From Teacher Raises to Lax Protection for Trees: Abbott Officially Kicks Off Special Session

It's official: The Texas Legislature's July special session, the equivalent of much-despised summer school for lawmakers, is now on the books.

Governor Greg Abbott issued the first proclamation Monday, allowing legislators to start filing bills and authorizing them specifically to pass legislation that would extend lifelines for five state agencies: the Texas Medical Board, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, the State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists, the State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors and the State Board of Social Worker Examiners.

At one point, all these agencies were poised to shut down, putting an untold number of doctor and therapist licenses at risk, because legislators failed to pass what's called the "sunset bill" during the regular session. It's a wonky but must-pass little piece of legislation that allows state agencies to remain open while they await periodic reviews — and its failure to pass is what landed the Lege in the special session to begin with.

That, and some political games over the controversial "bathroom bill."

Democrats accused Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican, of holding the sunset bill hostage in retaliation after Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and the House didn't pass Patrick's beloved bathroom bill. Now, with Governor Greg Abbott's decision to put the bathroom bill on the special session's agenda, they'll get another chance at passing the toilet regulations that critics contend would discriminate against transgender people.

Once the sunset bill passes, Abbott will file another proclamation allowing lawmakers to begin debating the bathroom bill and 20 other items. Potty politics aside, what else can you expect to make it to the floor?

1. Raises for teachers? Governor Abbott has stuck to his promise of wanting to increase the average salaries and benefits for schoolteachers during the special session, having pushed a proposal to raise each teacher's pay by $1,000. And while certainly few people would dispute that teachers have been woefully underpaid for years and are likely the most deserving candidates for state-mandated raises, the real question is where this money is going to come from — given the Legislature has also reduced the education budget this session. Without help from the state, the pay raises would likely be left to local taxpayers to cough up through property taxes. The other problem: Also on the Legislature's special session agenda is a proposal to cut property taxes. At least another legislator has filed what would perhaps be a noncontroversial bill requiring school districts to reimburse teachers for buying classroom school supplies with their own money, because the pay raises might be an uphill climb in the Lege this summer.

In the adjacent education arena, expect lawmakers to duke it out over the revived school-choice bill, which would subsidize private school tuition for poor or disabled kids. The measure failed miserably in the House during the regular session, which drew the ire of Dan Patrick.

2. The ban on distracted driving.
Any lawmaker who didn't support the ban on texting while driving at the start of the session in January might have started rethinking that position after March 29. That day, Jack Dillon Young crashed head on into a church bus west of San Antonio, killing 13 people. He admitted to texting at the time of the collision, prompting the son of one of the victims to plead with the Legislature to pass the statewide ban. Now with a ban on texting set to go into effect in September, lawmakers are looking to strengthen protections against distracted driving.

3. Addressing Texas's mind-boggling maternal mortality rates. Between 2010 and 2014, while Texas Republican lawmakers put forth some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws ever in two consecutive legislative sessions, more than 600 women died during childbirth. In that time period, the maternal mortality rate doubled from 18.6 per hundred thousand live births to 35.8 — the worst in the nation and most of the developed world. Some researchers have theorized that perhaps the restrictive laws passed in 2011, gutting the family-planning budget by two-thirds and forcing a plethora of women's reproductive-health clinics to shut down, are somehow connected to the rising mortality rates. But no one knows for sure. Two Democratic lawmakers, Shawn Thierry and Armando Walle, filed bills yesterday creating a task force to study the root cause of the sharp rise in both maternal morbidity and postpartum depression.

Meanwhile, expect more anti-abortion legislation to crop up in the special session, as legislation "restricting health plan and health benefit plan coverage for abortions" and "prohibiting financial transactions between a governmental entity and an abortion provider or affiliate of the abortion provider" is on Abbott's list of priorities.

4. Tougher mail-in voting laws.
Amid a mail-in voter fraud investigation in Dallas County, Republican lawmakers intend to create procedures for identifying defective ballots and ramping up the penalties for fraudulent mail-in voters. Under a bill filed yesterday by Republican Representative Mike Schofield, the crime would increase from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor, carrying a sentence of up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Over in Dallas County, election officials had to set aside 100 ballots from the May 6 election because of mismatching signatures. Some residents even reported receiving mail-in ballots even though they didn't request them, and others said a man who had no affiliation with the government came by asking to collect the ballots.

5. Less protection for historic trees.  Governor Abbott has a personal vendetta against tree regulations, so he's making it a priority issue in the special session. Back in 2012, there was a big old pecan tree in the way of a pool Abbott wanted to put in his backyard. The City of Austin considered it a historic tree and told Abbott he would have to work around it — but instead the tree's roots were severely damaged, and the city ordered Abbott to replant various other trees in his yard, apparently as penance for destroying the historic pecan tree. Abbott doesn't think these regulations are fair and wants to pass legislation to support property rights so that city regulations don't "restrict private property owners’ ability to enjoy their property."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn