By Richard Lee

County clerks with a sincerely-held religious objection to same sex marriages could give that responsibility to a deputy under a bill that received final approval by the Senate on Wednesday. Bill author and Granbury Senator Brian Birdwell believes that forcing a person to violate their religious beliefs at work is unconstitutional. His bill, SB 522, would allow a county clerk to notify the commissioner’s court that they cannot issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and then the court could delegate the responsibility to another clerk’s office employee, or even an outside agency if no one in the office is willing. “Under this bill, county clerks will be able to fully follow the law without being forced to compromise their religious liberty, the license is issued and is executed to the couple requiring the license and simultaneously the right of conscience to clerks and judges is protected,” said Birdwell. The bill would prohibit a person from refusing to issue a license for a reason that is protected under law, such as religious affiliation or race. It would also permit judges to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony under the same sincerely-held religious objection.

Also Wednesday, the Senate approved a bill aimed at reducing prescription opioid addiction and abuse in Texas. It’s become a crisis, said McAllen Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. “Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than HIV or AIDS did at its peak,” said Hinojosa. “More than gun homicides and car crashes combined. In 2015, 52,000 people died of drug overdoses, more overdoses than any other period in US history.” His bill, SB 316 would require doctors and pharmacists to check a state database, called the prescription monitoring program, that tracks opioid prescriptions before they prescribe or dispense one to a patient. It would also require pharmacists to report any opioid prescription they dispense to the database within one business day. It also allows the Texas State Board of Pharmacists, who currently operates the prescription database, to monitor the database to find ways to identify problematic prescription trends, like doctor shopping, and send electronic alerts to doctors.

In committee this week, the Senate Finance committee approved a bill Monday that would expand sales tax collections for purchases made online. Current law requires that the customer calculate and remit the sales tax on out-of-state internet purchases to the comptroller. San Antonio Senator Carlos Uresti said the law is little known and seldom complied with. “The result is that out of state retailers are able to offer goods at prices that are 8.25 percent cheaper than those of local businesses, putting them at a competitive disadvantage,” said Uresti. His bill, SB 1713, would require internet marketplaces with more than $250 thousand in annual sales or more than one thousand transactions to calculate, collect and remit sales taxes for purchases made by Texas customers. He said studies estimate Texas could be missing out on upwards of $250 million in sales tax revenue every year from internet purchases. The bill remains pending in committee.

Also on Monday, the Senate State Affairs committee voted in favor of legislation that would allow first responders to carry a concealed handgun in places where it is normally prohibited. Dallas Senator Don Huffines told members that firemen and EMTs often find themselves in danger on the job. “Most recently firefighters and paramedics put themselves in harm’s way when they assisted police officers with retrieving downed officers during the July 7th, 2016 ambush of law enforcement in Dallas,” he said. “Similar incidents are reported with regularity, nevertheless these brave men and women are deprived of their liberty to defend themselves.” His bill, SB 1408, would permit a licensed-to-carry first responder to take a 20-hour course that includes topics like self-defense and conflict de-escalation. Then they would be allowed to carry a handgun concealed on their person while they are on the job even in places where it’s normally prohibited. The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, April 18 at 12 p.m.