with those.

			Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, introduced a bill to create a uniform tolling system in Texas. (KXAN photo/Christian Marcelli)

Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, introduced a bill to create a uniform tolling system in Texas. (KXAN photo/Christian Marcelli)

“We’ve had just dozens and dozens of people come to us and say, ‘You know, I didn’t even know I had a toll bill,'” Hall said. “I mean, they’ll send the bill to the wrong address or to an old address. It’ll build late fees on top of late fees … and the next thing you know, for a $5 or $3 toll bill, they’ve got hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars and fines that are tacked on top of it.”

Drivers facing big toll bills could get some help if another state lawmaker, Rep. James Talarico, has his way.

“We have a package of bills to help provide some immediate relief to working Texans across our state, and one of them is to create a one-year pause in toll road fees,” Talarico, an Austin Democrat, said.

He filed House Bill 4231, which is only a page in length and calls for using some of the state’s record budget surplus to cover the cost of tolls for one year.

“Unfortunately, our state has refused to invest in public highways and roads like we used to, and now we’re putting it on the backs of Texans to pay for their own roads,” Talarico said. “During this time of global inflation, I think it’s the least we can do to provide a little bit of relief with these toll fees.”

Both bills filed by Talarico and Hall got referred to their respective chambers’ transportation committee, which would have to approve the proposal first before a full vote in either the Texas House of Representatives or Senate. However, neither piece of legislation has received a hearing yet. The legislative session will end May 29.

			Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, speaks with KXAN's Will DuPree about his bill to implement a one-year moratorium on toll fee collections. (KXAN Photo/Christian Marcelli)

Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, speaks with KXAN’s Will DuPree about his bill to implement a one-year moratorium on toll fee collections. (KXAN Photo/Christian Marcelli)

One proposal related to Texas toll operations, though, did clear a key committee vote on April 19. By a vote of 11-1, the members of the House transportation committee passed House Bill 3843, filed by Republican Rep. Terry Wilson of Marble Falls. This would require the Texas Department of Transportation to start working on a sweeping study comparing the operations of every tolling entity across the state. The report, according to the legislation, would specifically have to look at how they deal with error rates, customer complaints, processing speeds and billing practices. At this time, it remains unclear whether or when the full House will vote on the proposal.

The KXAN investigative team recently hand-delivered information packets to the 22 lawmakers who serve on their respective transportation committees. These contained details about the handful of toll-related bills introduced this session as well as summaries of the copious number of viewer complaints KXAN received in the past few years.

			KXAN could only identify eight bills filed this legislative session that would reform Texas toll operations. (KXAN Graphic)

KXAN could only identify eight bills filed this legislative session that would reform Texas toll operations. (KXAN Graphic)

In previous legislative sessions, several lawmakers spoke out more than others about billing and technology problems that persist with Texas tollway systems.

Tony Dale, the former Republican state representative from Cedar Park, talked with KXAN extensively throughout his legislative career about issues like security concerns with the TxTag contractor hired by the Texas Department of Transportation and the delays in billing statements sent to customers. While he could not comment on this story, he previously discussed the roadblocks that some efforts got to reform the state’s tolling systems.

During a 2018 investigation about a measure to cap toll fees for delinquent toll users, Dale told KXAN pushback from toll operators might show their unwillingness to want to reduce fines.

“Even when I talk to people that are part of the toll authority, they say they don’t really want to collect the fees. They just want to have people pay their toll and go on,” Dale said five years ago. “Well, this is their chance to live up to what they say. They can go to the same policy that the state has, or they can fight the attorney general or they can fight the legislature when we try and force the issue later.”

The law Dale referenced went into effect in March 2018 and capped TxTag administrative fees at $48 during a 12-month period.

Joe Pickett, the former Democratic representative from El Paso who served as chairman of the House transportation committee, also used to encourage Texans to contact their state lawmakers when they experienced complications with large toll bills.

Those two lawmakers are no longer at the State Capitol, but the leaders who do remain said they’ll keep pushing forward their proposed fixes despite any obstacles.

Hall echoed the sentiments once shared by Dale, saying the toll entities themselves have tripped up his past pushes to create statewide uniformity in toll collections. This session, though, he said he hoped things would turn out differently because the issue could possibly fly below the radar and end up passing.

“I’ve seen it with other bills: when you do it a couple of times and people come to understand that what the lobby is telling them is not true and that they’re actually serving the people of Texas, they tend to change their positions on things,” he said.

KXAN reached out to the Texas Department of Transportation to inquire about its thoughts on Hall’s bill and others under consideration this session. However, a spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

For Talarico, though, he said he believed enacting some toll road fixes, like his one-year toll fee moratorium, might be enough to bridge partisan divides at the Capitol since the issue has roiled both Republicans and Democrats for years.

“I’m hopeful this is not a red issue or a blue issue,” he said. “I hope this is an issue we can all support.”

Unanimous vote to expel Texas House member accused of sexual misconduct

The Texas House voted unanimously on Tuesday to expel embattled Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, amid allegations he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a 19-year-old female staffer.

The vote comes a day after Slaton submitted his resignation papers to the governor after a House panel made public its findings about his misconduct.

Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, said all of the facts alleged in the House General Investigating Committee’s report on Slaton are “completely undisputed” by Slaton and others.

According to the report, Slaton showed a pattern of inappropriate behavior with the aide. The committee said his actions came to a head one evening on March 31, when he invited the staffer to his Austin apartment and provided her enough alcohol that she reportedly felt “dizzy” before the two engaged in sexual intercourse.

The panel also found that he tried to cover up the others, using harassment and intimidation tactics in order to prevent the information from coming to light and that Slaton has shown “no remorse” for his actions.

Reading a summary of the facts in the committee’s report, vice-chair Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, said the chamber had “no choice” but to take to vote to expel Slaton.

“When he realized he was about to be caught he came up with a plan to try not to get caught,” Johnson said before the vote.

Slaton did not refer to the report or the accusations in his resignation letter.

The committee’s chair, Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, told members that the investigation brought out strong emotions.

“I have cried for all those involved, including Mr. Slaton and his family. I have cried for the witnesses. I have cried for the institution that I cherish. I have cried because I have the duty and responsibility to stand before you today and ask you to take this vote,” he said.

Murr emphasized the importance of going through with the expulsion vote, even though Slaton had already submitted his resignation.

“Resignation does not escape the need for this body to consider expulsion,” Murr said, speaking in the chamber. “Members, this recommendation is not easy. There are no high-fives and it is not driven by politics. It is about the integrity of the House and the discredit reflected upon this institution.”

Slaton, 45 and married, had been among one of the most conservative members in the lower chamber. Last year, he was a leading voice in calls to ban drag shows in the presence of minors, citing a need to protect children from “perverted adults” who want to sexualize children.

He is the first state representative to be expelled from the House since 1927. In that case, House members voted out two members accused of bribery.

‘It’s a responsibility,’ Senator Zaffirini honored for 70K consecutive votes

The Texas Senate paused Wednesday to honor State Sen. Judith Zaffirini. The Democrat from Laredo reached the milestone of 70,000 consecutive votes. She hasn’t missed a vote since 1987.

“Members, to put this accomplishment in perspective, if you started today to record 70,000 straight votes, it would take you 36 years. That’s 18 sessions,” Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said, after pausing debate to mark the milestone.

Patrick presented a ceremonial gavel to Zaffirini, one of several she’s received over her career. Several of her fellow Senators posed for pictures with her before the debate started again.

Sen. Zaffirini has a tradition of being the first in line to file legislation each session when the prefiling window opens in November. In an interview on filing day, she gave insight into her approach to her job.

“When I came to the Senate, I had no idea that they kept voting records,” Zaffirini said, adding, “It was just what I happen to do, how I happen to conduct myself.”

“It’s a responsibility to serve in the Texas Senate. It’s a responsibility to represent constituents and to be there and to vote,” Zaffirini explained.

So far this session, Zaffirini passed important bipartisan legislation, including Senate Bill 1639, the “Save Our Swifties” bill, along with Rep. Kronda Thimesch (R-Denton), according to a news release from her office. If the bill is signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, it will prohibit ticket-scalping bots from purchasing concert tickets online, the release said.

Her SB 49, co-sponsored by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney), would extend eligibility for the Crime Victims Compensation Program, the release said. Furthermore, Zaffirini passed 18 Senate bills and six House bills that have been sent to Gov. Abbott for his signature. Forty-six Senate bills by Zaffirini have been passed by the Senate and await consideration by the House of Representatives, the release said.

Zaffirini has received more than 1,100 awards and honors for her legislative, professional and public service leadership, including being inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame by Abbott in 2019, the release said. Additionally, she received the 2022 Liberty Bell Award, which is awarded to the non-lawyer with the greatest impact on the law from the Laredo-Webb County Bar Association, according to the release.