By CRISTIN REECE
Brace yourselves — Texans have nearly 700 new laws to contend with this weekend.
Provisions of 698 bills passed during the regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature and sections of bills passed in 2011 take effect on Sunday, Sept. 1. Most of the nearly 700 laws won’t affect most citizens on a day-to-day basis — many of the new laws relate to the administration procedures some courts and other legal offices are required to maintain. Other new laws help regulate the licensing process of some types of businesses and services offered within the state.
“I feel like we had a solid, hardworking session,” District 8 Representative Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said. “We address several major points like our ongoing water issues and education reform.”
District 3 Senator Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, agreed, and added, “It was a very good session for East Texas, for all of Texas. We were able to reach several practical decisions, most significantly on education reforms.”
Nichols said some of the changes he’s most pleased to see include reducing the number of standardized tests school districts were required to administer from 15 to five.
“We were also able to put back some of the funding cuts that were made in the last biennium,” Nichols said. “Not all of them unfortunately, but some.”
Some of the new laws most affecting Anderson County residents include changes to the state’s Move Over/Slow Down law, which requires drivers to yield to police, fire and emergency vehicles. As of Sunday, Senate Bill 193 provides the same protection to Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) workers. Drivers must move over or slow down when approaching TxDOT workers and vehicles that are stopped with overhead flashing blue or amber lights.
“This law has been saving the lives of first responders in Texas since 2003,” TxDOT spokesman Larry Krantz said. “As first responders ourselves, we’re pleased to be included under the protections this law provides.”
The new addition to the Move Over law requires motorists to move out of the lane closest to the TxDOT vehicle when possible or reduce their speed to 20 miles per hour below the posted limit. If the road does not offer multiple lanes, the driver must slow down. On roadways with posted speed limits of 25 miles per hour or less, drivers must reduce their speed to 5 miles per hour. Violators can be fined up to $2,000. The law was expanded to include tow trucks last year.
Another law, which was co-authored by Cook, and sponsored by Nichols, extends the current ban on cell phone use behind the wheel to all school property, including parking lots and dropoff lanes.
Under HB 347, violators now face fines of up to $200. Texas already prohibits drivers using cellphones in active school zones, unless the vehicle is stopped or the driver is using a hands-free device. There are still exceptions for stopped vehicles and hands-free devices. And the law doesn’t apply to emergency calls.
“Things are changing so fast,” Cook said. “We didn’t have these issues 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, but we know now distracted driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. It’s especially dangerous when you’ve got children around, like at a school.”
Cook said he also authored a bill that would ban texting and driving. That bill did not pass at the Senate level this year, but Cook said it’s still an issue he plans to continue pursuing.
Additional new legislation affecting Texas drivers includes:
• Upping the penalty for leaving the scene of an accident involving injury or death. The punishment for that infraction is now the same as that for intoxication manslaughter — two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000; and
• increasing the fine for passing a school bus when its flashing lights and stop signs are active. The penalty used to be $200 to $1,000. HB 1174 upped it to $500 to $1,250.
One of the more controversial bills o take effect Sunday is Senate Bill 21.
Senate Bill 21 requires first-time unemployment benefit applicants, who work in occupations that already require drug tests, to undergo screening. The measure also would require that certain applicants answer a questionnaire, meant to determine if they are at risk of abusing drugs. If their answers indicate they are a likely drug user, the Texas Workforce Commission would require a drug test before they could receive benefits.
“The reality is that money shouldn’t go to buy drugs,” Cook said. “I feel it’s reasonable to require this type of testing. It’s simply inappropriate behavior and it shouldn’t be rewarded with money specifically set aside to help people through a period of unemployment.”
Other new laws that take effect Sunday, relate to:
• An annual 3 percent cost-of-living increase for retired teachers.
• A voluntary contribution to the fund for veterans’ assistance when applying for a driver’s license or personal identification certificate;
• Continuing education requirements for certain educators;
• Regulation and enforcement of dam safety by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality;
• A sales and use tax exemption for certain items sold by school booster clubs and support organizations; authorizing a sales and use tax exemption;
• Certain procedures for submitting legible and classifiable fingerprints with an application for a license to carry a concealed handgun;
• The imposition of a sentence of life without parole on certain repeat sex offenders and to certain restrictions on employment for certain sex offenders; and
• Privileged parking for veterans of World War II.