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New crimes, new priorities as laws take effect


Beginning Tuesday, when most of the laws passed this year by the Legislature take effect, students can no longer be jailed for skipping school, posting “revenge porn” online will be illegal, and flying drones in the wrong place could land you in jail.

The 678 new laws also will create a special legal process for corrupt politicians, hide the names of pharmacies that provide Texas with its execution drugs and require law officers to take a class on how to avoid shooting dogs.

Some are designed to be far reaching, such as an effort directing $800 million to the border with Mexico, while many laws will have a modest impact, such as the new crime of setting off fireworks in a roadside rest area.

One law will improve police access to body cameras. Another will let state workers donate unused sick time to a colleague.

And then there’s the statute eliminating telegraphs as an acceptable way to pass along arrest-warrant information, apparently leaving posses and bounty hunters behind.

While the 2015 legislative session was often notable for the bills that failed — including attempts to block same-sex marriage, strengthen ethics rules for lawmakers and abolish so-called sanctuary cities — here are some of the more substantive changes that will take place when the state’s fiscal year launches Tuesday.

Lewd attitude

Lewd behavior was on a lot of legislators’ minds in the 140-day session.

New laws will criminalize voyeurism (gaining sexual gratification by observing someone inside their home without consent) and invasive photography (taking photos or video in a bathroom or changing room without consent).

Adults who use social media or online forums to lure minors into having sex can face up to 10 years in prison for engaging in sexually explicit conversations. The law will replace one struck down by the courts, giving prosecutors another tool to target “grooming behavior” by predators seeking to identify and lure susceptible minors.

Inspired by a Texas woman who was harassed and stalked after 10-year-old naked photos were posted on a website along with her name and address, legislators made it illegal to post revenge porn — intimate photos and videos from a previous or current relationship — without consent. The law also allows website owners to be sued for damages.

Austin, Travis targeted

Arguing that they couldn’t get a fair shake from trial jurors and grand jurors in liberal Travis County, Republicans removed corruption cases against state officials from the local district attorney. Instead of being pursued by the Public Integrity Unit, politicians will be investigated by the Texas Rangers, and it will be up to hometown prosecutors to decide whether to pursue bribery and other corruption charges in court.

Republicans also expressed unhappiness with now-retired state District Judge John Dietz, a Democrat who declared the state’s school finance system unconstitutional last year, just as he did after a separate round of lawsuits in 2004. Future challenges on school finance or redistricting, another hot-button issue, can now go to a three-judge panel, with two judges chosen from outside Travis County.

The Legislature also overruled local ordinances that require landlords to accept low-income applicants who use federal housing vouchers, as long as they meet other tenancy requirements. Only one place in Texas had such a rule: Austin.

Criminal justice

Grand jurors, who determine if there is enough evidence to issue felony indictments, will be chosen from a randomly selected pool. The new method eliminates the “key man” method, used only in Texas, that had judge-selected commissioners provide a list of jurors, often from among friends and acquaintances, regardless of potential conflicts of interest.

Inmates will have expanded access to DNA tests that could help prove their innocence under a law supported by Michael Morton, who spent almost 25 years in prison for a Williamson County murder he did not commit. Testing can be allowed on crime-scene evidence if it is possible that invisible DNA, typically from sweat or skin cells, is present. Previously, testing could be done only on identifiable biological material.

Texans convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor may be able to seal their criminal records from public inspection. Intended to give a second chance, the law exempts family violence and sexual offenses.

Juvenile justice will continue to de-emphasize incarceration in favor of programs focused on education, job training, health care and substance abuse treatment. Large, rural juvenile detention centers will begin to be replaced by smaller, closer-to-home facilities.

In adult prisons, inmates will have to pass a mental-health check before being placed in solitary confinement.

Policing

The governor’s office will run a $10 million matching-grants program designed to get more body cameras on police officers. Departments will have to create policies to ensure that the cameras record only law enforcement activities, and full-time operation isn’t allowed.

Another law will require police officers to get a search warrant before conducting a body cavity search during a traffic stop.

Officers also will be required to take a one-time class on how to avoid shooting dogs. The four-hour course, to be created by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, will focus on understanding dog behavior, avoiding conflict and using humane methods in canine encounters.

Drugs and alcohol

A trio of new laws will target a designer drug commonly known as K2 to help police and prosecutors keep up with manufacturers who stay one step ahead of restrictions by slightly altering the drug’s chemical compound. Two laws more broadly define the chemical structure of the drug, which mimics the narcotic effects of marijuana, while a third creates a $25,000-a-day fine for sellers of the synthetic drug.

After a first conviction for driving while intoxicated, Texans will have to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicle if they get an occupational license while their driver’s license is suspended. Previously, judges had discretion to order the devices, which drivers blow into to measure their blood alcohol content.

Higher education

Texas will pump $3.1 billion in bonds into construction and renovation projects at 64 public universities, health-related schools and technical colleges — the first major round of such financing since 2006.

The state also will create a $40 million fund to recruit Nobel laureates and other academic rock stars to Texas, a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott, and direct $138 million toward a $150 million backlog of matching funds earned by emerging research universities by virtue of private donations they raised.

And, for the first time, university governing boards will be required to broadcast conference-call meetings over the Internet.

Education

Skipping school will no longer land students in adult court. The Legislature removed criminal penalties for truancy, barring justices of the peace and municipal judges from issuing fines or ordering jail time for students charged with skipping school. Efforts instead will focus on programs designed to deal with poverty, mental health, pregnancy, substance abuse and other problems that keep students out of class.

Other prominent changes went into effect earlier this year, including pumping $130 million into prekindergarten programs, lifting the cap on the number of college credit courses a high school student can take and loosening rules that kept high school seniors from graduating after failing end-of-course exams.

Child abuse

Responding to the 2014 death of Colton Turner, a 2-year-old Austin-area boy who had been missing for months before authorities began a search, “Colton’s Law” will require child-welfare workers to alert the Department of Public Safety if a child goes missing during an abuse or neglect investigation. The law also will speed the process for listing children on the Texas Crime Information Center’s child safety alert list, used to help locate missing children.

Another law will require standardized trauma screenings for children who are removed from their homes by Child Protective Services. The goal is to assign children to appropriate homes and to discover and treat mental health conditions.

State contracting

After months of scandal surrounding the Health and Human Services Commission’s deals with Austin tech firm 21CT — after the American-Statesman uncovered the questionable contract — the Legislature approved wide-ranging contracting reforms. The law will increase oversight of large state contracts awarded to private companies, add reporting requirements and prohibit a state employee who was involved in a bid decision from working for the winning company for two years.

State employees

Texas will shore up the main state employee pension fund by increasing both state and employee contributions, offsetting the higher cost with an across-the-board pay raise.

State agencies will be required to verify the immigration status of all job applicants via E-verify, a federal verification program, while a separate law will require the state to develop a single online application for jobs at all state agencies.

And state workers will be able to donate accrued sick leave to an employee of the same agency who has no sick days remaining.

Public officials elected after June 19, when a separate law went into effect, will no longer be able to “double dip” — collecting a pension while warning a paycheck — in response to news that former Gov. Rick Perry double dipped during his final years in the governor’s office.

Crackdown on drones

Operating a drone less than 400 feet above “critical infrastructure” — including refineries, power plants, gas and chemical pipelines, water and sewage treatment plants, radio and TV transmission facilities and more — will carry a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail. Law enforcement and facility owners will be exempt.

Another law will require the head of DPS to create a policy banning or limiting the use of drones around the Capitol and nearby state office buildings.

The southern border

House Bill 11 will boost the state’s border security spending to $800 million over two years to hire hundreds more DPS troopers, lengthen their standard work day to 10 hours statewide and keep the Texas National Guard deployed on the Texas-Mexico border until the extra state troopers arrive. The law also includes a provision to create a committee with members from the House and Senate to study border security and provide oversight of the border efforts.

Guns, guns, guns

State agencies and local governments could face $1,000-a-day fines, escalating to $10,500 for subsequent offenses, for improperly posting signs designating an area off-limits to guns. The attorney general must give agencies 15 days to correct the problem to avoid the penalty.

In addition, a concealed handgun license will become a valid form of identification.

The session’s two most prominent gun laws will take effect later. Texans with a handgun permit — generally available to those 21 and older — will be allowed to openly carry holstered firearms on Jan. 1 and will be allowed to carry concealed weapons into public university classrooms and dorms on Aug. 1, 2016.

The environment

The Legislature passed three prominent environmental laws that were wins for business, including a statute that overrules a decision by Denton voters who had banned hydraulic fracturing in a November election. The law declares that oil and gas operations are exclusively under state jurisdiction.

Senate Bill 709 will raise the bar for citizens to win standing to fight proposed industrial permits. Environmentalists say the law was intended to bulldoze roadblocks to power plants, refineries and other major industrial sites, while business groups argued the new law would make Texas more competitive with other states.

Another law will limit the amount that a local government can receive from certain lawsuits to $2.15 million per lawsuit. Anything more goes into the state’s coffers. Previously, state and local governments equally divided awards.

This and that

• Nearly all sales tax collected on sporting goods, used in the past to help balance the state budget, will now go to its intended destination — state parks.

• Owners will be able to redeem gift cards for cash when the remaining balance dips below $2.50.

• The Texas Department of Transportation will have one year to submit a report to the Legislature outlining a plan to eliminate all toll roads — with no requirement to carry that out.

• New mothers working at every level of government will have the right to pump breast milk at work, in a private room that isn’t a bathroom.

• State occupational license and exam fees will be waived for members of the military, veterans and their spouses.

• The maximum penalty for those who fraudulently claim military service or medals will be one year in jail, up from a $500 fine.

Coming soon

E-cigarettes will be illegal for minors on Oct. 1. Tighter restrictions on judicial bypasses, which provide girls with access to abortions without parental consent, begin Jan. 1. Texas will roll out a new school accountability system next year, leading to A through F letter grades assigned to districts and schools in 2017.

Additional material from staff writers Julie Chang, Tim Eaton, Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Philip Jankowski, Andra Lim, Asher Price, Melissa B. Taboada and Ben Wear


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