Here Are the Five Big Highlights From the Texas Legislature This Year

Representative Victoria Neave gets emotional during the 16-hour House debate on SB 4.
Representative Victoria Neave gets emotional during the 16-hour House debate on SB 4. Screenshot/Texas Legislature livestream
This year, Memorial Day was supposed to mark the last day of the 85th legislative session — but not if Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick gets his way.

Patrick has repeatedly threatened a special session over the bathroom bill and the property-tax reform bill as the regular session has drawn to a close, and his position was unchanged at the last gavel on Monday afternoon.

He told senators he would see them "a little sooner" than the next session, in 2019, and said in a statement,
"We will continue to celebrate these victories of conservative principles and governance and we will continue to fight the battles that remain — particularly on property taxes and privacy, which remain ‘must-pass’ legislation.”

All signs point to a possible special session—at the cost of $800,000 to taxpayers.

House Speaker Joe Straus announced Friday that the House would not compromise with the Senate any further on these two issues, prompting dueling news conferences between him and Patrick over the weekend in which each leader accused the other chamber of causing a crisis (worth noting is that both men are Republicans).

Patrick had first threatened a special session last week, saying that if the House did not pass the bathroom bill or property-tax reform, he would hold hostage must-pass legislation called a "sunset safety net" bill. Every so often, lawmakers have to review various state agencies in order to keep them open. But if those reviews need to be postponed, legislation is required; otherwise the agencies have to close. One of five state agencies facing possible closure is the Texas Medical Board, which licenses all doctors in Texas.

Good luck finding a doctor in Texas if there's no special session to pass the sunset bill, Patrick told reporters at a news conference Sunday. Even though the Senate had the opportunity to pass it, Patrick still blamed the House for the bill's failure — and vice versa. Straus and House members simply viewed the Senate's failure to pass the sunset measure as Patrick's way to force a special session over his two pet issues.

Only Governor Greg Abbott can call a special session and decide what bills will be considered during the session, and he told reporters after a news conference Monday morning that he will make that decision later this week.

The bathroom bill and property tax reforms notwithstanding, here's a look back at some of the most high-profile legislation that made it through the Legislature.

1. Governor Greg Abbott signed the controversial SB 4 privately.
Taking the win in a tight race for most controversial bill of the year, SB 4 gives street cops the authority to ask anyone — including children — about his or her immigration status while detaining a person for any reason. It also subjects sheriffs or police chiefs to a criminal charge and removal from office if they don't honor ICE requests to detain suspected undocumented immigrants. Two lawsuits have already been filed against the state claiming that SB 4 will encourage racial profiling, and police leaders from the largest cities in Texas have already bashed the law and supported the litigation. Abbott, apparently to thwart reporters' questions and avoid dealing with concerned, fearful citizens, decided to sign the bill on Facebook live on a Sunday night. He gave no advance notice.

2. The Legislature took strides to address the state's foster-care crisis. With an overburdened and underfunded Child Protective Services agency, and with some foster kids stuck sleeping in CPS offices awaiting placements because of a shortage of homes, Abbott made finding solutions an emergency item this session. What lawmakers came up with: expanding the system into a "community-based care" model, allowing the state to contract with nonprofit organizations willing to take over some of CPS's case management duties and undergo training for how to handle kids with behavioral health issues. Reports that came out last year showed CPS was failing to check on thousands of the state's most at-risk kids, and legislators expect these looming changes to alleviate some of the pressure on CPS caseworkers.

Children who are under conservatorship also are required to have medical exams within three days of any new placements. But Republican lawmakers managed to turn that provision into a debate over vaccinations, and ultimately passed an amendment barring foster kids from receiving the shots during these required medical exams. The bill awaits Abbott's signature.

3. Abortion. Lots of restrictions on abortion. Get ready for another potential court battle. This year's abortion bill, Senate Bill 8, was primarily pitched as a bill to ban and criminalize "partial-birth" abortions on the state level — something that is already illegal on the federal level. But it also bans the most common second-trimester abortion procedure, in which doctors remove fetal tissue from the womb using surgical instruments. Despite medical experts' testimony that it is the safest method for second-trimester abortions, conservatives call it "dismemberment" and say it is inhumane. Among other things likely to go to court is the provision to require hospitals and abortion clinics to find a way to bury or cremate all aborted fetuses, including fetal remains from miscarriages. Apparently Republican lawmakers did not get the memo that a federal judge has already blocked this practice when the Texas Health and Human Services Commission attempted to pass it on its own; that court case is pending. Senate Bill 8 also bans the donation of fetal remains, even for medical research. The bill is now on Abbott's desk.

4. The Sandra Bland Act passed — but without addressing the problem with her arrest in the first place. Overall, the Sandra Bland Act is a good bill. It requires law enforcement to make a "good faith effort" to divert people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors to treatment facilities rather than jail if it looks as if the alleged offense is a result of the person's mental illness, intellectual disability or substance abuse problem. The law makes securing a personal bond easier for mentally ill or intellectually disabled defendants. And it requires independent law enforcement agencies to investigate jail deaths.

But for being a bill named after Sandra Bland, the legislation does nothing to address what led to Bland's being in jail in the first place: her violent arrest after she failed to use a turn signal. Bland was pulled out of her car by a DPS officer after she wouldn't put out her cigarette. The officer threatened to use a Taser on her as she questioned why he was grabbing and arresting her. Senator John Whitmire originally included a provision in the bill that would have banned arrests for non-jailable traffic offenses — but he removed it at the urging of law enforcement groups. And even though authorities say Bland committed suicide in the Waller County Jail just a few days after her arrest, she did not have a history of mental illness, and so it is unclear if the bill's provisions would have even applied to her. "What the bill does in its current state renders Sandy invisible," Sharon Cooper, Bland's older sister, told the Associated Press. "It's frustrating and gut-wrenching." The bill awaits Abbott's signature.

5. Lawmakers voted to bring the state's voter ID law into compliance with a federal order. After federal courts found that Texas's restrictive 2011 voter ID bill had a disparate impact on minority voters — and that Texas intentionally discriminated against them — Governor Abbott made passing a new voter ID law an emergency item. The bill mostly mirrors the federal order that fashioned new rules for the November 2016 general election, allowing people who did not possess a photo ID to still vote using other forms of identification, such as birth certificates, bank statements and utility bills. They could then cast ballots after explaining in an affidavit the "reasonable impediment" preventing them from having a photo ID. The final version of the bill, signed off on by both chambers over the weekend, makes lying on an affidavit a state jail felony. This compromise came after the House wanted to make it a misdemeanor and the Senate wanted to make it a third-degree felony. This bill also awaits Abbott's signature.
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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