Lege Lines: Peace in Straus' House
News from the saner chamber
• With the special session ending on Wednesday, Aug. 16, Speaker Joe Straus has sent his clearest message yet that only a portion of Gov. Greg Abbott's 20-point agenda for the special session will pass. Earlier this week, he told Texas Monthly that aside from passing any essential sunset legislation, the House has already passed what he called "our priorities," including school finance reform, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, a first attempt at local property tax caps, and restoring cuts to children's therapy services. As for the rest, Straus said he was "more interested in the quality than the quantity" of what his chamber has passed through. – Richard Whittaker
• Of course, that hasn't helped Straus' cause in certain corners of the House, particularly among the bratty obstructionists within the Freedom Caucus. On Aug. 4, the far-right group held a press conference detailing their plans to modify rules so that future House speakers get nominated by the GOP before Dems cast their vote – a move they meant to prop up a more conservative leader. The 12-member caucus complained that the House (recently the state's less extremist chamber) is purposely "blocking" Abbott's priorities by moving slow on legislation, including the anti-LGBTQ "bathroom bill," by now all but dead. But don't count on Straus' departure being imminent: The caucus has yet to name a challenger for 2019, and Straus has a long track record of brushing off opponents. – Mary Tuma
• Efforts to restrict local governments' annexation powers stumbled on Aug. 7, when Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, called a point of order on the annexation restrictions in Senate Bill 6. The measure (not to be confused with the bathroom bill, SB 6 in the regular session) now returns to the House State Affairs Committee, after Moody noted that allowing only property owners to vote on annexation proposal would be unconstitutional. – R.W.
• Annexation restrictions failed during the regular session because the House feared that the language in the old SB 715 did not do enough to restrict unregulated construction around military bases. If neighboring buildings are too close, too tall, or too brightly lit, that can affect a base's viability for certain kinds of training, making them more likely to be shuttered the next time there's a Base Realignment and Closure evaluation by the Department of Defense. That's why Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, has filed House Bill 362, creating joint land zoning boards, bringing together local government, the military, property owners, and stakeholders on any zoning decisions. The bill had its first committee hearing on Aug. 8. – R.W.
• On Aug. 4, the House sent a bill to the Senate that would require doctors to increase burdensome reporting on minors who receive abortions. HB 215 by Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, forces doctors to detail how minors got authorization to undergo abortion; if it's judicial bypass, who helped her – or if parental consent, where it occurred. Opposed by Democrats, the bill also drew criticism from the nonpartisan Texas Medical Association, which said the added requirements "call for details on deeply personal decisions and on medical care, and reporting that does not contribute to public health." The Senate passed a similar bill, and both chambers passed bills that force doctors to increase reporting on abortion complications, despite the statistically low percentage of those complications. – M.T.
• After lengthy and tense debate, the House on Aug. 8 voted 95-51 to give initial approval to a bill that would ban insurance plans from covering abortion care, forcing women to purchase supplemental coverage if they need the procedure. Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, defended his HB 214 as a way to "accommodate" those who don't want to help subsidize a procedure they "morally and philosophically" disagree with. Republicans shot down compassionate amendments offered by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, that would exempt rape and incest victims from the bill, and from Austin Rep. Gina Hinojosa that would have excluded pregnant women with severe fetal abnormalities. "Women don't plan to be raped," said Turner, who dubbed the bill "rape insurance." "Asking women to somehow foresee that and buy supplemental coverage after the horrific event is not only ridiculous, but cruel." Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, criticized the bill as "strictly political" and urged her male colleagues to consider their own wives or daughters as rape victims. "We're excluding things common decency dictates should be part of this coverage," said Howard. In a particularly disturbing floor exchange, anti-choice Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, sought to compare the violence of rape with the violence of abortion. Turner was forced to point out: "Rape is a crime; abortion is a constitutionally protected medical procedure." Smithee appeared to grapple with not only the mechanics of insurance plans but with basic medical questions posed by Democrats: When asked if he could have a hysterectomy – an operation to remove a woman's uterus – Smithee replied with uncertainty, "Medically, I don't know." The Senate has already moved a similarly cruel bill (SB 4 by Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown) to the House for its approval. – M.T.
• Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, spent Tuesday willfully ignoring what HB 21, the House school finance bill, will do, and said he will not move forward with its $1.8 billion emergency injection of Rainy Day Fund cash into public schools. In a press conference, Taylor called the bill – written by House Public Education Chair Dan Huberty, R-Houston – a Band-Aid rather than a long-term solution. Instead, Taylor is demanding that Huberty push SB 16, creating a school finance commission that will take another two years to come up with even outline proposals. Taylor's statements ignored that Huberty has only ever called HB 21 a first step designed to stabilize the current system, and protect some districts from imminent risk of falling into bankruptcy. – R.W.