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Penalties for fentanyl, illegal voting

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Fentanyl STOCK

By Richard Lee
Senate correspondent

AUSTIN — Those who make or distribute fentanyl illegally would face decades in prison under a bill approved unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday.

Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston said that the powerful synthetic opioid has become the leading cause of death for adults under the age of 45.

“It’s a fact that fentanyl is flooding our borders, it is absolutely, without a doubt, killing our citizens on a daily basis, and it’s time that we take a comprehensive approach to combating this deadly drug,” Huffman said.

Of the more than 100,000 fentanyl overdose deaths in 2021, 1,600 were in Texas. Her bill, SB 645, would lower the threshold for felony distribution or manufacture of fentanyl to less than one gram. It would enhance the penalty from a state jail felony to a third-degree felony, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

If someone dies from fentanyl made or sold by a defendant, then the penalty enhances to a second-degree felony, and in extraordinary circumstances, said Huffman, prosecutors could charge dealers with murder, a first degree felony that can mean life in prison.

Huffman also passed a bill that would give law enforcement and first responders immunity from certain health privacy laws so that they can participate in a national fentanyl overdose mapping program, in order to quicker identify problem areas and direct resources to where they’re needed most.

“You can look on this and see in real-time where the overdoses are occurring,” said Huffman.

The Senate also approved a bill this week that would return the crime of illegal voting to a felony after it was lowered to a misdemeanor in last session’s election integrity bill. According to author and Mineola Sen. Bryan Hughes, the crime had been a felony for nearly 50 years before it was changed in 2021.

Elsewhere, the Senate State Affairs Committee considered a number of measures that concern controversial gender issues.

The panel heard SB 15 by Galveston Sen. Mayes Middleton, which would require that collegiate athletes participate in sports leagues that correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificate. Middleton said that the advantages biological males have over females are insurmountable.

“When we consider the physiological difference between men and women in the context of athletic competitions, biological men and women cannot fairly compete against each other, and that invariably takes away opportunity for female athletes,” Middleton said.

On Thursday, the committee heard hours of testimony on measures that would restrict what is known in the medical community as “gender affirming care” for children, banning puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and surgery for minors.

SB 14 author and New Braunfels Sen. Donna Campbell said that these treatments can cause lifelong consequences that minors aren’t able to understand.

“To apply permanent changes or give medications that can easily, if taken long enough, be permanent for an image that may be temporary, I think is careless and is not in the best interest of a child,” she said.

The bill would not apply to adults.

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee advanced the chamber’s plan for property tax relief in the form of SB 3 and SB 4. These bills raise the homestead exemption 75 percent to $70,000. It would also triple the special senior exemption, giving the 2.2 million Texas homeowners aged 65 or older a total exemption of $100,000.

At a press conference introducing the legislation, bill author and Houston Sen. Paul Bettencourt said that will translate to an annual tax savings of almost $800 for the average homeowner and more than $1,000 for seniors.

“It’s important to know that we’re touching every taxpayer, every homeowner, every business owner with needed tax relief,” Bettencourt said.

Along with a third measure that will cut business inventory and personal property taxes, the Senate so far has $16.5 billion in tax cuts set aside for the next state budget.

The Senate reconvened Monday.

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