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In Texas, 666 Laws Take Effect Sept. 1, Including Many Conservative Priorities

AUSTIN, TX - JULY 08: Jessica Marie Ramirez attends a voting rights rally outside of the Texas State Capitol on the first day of the 87th Legislature's special session on July 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called the legislature into a special session, asking lawmakers to prioritize his agenda items that include overhauling the states voting laws, bail reform, border security, social media censorship, and critical race theory. (Photo by Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images)
Jessica Marie Ramirez attends a voting rights rally outside of the Texas State Capitol on July 8 in Austin, Texas.

In Texas, more than 650 new laws go into effect Wednesday passed by the Republican-led state legislature in the 2021 regular session. Among them are top conservative priorities passed in other red states around the country this year, but none as big as Texas with more than 29 million residents.Meanwhile, Texas Democrats have returned to the state after leaving to protest a restrictive voting law. That bill eventually passed Tuesday but won't immediately become law.Here are some of the major new laws that do take effect Wednesday, Sept. 1, in Texas:

New voting laws. (No, not that one)

The Texas voting bill that's gained the most attention this year is the GOP-backed Senate Bill 1, which passed this week. That still needs Gov. Abbott's signature but some less talked about voting laws take effect Wednesday.One bans Texas voters from registering using a post office box as their address, another allows the secretary of state to cut funds for voter registrars that fail to remove certain people from the rolls and one more makes it harder to apply for a mail-in ballot for medical reasons.There are also other, less controversial, voting laws. One that allows people to track their mail-in ballots and another that makes it clear who can be in a polling place: voters, election workers, poll watchers, election judges and law enforcement.

Cardiac activity abortion ban

Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers passed a bill that could ban the vast majority of abortions in the state.It prohibits abortions once cardiac activity is detected in an embryo, which can happen as early as about six weeks before many even know they are pregnant.Unlike other similar bills across the country, Texas' law doesn't set criminal penalties for violating the ban. Instead, the law allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps someone get an abortion.Abortion rights advocates have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the law, saying that if it goes into effect it will essentially eliminate access to abortion in Texas. "If this law takes effect, anti-abortion protesters could use this law to harass clinics with endless lawsuits that consume their time and resources and could force them to shut down," Marc Hearron, the lead attorney representing plaintiffs in the case, told reporters in July.

Banning 'critical race theory'

Teachers say they don't teach it. Educators say most people — including critics — don't know what it is. Still, this spring lawmakers passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools.Nikki Jones, who teaches African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, described critical race theory as a way to understand how race has been used to influence laws in the U.S. "It's a way to see race," Jones says. "To see understandings of race, to see racism, in places where it may not otherwise on the surface of it be apparent."The new law takes on critical race theory without ever naming it. House bill sponsor Steve Toth, a Republican, says the new law is aimed at teaching complex subjects like slavery and racism without making white children feel guilty."We need to teach about the ills but you can't blame this generation," Toth says. "Kids are being scapegoated."Texas history teachers say they don't scapegoat anyone.

Felonies for protesters blocking roads, hospitals

Texas protesters could face felony charges for blocking a roadway or entrance to a hospital after a new law takes effect Wednesday.The bill was introduced after a protest in California that resulted in protestors blocking two deputies from entering an emergency room.In Texas, protesters had faced a misdemeanor with up to six months in jail for that offense. The new law increases the penalty to two years."As a nurse who's worked in the emergency setting, seconds matter," says Republican state Rep. Stephanie Klick, one of the bill's authors. "A delay of only a few minutes to emergency care can mean the difference between life and death."But Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso says the punishment is too severe."What we're doing here is creating a mandatory minimum that is not congruent to anything else that we have," Moody says.

Permitless carry

Texans have had the right to carry a gun in public since 1995. Since then, more gun-friendly legislation has followed. However, you've always needed to obtain a license to be able to take your gun outside your home or vehicle.Starting Wednesday, that's no longer the case.The new law allows anyone who can legally own a firearm to carry it in public, as long as it's in a holster. That's a first since Reconstruction.Texas is now the 20th state to enact what some call "constitutional carry" – something supporters say is a right granted by the Second Amendment. The law doesn't change eligibility for gun ownership. Texas handgun owners must still be at least 21-years-old and can not have served a sentence for a felony or family violence within the last five years. And the new law also adds several misdemeanors to the list, including assault causing bodily injury, deadly conduct, terroristic threat and disorderly conduct with a firearm.The law is unpopular among some Texas law enforcement, and according to April polling data from The University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, nearly 60% of Texans oppose permitless carry."I think it will mean more handguns in public," says Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. "And data show us time, after time, after time that guns don't make us safer."

A ban on homeless encampments

Another new law would ban homeless encampments across the state making it illegal to set up shelter or store belongings for an extended period of time, creating a new class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.Many believe the legislation is a response to Austin decriminalizing homeless camping in 2019 — a measure that Austin voters voted to overturn in May. The law also limits cities from using parks for temporary camps.

Expanding medical cannabis access

Thousands more Texans will become eligible Wednesday for low-THC medical cannabis oil through the state's compassionate use program.The new law makes all forms of cancer eligible for the program. Previously, only patients suffering from "terminal" cancer were eligible."It's arguable that any form of cancer could be terminal, right?" says Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "So it felt like a very arbitrary descriptor."It also expands use for people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Originally, only veterans were eligible. That was changed, in part, after an outpouring of support from veterans who testified that everyone with PTSD should have the same access.The state's program, though, remains one of the most restrictive in the country.According to a poll this year from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, just more than 10% of Texans believe marijuana should remain illegal in the state.

Education credits for veterans' service

A new law could help the roughly 1.5 million veterans living in Texas get academic credit for skills they learned in the military by creating a universal catalog to translate which military training would apply to certain degrees and certificate programs at Texas trade schools and colleges.Democratic state Rep. Alex Dominguez, who co-authored the bill, says it was about reducing redundancy for veterans and giving them quicker entry into the civilian workforce."My goal is to publish this list so that the veterans themselves can see what they would qualify for," Dominguez says. "A veteran might be leaving military service having always done work in, say, infantry, but they might notice that they have developed enough skills that would help them get a job in, say, law enforcement, or to be a paramedic, for example."Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider and Florian Martin; KERA's Bret Jaspers, Haya Panjwani, Ana Perez and Bill Zeeble; KUT's Ashley Lopez, Jerry Quijano and Andrew Weber; and Texas Public Radio's Carolina Cuellar and Jack Morgan contributed to the reporting for this story. Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.