Bayou City

Zero Special Session Bills Have Fully Passed. What the Heck Is Going on in Austin?

After three weeks, Texas legislators have little to show for their efforts.
After three weeks, Texas legislators have little to show for their efforts. Abbott Photo by World Travel & Tourism Council/Flickr, Straus Photo by David Martin Davies/Flickr, , Patrick Photo by David Martin Davies/Flickr

Just ten days remain in the Texas Legislature's special session, and no fully passed bills have reached the desk of Governor Greg Abbott just yet.

Which means it's time to pop some popcorn and settle in for the show.

The House and the Senate have each taken starkly different approaches to addressing the 20 items on Governor Abbott's agenda, which range from property tax changes to school finance reform to further restrictions on Planned Parenthood. Yet while the Senate has whizzed through nearly all items on Abbott's list, the House has taken what House Speaker Joe Straus has called a more "deliberate" approach, slowly and carefully considering the items before taking them up on the floor and, in some cases, not considering bills at all.

This is the case with the bathroom bill. Straus and many other House Republicans have remained strongly opposed to the bathroom legislation that has been described as discriminatory against transgender Texans. The most controversial item on Abbott's special-session agenda, the bathroom bill may end up as a dangerous, twisted bargaining chip that Lieutenant Dan Patrick could use against the House, by refusing to pass key bills the House has supported unless the lower chamber approves the bathroom bill. For example: The House just passed a bill to restore $70 million in Medicaid funding for disabled children's therapy programs — despite the fact that this bill wasn't on Abbott's list of priorities and is therefore against the special session rules. Will the Senate also flout Abbott's agenda if the House doesn't offer something in return?

That's the kind of politically scorn-worthy scenario that could take these final ten days down to the wire. Collectively, no bills have yet passed both chambers and landed on Abbott's desk, and only eight items on Abbott's agenda have passed in some form through each chamber, meaning the House and the Senate will now be taking opportunities to tweak (or completely mess up) each other's legislation. And given the bad vibes between Straus and Patrick — who recently said he and Straus haven't had a formal face-to-face meeting in months — you may as well guarantee there will be more arguing and disagreement than teamwork.

That said, here's where the House and the Senate are at within three key policy areas.

EDUCATION. Both the House and the Senate have passed some form of school-finance reform bill — but as usual, they are deeply contrasting bills. The House voted Friday to pour $1.8 billion into the underfunded, largely broken public-school finance system — but while the Senate also voted to boost public-school funding by $270 million, that funding boost was tacked onto a school-choice voucher bill. Senate Bill 2 would subsidize private-school tuition for disabled kids, a measure that the House loudly rejected during the regular session, angering Patrick. It looks as if it's going nowhere this session, too: On Friday, the House completely replaced SB2 with a new proposal — spending $30 million on after-school education programs for kids in special ed.

WOMEN'S REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH. Both the House and the Senate have passed bills increasing abortion reporting requirements for physicians, if the patient getting the abortion is a minor. Abortion providers will now need to document how the girl obtained consent for the abortion, whether from a parent or through judicial approval. The Senate, however, has gone much further with its anti-abortion legislation, passing a bill to require women to pay an additional premium if they want their health insurance to cover non-emergency abortions. Senators also passed another bill that would prevent cities from partnering with any abortion-provider affiliates such as Planned Parenthood. Various big-city mayors, including Houston's Sylvester Turner, sent a letter to Straus asking that he not allow the House version of this bill to make it to the floor, saying that such restrictions could jeopardize cities' ability to address public health issues, such as Zika, HIV, family-planning services and STD and cervical-cancer screenings.

Less controversially, both chambers unanimously voted to fund extensive research into the state's alarming maternal mortality rate, which doubled between 2011 and 2014, studies have found. It's among the worst in the Western world, and the root cause is still unclear.

BILLS THAT INFRINGE ON MUNICIPAL AUTHORITY. As we wrote about last month, the theme of this year's special session is really about GOP state leaders versus Democratic urban mayors. This is true with the bathroom bill, a bill to override local tree-removal regulations and property-tax reform. The Senate has passed all three of those items — the property-tax reform bill would require voter approval for any property tax hikes above 4 percent, despite mayors' outcries that this would hurt their ability to provide essential, already financially strapped public services to their citizens. The House has discussed an array of property-tax reform proposals, but has not passed any; it has passed a significantly weaker bill to make it easier for homeowners to pay fees for removing trees, but Abbott already vetoed this during the regular session. (The tree issue is more like Abbott's personal vendetta against tree rules, after he destroyed historic pecan trees in his backyard while putting in a pool and had to pay for new trees.)

Heating up the disputes between mayors and GOP leaders, Patrick went on a Fox News show on Friday and said Democratic mayors are doing a "horrible job," because most of the state's problems are in cities — of course, never mind the fact that that's because millions of people live in them. Mayor Turner and mayors from 17 other cities requested a meeting with Abbott to discuss all the legislation that would infringe on their authority — including bills to limit annexation authority, which the Senate but not the House has already passed. But Abbott rejected the requests from the mayors of the five largest cities. He has not responded to reporters' inquiries about why.

This week, the House is expected to continue debating ad valorem tax breaks for disabled veterans or first responders and their spouses, as well as cities' annexation powers and the House version of the bill to restrict health insurance for abortions. The Senate is debating local government spending caps.

As if mayors didn't have enough to complain about.
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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