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85th TX Lege

Gov. Abbott Calls Special Session

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 18 and promised to make it a sweeping one if lawmakers cooperate.

Abbott gave legislators an ambitious 19-item agenda to work on — including a “bathroom bill” — but only after they approve must-pass legislation that they failed to advance during the regular session. An overtime round, Abbott said, was “entirely avoidable.”

“Because of their inability or refusal to pass a simple law that would prevent the medical profession from shutting down, I’m announcing a special session to complete that unfinished business,” Abbott told reporters. “But if I’m going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing Abbott to call a special session on the bathroom issue, as well as property taxes. Abbott also added the latter item to the call, reiterating his support for legislation that would create automatic rollback elections when a city or county wants to raise property taxes above a certain amount.

In an effort to force the special session, Patrick had held hostage legislation, known as a “sunset bill,” that would keep some state agencies from closing. That “will be the only legislation on the special session [agenda] until they pass out of the Senate in full,” Abbott said.

In a statement, Patrick congratulated Abbott on his “big and bold special session agenda which solidly reflects the priorities of the people of Texas.” Patrick noted that “almost every issue” Abbott mentioned Tuesday has already passed out of the Senate.

Gov. Abbott calls special session on bathrooms, abortion, scho…

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 18. Abbott said that after legislators address a bill to keep some state agencies from shuttering, he'll add another 19 items to the agenda.

Posted by Texas Tribune on Tuesday, June 6, 2017

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, offered a more muted response to Abbott’s announcement. “The House looks forward to resuming our work on school finance and other challenges facing this state,” he said in a statement.

Democrats unfurled statements condemning Abbott for proposing an agenda that largely appeals to Republican primary voters.

“Gov. Abbott’s announcement today simply shows what an ineffective governor and leader he has been,” said state Rep. Chris Turner of Arlington, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “After providing zero leadership and interest during the regular session, the governor is clearly panicking and trying to shovel as much red meat as he can to his right-wing Tea Party base.”

“Bathroom bill”

The sprawling list of items ranges from unfinished business in the regular session — school finance reform and school choice for special needs students — to longtime conservative priorities, such as anti-abortion measures and a crackdown on mail-in ballot fraud. But the bathroom issue, a priority of Patrick’s that dominated the regular session, is likely to be among the most controversial charges.

“At a minimum, we need a law that protects the privacy of our children in our public schools,” Abbott said, reiterating his support for a proposal that never made it to his desk, House Bill 2899, that would nix existing municipal and school districts’ trans-inclusive bathroom policies and prevent locals from enacting any new policies.

The debate over bathroom policies was, in part, what left Abbott to consider a special session. Patrick — who championed strict policies to limit bathroom use to sex at birth — forced the special by holding hostage legislation needed to continue some state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, which licenses the state’s doctors.

The House, under Straus, refused to go very far on the issue. HB 2899 died in a committee and Straus refused to refer the Senate’s proposal to a committee. The House ultimately voted on a measure limited to schools that some said would do little to prevent administrators from allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Under Patrick’s leadership, the Senate rejected that proposed compromise, arguing it didn’t go far enough. That left the presiding officers in a stalemate after Straus said he wouldn’t go any further on the issue because doing so could be detrimental to vulnerable children and damage the state’s economic vitality.

Abortion and maternal mortality

Abbott also put anti-abortion legislation on the docket, including resurrecting Sen. Larry Taylor‘s Senate Bill 20, which would require women to pay a separate premium if they want their health plan to cover an elective abortion. Taylor’s bill would have allowed health plans to cover abortions that are deemed medically necessary. The legislation did not make exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

Another item on the list is a bill that would extend the state’s Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity until 2023. The task force is responsible for studying and providing the state with recommendations on how to curb the rate of mothers dying less than a year after giving birth. Task force members have expressed that they need more time to study causes of deaths among women.

Elsewhere on the call are a bill that would increase provider reporting requirements on abortion complications and one that would order medical providers to follow “do-not-resuscitate” requests from patients.

Abbott is also asking lawmakers to take up legislation that would prohibit local and state government agencies from contracting with abortion providers and their affiliates. State and federal law already prohibit taxdollars from funding abortion.

Property taxes

Efforts to overhaul the property appraisal and tax rate process fell apart during the regular session after the two chambers couldn’t agree on what constituted meaningful reform.

The property taxes that Texas homeowners pay are determined by how much appraisal districts say land and buildings are worth and the tax rates that local government entities like cities, counties and special purpose districts each set.

The state is constitutionally prohibited from collecting property taxes, but such revenues largely fund local governments. School districts also collect property taxes, but were not the focus of legislation this year.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, authored a bill during the regular session that would have changed how property appraisals are conducted and appealed. His bill also would have required local governments to get voter approval if their proposed tax rate was expected to increase their overall revenues by 5 percent or more. Current law allows voters to petition for such an election if revenues are expected to increase 8 percent or more.

The Senate passed Bettencourt’s bill, but that version never made it out of the House Ways and Means Committee. The lower chamber backed an overhaul of the appraisal process and focused on changing how and what Texans are told about property tax rates. It excluded the controversial automatic election provision.

School finance

Both “private school choice” and school finance were on Abbott’s special session agenda, as well as bills that would increase teacher pay and flexibility for teacher hiring.

A House bill to inject $1.5 billion into public schools and simplify formulas for allocating that money died when the Senate added a “private school choice” provision for special needs students, which the House opposed.

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, also killed a Senate bill that would have formed a commission to study school finance in the interim, arguing legislators didn’t need additional research and should have passed the House reforms.

Mail-in ballot fraud

In calling for lawmakers to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud, Abbott cited a high-profile investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities affecting Dallas City Council races.

Examining mail-in balloting would put Texas on a new path for shoring up elections — by addressing a vulnerability that’s actually documented.

Lawmakers six years ago passed the nation’s strictest voter photo identification law, a politically contentious measure that federal judges say disproportionately made it tougher for Latino and black Texans to vote. That law only applied to ballots cast in-person, where experts have found scant evidence of widespread trouble.

During this year’s regular session, the Legislature did send Abbott an under-the-radar bill that would address one type of mail-in ballot fraud — overhauling voting at nursing homes.

Bills signed by Abbott

During his announcement, Abbott also said he signed into law several bills from the regular session:

Senate Bill 8 bans the most common second-trimester abortion procedure and requires health care facilities such as hospitals and abortion clinics to bury or cremate fetal remains — whether from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. The law also bans facilities from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers and outlaws “partial-birth abortions,” which are already illegal under federal law.

House Bill 62 creates a statewide texting-while-driving ban. However, Abbott warned during his announcement that the bill he signed “did not fully achieve my goals” and called for “legislation that fully pre-empts cities and counties from any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles” during the special session.

House Bill 501 forces elected officials and senior state officials to reveal any financial relationships they have with government entities.

House Bill 2908 creates felony offenses for making terroristic threats to, unlawfully restraining or assaulting, and causing serious bodily injury to police officers and judges.

Senate Bill 21 outlines the duties and limitations of Texas delegates should a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution happen.

Senate Bill 500 makes elected officials ineligible to collect public pensions if convicted of a felony related to public corruption. SB 500 also requires convicted officeholders to vacate their positions upon a definite conviction.

Here are the 20 items on the special session call:

  • “Sunset” legislation, which would keep several crucial state agencies alive
  • A teacher pay raise of $1,000
  • Giving school administrators flexibility in teacher hiring and retention
  • School finance reform
  • School choice for special needs students
  • Rollback elections for property tax increases
  • Caps on state and local spending
  • Preventing cities from regulating what property owners do with trees on private land
  • Preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects
  • Speeding up local government permitting processes
  • Municipal annexation reform
  • Preventing local entities from passing their own texting-while-driving bans
  • Restrictions on school bathroom use for transgender students
  • Prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars to collect union dues
  • Prohibiting the use of taxpayer funding to subsidize health providers that also perform abortion
  • Requiring women to get separate insurance policies to cover non-emergency abortions
  • Increasing existing reporting requirements when complications arise during abortions
  • Strengthening patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders
  • Cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud
  • Extending the state’s maternal mortality task force

Neil Thomas, Brandon Formby, Aliyya Swaby, Marissa Evans, Alexa Ura and Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image: Gov. Greg Abbott lays out items for a special session at a press conference on June 6, 2017. / photo credit: Bob Daemmrich / The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

Patrick Svitek is the primary political correspondent for The Texas Tribune, and editor of The Blast, the Tribune's subscription-only daily newsletter for political insiders. Patrick logged countless miles on the 2016 campaign trail, covering the many Texas angles of the momentous presidential race. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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85th TX Lege

The Texas Bathroom Bill Saga in 5 minutes (WATCH)

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

From Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s announcement last summer that he would push for a bathroom bill to the bill’s quite demise this month in the special session, this video will take you through the story of the intense political fight in 5 minutes.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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85th TX Lege

After Months of Controversy, Texas Bathroom Bill Dies Quietly

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

In the end, the controversial bathroom bill went quietly.

For more than a year, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led the crusade for a state law to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans — an initiative that resonated with social conservatives, including many pastors, who backed him up. Patrick for months stood firm in his pursuit for a bathroom bill even while similar campaigns in other states fizzled out.

He was met by loud opposition that only grew with time and eventually proved to be a considerable political force.

Transgender women, men and children from across Texas descended on the Capitol to testify about how the proposal — which would ban local policies that ensured transgender individuals’ right to use public and school restrooms that match their gender identity — could endanger their lives. The business community rallied against the legislation too, giving House Speaker Joe Straus cover as he refused to negotiate with Patrick on bathroom restrictions.

That led to a stalemate over the issue during the regular legislative session that played out in dueling press conferences featuring legislative leaders slamming each other over the issue, threats by Patrick to force lawmakers to return to Austin by holding must-pass bills hostage and last-ditch efforts to attach bathroom restrictions to other pieces of legislation considered in the middle of the night.

Gov. Greg Abbott was eventually forced to call a 30-day special session that revived the bathroom bill. But for all the bathroom-related commotion and cajoling that dominated the regular legislative session, when lawmakers wrapped up the special session on Tuesday, Patrick eulogized the bathroom bill as just one of several proposals that didn’t make it to Abbott’s desk because of Straus.

And in the end, it wasn’t all that hard to see it coming.

Shifting momentum

“We hope that this time, this issue remains settled: Texans don’t want harmful, anti-transgender legislation,” JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said as opponents of the bathroom bill seemed to release a collective sigh of relief when the House abruptly adjourned to end the special session Tuesday evening.

Opponents had been anxiously watching the clock tick down on the 30 days lawmakers were allotted to pass Abbott’s 20-item agenda.

But giving lawmakers a second shot to pass a bathroom bill only seemed to further shift momentum against the legislation as the debate stretched into the summer.

Little had changed for Straus — often a less-vocal foil to some of Patrick’s priorities — who seemed to dig in his heels, arguing that the legislation would have dire economic and moral costs for Texas.

With the national debate over North Carolina’s bathroom still lingering, he was backed up by top business executives, including the heads of dozens of Fortune 500 companies, who worried that Texas could invite the same economic blows the Tar Heel State faced after passing a similar bill, including canceled corporate expansions and sports tournaments.

They called Abbott to express their displeasure and launched a flurry of letters warning about the harm that laws deemed discriminatory toward the LGBT community could cause.

The opposition grew to also include school districts, tourism officials, faith leaders and law enforcement officials.

“Everybody realized the issue really wasn’t going to be resolved without everybody being heard,” said Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, who was among those who spearheaded the business opposition.

Lost support

With the opposition growing louder outside the Capitol — eventually including major GOP donors and even Abbott’s campaign treasurer — the bathroom bill’s quiet death march inside the pink dome moved forward.

Within a week of returning to Austin for the special session, the Senate slogged through an 11-hour committee hearing and an eight-hour floor debate ending with a vote to advance the revived bathroom bill.

But it was almost immediately bottled up in the House, where Straus refused to refer it to a committee for consideration. Two other proposals that originated in the House were referred to committee but never got a hearing.

Support for the House bill seemed to drop as the special session began. Eighty Republicans had signed on as co-authors during the regular session — proponents of the bill regularly touted that number as they criticized Straus for keeping the bathroom bill from getting a House vote — but in the special session the number of co-authors dropped to 60.

“Some people were listening,” Lou Weaver, transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas, said of the drop in co-authors. “Whether it was to the trans communities, to our allies, to our advocates, the business community, faith leaders — whatever the case may be, they did switch.”

Meanwhile, House leadership faced little opposition from proponents of the bathroom bill as they quietly worked to keep bathroom restrictions from being tacked on to key education bills that were moving through the chamber by limiting the amendments lawmakers could propose when those bills reached the House floor.

Across the rotunda, rumors that the Senate was planning to attach the bathroom restrictions to education bills proved unfounded.

By last week, proponents were already conceding that Texas wouldn’t pass a bathroom bill. Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, the legislation’s author, on Monday acknowledged that he had not recently talked about his proposals with the governor.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the bathroom bill’s demise.

According to those familiar with the negotiations, the measure was not even a factor as the House and Senate worked to hash out their differences over what emerged as the final sticking points of the special session: school finance and property tax legislation.

By then, some Capitol insiders had shifted focus to whether a second failed attempt would finally mark the end of the legislative debate.

“That’s the question: Is that the end of the bathroom bill?” said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist.

Fight isn’t over

LGBT advocates and their allies said they’re hopeful there’s been a shift in the debate, explaining that the prolonged fight at the Capitol gave them the opportunity to explain to leaders why proposals like the bathroom bill were discriminatory and dangerous.

But they admit the fight likely isn’t over.

During a late-night press conference on Tuesday, Patrick recounted a one-on-one meeting in which he urged Straus to pass a bathroom bill and “put this issue in the rearview mirror” because it wasn’t going away.

He was echoed earlier in the week by conservative groups that said they would urge the governor to bring lawmakers back for another special session to reconsider the issue.

Abbott has yet to rule out a second special session, but he did acknowledge during a Wednesday morning interview that “there’s no evidence whatsoever” that Straus will be swayed on the issue.

For his part, the speaker has so far only put out a short statement marking the end of the special session that focused on the House’s work to pass legislation “that was in the best interest of all Texans.” It didn’t mention the bathroom bill.

“The House was thoughtful, respectful and decisive in its solution-oriented approach,” Straus said.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business and Equality Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

[gdlr_space height=”20px”]
[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image: Members of various faith communities met at the Texas Capitol on Aug. 1 to speak out against the “bathroom bill.” / photo credit: Austin Price / The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

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85th TX Lege

Texas House Closes Out Special Legislative Session

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

The special legislative session is over — in one chamber, at least.  

The Texas House abruptly gaveled out Sine Die – the formal designation meaning the end of a session – on Tuesday evening after approving the Senate’s version of a school finance bill that largely stripped provisions the chamber had fought to keep

Gov. Greg Abbott called lawmakers back for a special session on July 18. Special sessions can last for up to 30 days, which gave both chambers til Wednesday to work. 

The House’s move came after days of difficult negotiations with the Senate on school finance and property tax bills — and leaves the fate of the latter in question.  

House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen had been expected to appoint members to a conference committee Tuesday so that the two chambers could reconcile their versions of the bill. 

But instead, shortly before the surprise motion to Sine Die, the Angleton Republican made an announcement. 

“I have been working with members of the Senate for several days on SB 1, we have made our efforts, so I don’t want there to be in any way a suggestion that we have not, will not, would not work with the Senate on such an important issue,” he said.  

Then he said he had not appointed a conference committee because he was “trying to keep the bill alive.” 

“If we appointed conferees now, it would kill the bill because there is not enough time,” he said, explaining that under House rules, there would not be enough time left in the session to issue a conference committee report and have the chamber vote on it. 

Bonnen’s announcement came after a vote on a school finance measure in which House members expressed deep disappointment —and  anger — that the bill they had sent to the Senate with $1.8 billion in funding for schools had come back with only $352 million. Some demanded that the House send the measure back. 

“I’d tell the Senate to take back this crap and fix it,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, adding that she did not like “being bullied.” The House ultimately approved the changes to the bill, sending it to the governor’s desk. 

While House lawmakers didn’t get their way with school finance, by adjourning Tuesday night, they have forced the Senate to either accept their version of the property tax bill or let it die. Supporters hope to require larger local governments get voter approval when they want to increase tax collections on existing buildings and land above a certain threshold. A key point of contention: whether that threshold should be at the 6 percent preferred by the House or the 4 percent preferred by the Senate. 

Both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have said property tax reform is their top priority for the session. At the time the House adjourned sine die, Abbott was on track to claim victory on nine of the 20 items he had put on the special session call. As of Tuesday afternoon, he had signed five of them into law, and four more were on their way to his desk. 

Patrick forced the special session by holding hostage a bill needed to prevent the shuttering of some state agencies during the regular session in May. At the time, he said he was doing so in order to push the House to move on two pieces of legislation: one that would regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans and another that would set new thresholds for when cities and counties must get voter approval for their property tax rates. 

Just as during the regular session, the House never took a vote on a “bathroom bill” during the special session. 

The Senate is set to reconvene at 8:45 pm on Tuesday night. 

Patrick Svitek contributed reporting to this story. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

[gdlr_space height=”20px”]
[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image: The Texas House abruptly gaveled out Sine Die – the formal designation meaning the end of a session – on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. / photo credit: Bob Daemmrich / The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

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