5 Big Issues the Texas Legislature Aims to Tackle This Session

5 Big Issues the Texas Legislature Aims to Tackle This Session
Photo from the Texas Legislature
We always approach the biennial Texas legislative session with a good mix of gleeful anticipation and gut-churning anxiety akin to the post-presidential family Thanksgiving every four years, and the upcoming convening of the 85th Texas Legislature is no exception.

After all, we're going into this show at a time when the country is deeply divided, and, as the presidential elections showed us in November, that schism runs right down into Texas. Sure, Donald Trump won the state, but by five points. Houston and the state's other large cities went blue, along with a large portion of South Texas, while the rural areas of the state went bright red.

However, Republicans still dominate the state legislature, so while the Democrats in the state may not like it, the Republicans will likely be able to push through a whole bunch of stuff that they consider top priority. (That churning in your gut is normal during this season. Just relax into it and breathe.)

In fact, this session, slated to start officially on January 10, might be one of the most interesting (and nauseating) seasons of political theater west of D.C., based on some of the issues state lawmakers are preparing to delve into.

Abortion is back on the table. Or, more accurately, state legislators are already gearing up to make it even more difficult for a woman to exercise her constitutional right to have an abortion that occurs in a clinic and not in some back room in Tijuana.

This has been the flashiest and most contentious issue in Texas for years now and if you thought that Republican state lawmakers would dial it down in 2017, you were wrong. The pre-filing period started in November and legislators have already eagerly filed plenty of charming little bills, like House Bill 87, which would make it illegal to have an abortion if the fetus is severely deformed. And then there's Senate Bill 8, the Pre-Born Protection and Dignity Act, which would legislate against partial-birth abortions and how fetal tissue is handled.

The best one is a bill filed by Representative Bob Hall, of Dallas. The premise is very simple: The bill proposes the Legislature create a constitutional amendment that would ban abortions in Texas up to the level allowed by federal law. If passed, the law would not do anything much right now, because Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. However, if the U.S. Supreme Court were to vote to overturn Roe, well, then everything would be in place to close up shop in Texas. Isn't that clever?

Texas Central's Houston-to-Dallas bullet train line will once again be a target. As we've mentioned before, Texas Central's plans to build a bullet train running between Houston and Dallas have people who drive between the two cities at least mildly excited, but the proposal has met with fierce resistance from the rural landowners and some elected officials who live in the places in between.

State officials tried to kill the project by blocking the company's right to use eminent domain and a bill that would have required city and county officials along every point of the line to vote to approve it.  Neither bill passed, but lawmakers have been saying for months that they intend to try again in 2017 to strip the right of eminent domain from the company or come up with other creative ways to block Texas Central from ever actually building the 240-mile long rail line.

The budget. How the state allocates money to various entities and organizations may not sound all sexy and interesting, but it really is. No, seriously. Back in 2015, the Legislature passed a budget of more than $209 billion, the largest in its history. However, the state's financial situation has changed quite a bit since then as the oil industry plunged from record high prices to lows that have triggered thousands of layoffs and forced more than 100 companies out of existence. The oil bust means state coffers are not as full as they used to be.

So this will translate to a much leaner budget this time around, but it's unclear how exactly the cuts are going to be made and what specific entities will get less money. But there's less money to play with this time around and there's nothing really left of Planned Parenthood for the state to cut at this point, so who knows what will end up on the chopping block.

The tampon issue. Legislators actually banned people from entering the state capitol building in Austin with tampons (while still allowing people to bring in their guns) in 2013 in the midst of the tension over HB2's stringent abortion laws, but this time around tampons are getting much more friendly treatment from some state lawmakers.

Right now, the Texas Constitution's tax code does not provide a tax exemption for tampons and other feminine hygiene products the way that other medically necessary items are exempt. But state Senator Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat, and six other state legislators have filed bills proposing to change that. So far the two bills filed in the House and the five filed in the Senate would eliminate the products from the sales and use tax. (One of them only makes these products tax-free during the back-to-school tax holiday, but it's a start.)

This may not sound like much of an offer, but considering that sales tax is 6.25 percent and local entities can charge up to 2 percent, this could save women a decent bit of money and acknowledge that feminine products are as medically necessary as other medical items that don't get taxed.

Plus, this is that rarest of rare birds, a political issue that has bipartisan support. People on both sides of the aisle have authored and co-authored each of these bills. It's less clear if the issue will maintain bipartisan support — the state comptroller's office says the general revenue fund will lose more than $19 million in 2018 and more than $20 million in 2019 if the tax is dropped, right when the state is already feeling financially pinched — but that's why this will be an intriguing issue to watch.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is still way too into bathrooms. Yep, the bathroom issue will rear its head once again during this session, according to Patrick's legislative agenda. Patrick is intent on getting the "Women's Privacy Act," also known as the bathroom bill, through the Lege in the session due to start in January. The bill would force transgender people to use the bathroom designated for the sex that is on their birth certificates.

Patrick touts the measure, which will apply only to women's restrooms, as a way to "protect" women. He has said that if the bill fails, women will be attacked in restrooms by sexual predators. However, Texas businesses are not as into this proposed law as Patrick, possibly because they saw how badly this idea played out in North Carolina (the state recently repealed its bathroom law because of boycotts and backlash) or perhaps because of a study issued by the Texas Association of Business that found the bill could cost the state more than $8 billion a year and about 185,000 jobs.

Texans are practical when it comes to business, and it's looking like it would be bad business to enact this law, so we'll see how it fares.

Altogether, the Legislature has plenty to work on this session. There will also be some attempts to legislate against sanctuary cities, on marijuana, for anti-discrimination, as we've mentioned, along with a whole slew of things we haven't even considered yet. Will anything get done? Who knows. The only certainty we have at this point is that the Legislature is about to return to Austin, and we're definitely going to be watching how this show plays out.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray