Looking at the Lege After a Flaccid Special Session

Alpha males Abbott and Patrick can't get their red meat passed

Illustration by Jason Stout

Conundrum one: Texas Governor Greg Abbott has one 140-day regular legislative session, but can't get the House and Senate to agree on every bill he wants passed. He gives himself one 30-day special session to pass 20 bills he likes, but the two chambers each favor different bills. If the House takes away one day by calling sine die early, how many bills will Greg get to sign?

The first special session of the Texas Legislature is over and done, with the House and Senate calling sine die on Tuesday, Aug. 15, with a full day still to spare. Nominally called to pass sunset legislation required to keep Texas' doctors licensed, the special soon became a battle over hyperconservative agenda points. Abbott added 19 more items to the call – attacks on local government, unions, teachers, abortion rights, and medical professionals; not to mention the reviled bathroom bill, or seemingly personal vendetta against tree preservation. With the very real possibility that lawmakers may be back for another court-ordered special session on congressional redistricting (see "Congressional Districts to Get Re-Mapped"), it's time to take stock of what lawmakers did and did not deliver to the Governor's Mansion, and how much damage they caused along the way. – Richard Whittaker


Bathroom Bigots

Like Dan Patrick during the regular session, Abbott attempted to pretty up the special session's bathroom bill under the guise of protecting women and children's privacy. In reality, his was the resurfacing of the same discriminatory legislation – filed both times by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham – that would've forced trans and gender-nonconforming folks into restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms aligning with the sex marked on their birth certificates, which Kolkhorst argued was needed to keep "predatory men, pretending to be trans, out of women's restrooms."

Those opposing the bill, including police chiefs across the state, called it a "solution looking for a problem that does not exist." Supporters insisted SB 6 was not intended to target transgender Texans, yet blocked all proposed amendments to protect the people most at risk in public facilities – trans folks. Like its predecessor, SB 3 quickly passed the Senate with no shortage of votes, but fell on deaf ears in the House, where it was never assigned to a committee. Speaker Joe Straus became an overnight hero (never mind that he OK'd the regular session's bathroom bill lite that would've only affected trans children) after The New Yorker reported him saying of the anti-trans bill: "I'm disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don't want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands." Five days before the session ended, however, rumors swirled that the Senate may try to revive the discriminatory legislation by tacking a youth-targeted amendment onto the school finance bill, HB 21, though on Monday night that chamber passed HB 21 with no bathroom B.S. involved. – Sarah Marloff

An Absurd Idea for Teacher Pay

Abbott had a very specific plan: a $1,000 per annum pay raise for teachers that would be paid for without any state cash or raising local taxes. The idea was so absurd that the closest he came was Senate Bill 19 by Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, which would've pulled $193 million from the Rainy Day Fund for a one-off bonus – something that did not go over well in the House. – R.W.

Spoiling School Vouchers

Broadly seen as nothing more than a back door for a full future voucher program, Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed SB 2, which included a tax credit scholarship and educational expense assistance program (translation: vouchers) for students covered by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The House had already rejected vouchers in the regular session, and unsurprisingly showed zero interest in taking them back up during the special, leaving SB 2 to die without a committee hearing. – R.W.

Property Tax Russian Roulette

The failed "compromise" between House and Senate on handcuffing large local jurisdictions on property taxes was blandly numerical: the Senate bill would trigger automatic rollback elections at 4%, the House bill at 6%. When the House adjourned Tuesday evening, the reps had stuck the Senate with 6% or nothing (the current cap is at 8%, and rollbacks must be petition-driven). The Senate responded: "We'll take nothing." Both versions presumed duly elected local officials can't be trusted to address municipal needs with rational taxation, and neither acknowledges yet another unfunded mandate: In Austin's context, a standalone rollback election costs about $900,000. City budget staff estimates the potential disruption of the legislation in the millions, compounded year to year. Since roughly 65-70% of city operations funds, statewide, are spent on public safety, the Lege apparently prefers undermining basic services to tackling the Big State Property Tax Elephant: the broken public school finance system. – Michael King

Target: Planned Parenthood

It's not about defunding Planned Parent­hood, said the anti-choice author of SB 4 on the Senate floor, right after tweeting excitedly that his bill is specifically meant to defund Planned Parenthood. Georgetown Sen. Charles Schwertner's bill would have done away with local government partnerships with abortion providers and affiliates, most pointedly at the city of Austin's nominal lease agreement with the Planned Parenthood center on East Seventh Street, a clinic that offers preventive health care, not abortion ("Lege Bills Target Local Planned Parenthood Office," Aug. 4). The measure compelled Mayor Steve Adler to draft a letter to Speaker Straus urging him to make sure its counterpart, HB 14 by Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, didn't progress any further for the sake of community health. HB 14 didn't make it to the House floor and neither did SB 4. – Mary Tuma

Sen. Charles Schwertner and his barely contained rage (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Union Dues and Don'ts

Banning payroll deduction of union dues for public sector employees is a great way to break unions, and Abbott's initiative may have seemed at least reasonable if it covered all unions and all civil servants. However, SB 7 excluded state and local fire, police, and emergency medical services employees, making it clear that he and co-author Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, feared the wrath of "good" (i.e. GOP-friendly) employee organizations like Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. Exposed as just an attack on teaching as the last major profession with serious organized labor efforts, both the Senate version and the House companion (HB 156) died in the lower chamber. A last-minute attempt by Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, to add it as an amendment to school finance study bill SB 16 was lambasted as anti-teacher and roundly defeated by a bipartisan vote. – R.W.

Regulatory Disaster Averted

Even in his war on local control, Abbott's plan to effectively grandfather every piece of property in Texas seemed like a stretch. SB 12 by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lake­way, and its House companion (HB 188 by Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia) would have prevented any county or municipality from enforcing any regulations that were not in place when a property was purchased. The potential for a massive and potentially contradictory patchwork of regulations was quietly killed when neither bill made it out of committee. – R.W.

Stop Us Before We Spend Again

Abbott asked the Lege to more tightly limit state spending growth, and to impose similar restrictions on local jurisdictions. The project died on a House point of order sustained with too little time to revive another version. The state cap would have imposed state and local restrictions based on population growth and inflation (in addition to personal income growth, the current state standard). Even setting aside many public needs of Texans – education, health care, roads, water, etc. – it's as if state legislators are saying, "We're too stupid to design our own budgets." On the local level, 75% of Texans now live in cities, and city and county officials have lobbied hard to leave basic budget decisions in the hands of those elected officials closest to the voters and most familiar with local priorities. Coupled with unfunded mandates, pending property tax restrictions, and the de facto state property tax school finance system, the "conservative" state government seems intent on killing the Golden Geese of Texas – the economic engines called cities. – M.K.

Texting-While-Driving Can Still Wait

A particularly nonsensical part of Abbott's attack on local municipalities, SB 15 by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, would have prohibited cities from creating their own ordinances when it comes to cell phone use in cars. The Lege passed a texting-while-driving ban (which starts Sept. 1) during the regular session, and Abbott decided that a one-size-fits-all approach to regulating cell usage is the way to go – even if that means weakening the rules in place in more than 40 cities, like Austin, which has had a more stringent "hands-free" ordinance in effect since 2015. No need for road rage, though. The Senate passed SB 15, but it didn't get the green light from a House committee. – M.T.

Paul Workman's Permits

If Abbott's anti-immigration stances were going to damage the construction industry's ability to hire workers, the least he could do would be cut their permitting costs. Yet the governor failed to deliver on that quid pro quo. There were bills: SB 13 by Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and HB 164 by Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin (who, totally coincidentally, runs a construction consulting firm) filed identical measures to shorten deadlines for approving building permits, and give developers extra leeway to correct applications. Both died in the House. – R.W.

Abbott's Attack on Teacher Employment Rights

Abbott's intention here was opaque, but generally construed as an attack on teacher employment rights. However, Texas Educa­tion Commissioner Mike Morath got involved and pushed for increased merit pay, so Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, filed HB 198, whereby teachers would get extra cash for National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. The representative's target of hitting $65,000 average pay for teachers, rising to $90,000 with seniority and training, sat well with public education advocates. However, with no clear funding mechanism, and skyrocketing year-on-year costs, the broadly supported and well-intentioned plan hit the rocks of fiscal conservatism, and never received a House vote. – R.W.

The Big Three: Dan Patrick (background), Greg Abbott, and Joe Straus (Photos by Jana Birchum)


Eternal Sunset of the Texas Lege

The only must-pass piece of legislation this special session was the sunset bill for a handful of offices. Under Texas law, state agencies have a limited life span that must be extended by the Legislature on a regular basis. In this case, the enabling legislation for five agencies – the Texas Medical Board, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors, and the Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners – was set to expire on Sept. 1. If lawmakers did not pass those extensions, they would all have begun a one-year wrap-up process, at the end of which Texas would no longer license professionals in those sectors. Fortunately, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 20 and SB 60, extending their remit and funding through 2019. If you're wondering why the Legislature did not approve this rather rote, must-pass measure during the regular session, it was because Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick deliberately sabotaged the process, thus triggering the need for a special session, to put all his red meat conservative talking points back on the table. – R.W.

Rape Insurance

Soon, pregnant Texans who find themselves with severe fetal abnormalities and in need of an abortion could face a hefty medical bill. HB 214 by Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, bars abortion coverage from private, state-offered, and Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance plans. Women would be required to predict the need for an abortion and purchase supplemental insurance. While there's an exception for "medical emergencies," none exist for rape, incest, or fetal abnormalities, despite several amendments offered by House and Senate Democrats. Referred to by some as the "rape insurance" bill, the cruel anti-choice HB 214, which takes effect Dec. 1, was signed into law on Aug. 15. (For more, see "Texas' Pregnancy Tax") – M.T.

Pro Life, Right?

An accountant with no professional medical training, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, wildly claimed that doctors are slipping "do not resuscitate" orders into dying patients' notes – a major misrepresentation of the difficult task of deciding when to withhold so-called heroic measures when a patient has left no end-of-life instructions. Filed at the behest of anti-choice groups like Texas Right to Life, Perry's SB 11 makes that task even more of a bureaucratic nightmare. (It's the same tactic the anti-choice have used in restricting abortion access.) However, it only passed the House with the addition of extra legal protections for medical professionals. – R.W.

Tell Me More About Your Abortion …

Already overburdened health care facilities will now have even more to deal with thanks to HB 13, by Rep. Giovanni Caprigli­one, R-Southlake. The bill forces abortion physicians to turn in detailed and personal reports to the state that include the patient's race and marital status within three days instead of the current 30 days. If in violation, docs and health clinics will be slapped with a $500 per day fee ("Senate Speeds Through Anti-Choice Bills," July 25). Similarly, HB 215 by Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, adds onerous reporting requirements for doctors who perform abortions on minors, including how the minor got clearance to have the procedure and if an advocate aided her through the process. Both bills headed to Abbott's desk. Calling a spade a spade, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, described the bills as another attempt at "bureaucratic bullying" of abortion providers by the anti-choice Lege. – M.T.

Holster That Chain Saw

Abbott's personal crusade to clear-cut local heritage tree ordinances was undercut by a House/Senate compromise bill akin to the one that Abbott vetoed as insufficient in the regular session. (Should he re-veto, the trees live on.) The governor wanted to eliminate any city's ability to regulate tree removal on private property; even SB 86, sponsored by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-Twilight Zone [New Braunfels], only addressed extraterritorial jurisdictions, and the bill now on his desk – HB 7 (Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont) – only calls for tree replacement (or corresponding "credits") in lieu of mitigation fees. Abbott's problem ("Greg Abbott, Tree Killer," June 15) is that tree protections (denounced by Abbott as "socialism") are in fact popular among conservative suburbanites and zoning mavens, not just urban environmentalists. This round goes to the live oaks. – M.K.

Heritage Trees, still sort of safe (it's complicated) (Photo by John Anderson)

The Annexation of Texas Cities

If there's one thing Texas Republicans fear, it's big cities. Authored by New Braunfels Republican Donna Campbell, Senate Bill 6 is supposed to improve the democratic process before annexation. However, its real purpose is seemingly to stop Austin and other large cities from annexing areas without first holding and paying for an election of all the residents of the area in question. Somehow, any issues about those filthy city dwellers sweeping up all those fine folks out in the country don't apply if the city is less than 500,000 in population. So now that Abbott has signed the bill, El Paso will have to hold an election before providing services to and collecting property taxes from a neighboring town, but not Corpus Christi or Plano. However, in a sop to San Antonio's big military economy, extra protections were added near bases in unincorporated areas, to prevent out-of-control development along their fencelines. – R.W.

A Win for Women (Sorta)

While Abbott prioritized three anti-abortion measures, he only designated one agenda item to an actual women's health problem: the state's alarming trend of new mothers dying after childbirth. The maternal mortality rate in Texas, the highest in the developed world, was largely brushed off during the regular session. Legislators didn't even manage to extend the life of the task force meant to study the issue – at least this go-around they achieved that much by passing SB 17 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, which extends the Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity until 2023 ("Lege Lines: A Second Shot at Tackling Maternal Mortality," Aug. 11). But if the Lege seriously wants to give new moms a fighting chance, they better start undoing the damage done to basic health care access. – M.T.

The Voter Supression Continues

Abbott's longstanding obsession with the rare cases of mail-in voter fraud plays well with Republican factions convinced that millions of illegal voters put Obama in the White House (and lost Trump the popular vote). In the wake of a high-profile voter fraud case in Dallas, Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, filed SB 5, upping penalties for class A misdemeanors and state felonies, and giving election judges 30 days to report all rejected absentee ballots to the attorney general. The bill passed over protests from Democrats, who were most concerned about provisions that overturn another bill passed in the regular session, House Bill 658, which would have made the process of collecting ballots from nursing homes easier. – R.W.

School finance in Texas has been rotten for quite a while.

Reforming School Finance

The ultimate case of three simple words meaning completely different things to different people. The House wanted House Bill 21, the first step in a multi-year reform package originally authored in the regular session by House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston. The Senate wanted Senate Bill 16 by Senate Education Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, which would do nothing now but propose a school finance task force to report back in 2019. The House called for a $1.8 billion injection from the Rainy Day Fund, but Taylor called that a Band-Aid. His suggestion? Rewriting HB 21 as an even smaller $351 million Band-Aid: $120 million for school facilities (including $60 million dedicated to charter schools), $150 million for rural schools, $41 million for small districts, and $40 million for autism and dyslexia grants, all paid for by the dubious accounting of deferring Medicaid reimbursements. Openly complaining that this was $1.5 billion short of the bare minimum that was needed, House Republicans caved to the Senate's take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, took the urgently needed cash, and even added the task force to HB 21 before final passage on Aug. 15. – R.W.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More 85th Lege
The Sexist Texas Lege
The Sexist Texas Lege
The war on women continues on many fronts

Mary Tuma, Dec. 29, 2017

Lege Lines: Sine Done
Lege Lines: Sine Done
The dregs from last month’s special session

Richard Whittaker, Aug. 25, 2017

More by the News Staff
State Offers Exciting New Incentives Package to Retain Public School Teachers
State Offers Exciting New Incentives Package to Retain Public School Teachers
Tough times for teachers, but the Texas GOP is here to help

March 31, 2023

The Lege Opens, Here's What Happens Next
The Lege Opens, Here's What Happens Next
Not all of the bills are bad! Our analysis of the just-begun 88th Texas Legislature.

Jan. 13, 2023


Joe Straus, Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, 85th Lege

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle