Senate Rips Through Abbott's Priorities, Passes Six Bills Monday

Senate Rips Through Abbott's Priorities, Passes Six Bills Monday
Abbott Photo by World Travel & Tourism Council/Flickr, Straus Photo by David Martin Davies/Flickr, , Patrick Photo by David Martin Davies/Flickr
On Monday in the Texas Senate, the chamber's to-do list was 19 bills long. The 31 senators put in about 10 hours, tentatively passing six of the bills, including those related to abortion requirements, school finance and property taxes.

Meanwhile, in the House, lawmakers met for a full 58 minutes before voting on the single piece of legislation that must pass during the special session. Then they adjourned for the day.

Such has been the normal course of business at the Legislature since the special session began last week, with the Senate whipping through Governor Greg Abbott's list of 20 priorities with the bushy-tailed enthusiasm of college students pulling all-nighters — Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick even delivered pizza and pop during one midnight work session — while the House does the bare minimum to get a passing grade.

House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has already called many of the items on the special-session agenda "manure," and has remained strongly opposed to the so-called bathroom bill. The "sunset bill" — which extends the lifeline of key government agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, so they won't shut down — is really the only bill the House has committed to passing. It passed on a voice vote yesterday. By making the Senate do all the rest of the work, Straus's House can simply wait around for the Senate to send the bills over so the House can tweak them, overhaul them or, if it wants, do nothing, leaving controversial legislation to die as the clock runs out. The session has only 22 days remaining.
On Monday, the Senate passed all of the following, awaiting finalized votes Tuesday before heading to the House: two bills to create stricter reporting requirements for physicians performing abortions, including whether there were any complications (the current rate of complications during abortions is about 0.05 percent) and whether proper consent for the abortion was obtained if the person is under 18. Abortion clinics that fail to report these things would be fined. While the vote fell along party lines, senators voted unanimously to create a task force to study the state's puzzlingly high maternal mortality rate, which nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014 and is among the worst in the developed world — a problem some have theorized is in some way connected to the massive family planning cuts that GOP legislators passed in 2011.

The Senate also passed what Dan Patrick has said is his top priority this legislative session: property tax reform. Senate Bill 1 would require cities and counties to put property tax hikes of more than 4 percent on the ballot for voter approval before implementing them. The lone Republican senator to vote no was Kel Seliger, the former mayor of Amarillo; local officials have argued that the bill could impede their ability to provide public-safety services to citizens.

Last, the Senate pushed through a couple of education measures, including a bill to study school finance reform and Dan Patrick's other favorite pet issue (besides the bathroom bill), the school-choice bill. Senate Bill 2 would subsidize private school tuition for disabled kids through tax-credit scholarships — a measure that failed hugely in the House during the regular session.

But see, that's the power that the House has now too: If it sees fit, and doesn't mind pissing off Greg Abbott (who did say he would be keeping tabs on how everyone voted), House representatives may as well just let it fail again.

The Senate has yet to get to its most controversial item on the list, the bathroom bill, but is expected to do so Tuesday or Wednesday. Hundreds of Texans came to the Capitol to testify against the bill Friday when it was up for a public hearing in committee. Because the Texas Senate was in such a big rush, apparently most senators, the 20 Republicans, didn't have much time to consider that testimony.
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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