Gov. Abbott calls special session on bathrooms, abortion, school finance

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature to begin in July.

AUSTIN (TEXAS TRIBUNE) -- Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 18 and promised to make it a sweeping one if lawmakers cooperate.

Abbott gave legislators an ambitious 19-item agenda to work on — including a "bathroom bill" — but only after they approve must-pass legislation that they failed to advance during the regular session. An overtime round, Abbott said, was "entirely avoidable."

"Because of their inability or refusal to pass a simple law that would prevent the medical profession from shutting down, I’m announcing a special session to complete that unfinished business," Abbott told reporters. "But if I’m going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing Abbott to call a special session on the bathroom issue, as well as property taxes. Abbott also added the latter item to the call, reiterating his support for legislation that would create automatic rollback elections when a city or county wants to raise property taxes above a certain amount.

In an effort to force the special session, Patrick had held hostage legislation, known as a "sunset bill," that would keep some state agencies from closing. That "will be the only legislation on the special session [agenda] until they pass out of the Senate in full," Abbott said.

Related: Texas governor signs texting-while-driving ban into law

In a statement, Patrick congratulated Abbott on his "big and bold special session agenda which solidly reflects the priorities of the people of Texas." Patrick noted that "almost every issue" Abbott mentioned Tuesday has already passed out of the Senate.

Democrats unfurled statements condemning Abbott for proposing an agenda that largely appeals to Republican primary voters.

"Governor Abbott's announcement today simply shows what an ineffective governor and leader he has been," said state Rep. Chris Turner of Arlington, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. "After providing zero leadership and interest during the regular session, the governor is clearly panicking and trying to shovel as much red meat as he can to his right-wing Tea Party base."

"Bathroom bill"

The sprawling list of items ranges from unfinished business in the regular session — school finance reform and school choice for special needs students — to longtime conservative priorities, such as anti-abortion measures and a crackdown on mail-in ballot fraud. But the bathroom issue, a priority of Patrick that dominated the regular session, is likely to be among the most controversial charges.

"At a minimum, we need a law that protects the privacy of our children in our public schools," Abbott said, reiterating his support for a proposal that never made it to his desk, House Bill 2899, that would nix existing municipal and school districts’ trans-inclusive bathroom policies and prevent locals from enacting any new policies.

The debate over bathroom policies was, in part, what left Abbott to consider a special session. Patrick — who championed strict policies to limit bathroom use to sex at birth — forced the special by holding hostage legislation needed to continue some state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board which licenses the state’s doctors.

The House, under Speaker Joe Straus, refused to go very far on the issue. HB 2899 died in a committee and Straus refused to refer the Senate’s proposal to a committee. The House ultimately voted on a measure limited to schools that some said would do little to prevent administrators from allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Under Patrick’s leadership, the Senate rejected that proposed compromise, arguing it didn’t go far enough. That left the presiding officers in a stalemate after Straus say he’d wouldn’t go any further on the issue because doing so could be detrimental to vulnerable children and damage the state’s economic vitality.

Abortion and maternal mortality

Abbott also put anti-abortion legislation on the docket, including resurrecting Sen. Larry Taylor's Senate Bill 20, which would require women to pay a separate premium if they want their health plan to cover an elective abortion. Taylor's bill would have allowed health plans to cover abortions that are deemed medically necessary. The legislation did not make exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

Another item on the list is a bill that would extend the state's Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity until 2023. The task force is responsible for studying and providing the state with recommendations on how to curb the rate of mothers dying less than a year after giving birth. Task force members have expressed that they need more time to study causes of deaths among women.

Elsewhere on the call are a bill that would increase provider reporting requirements on abortion complications and one that would order medical providers to follow "do-not-resuscitate" requests from patients.

Abbott is also asking lawmakers to take up legislation that would prohibit local and state government agencies from contracting with abortion providers and their affiliates.

Earlier today, Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 8, which requires health care facilities such as hospitals and abortion clinics to bury or cremate fetal remains — whether from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. The law also bans facilities from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers and outlaws "partial-birth abortions," which are already illegal under federal law.

Property taxes

Efforts to overhaul the property appraisal and tax rate process fell apart during the regular session after the two chambers couldn’t agree on what constituted meaningful reform.

The property taxes that Texas homeowners pay is determined by how much appraisal districts say land and buildings are worth and the tax rates that local government entities like cities, counties and special purpose districts each set.

The state is constitutionally prohibited from collecting property taxes, but such revenues largely fund local governments. School districts also collect property taxes, but were not the focus of legislation this year.

State Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, authored a bill during the regular session that would have changed how property appraisals are conducted and appealed. His bill also would have required local governments to get voter approval if their proposed tax rate was expected to increase their overall revenues by 5 percent or more. Current law allows voters to petition for such an election if revenues are expected to increase 8 percent or more.

The Senate passed Bettencourt’s bill, but that version never made it out of the House Ways and Means Committee. The lower chamber backed an overhaul of the appraisal process and focused on changing how and what Texans are told about property tax rates. It excluded the controversial automatic election provision.

Mail-in ballot fraud

In calling for lawmakers to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud, Abbott cited a high-profile investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities affecting Dallas City Council races.

Examining mail-in balloting would point Texas on a new path for shoring up elections — by addressing a vulnerability that’s actually documented.

Lawmakers six years ago passed the nation’s strictest voter photo identification law, a politically contentious measure that, federal judges say, disproportionately made it tougher for Latino and black Texans to vote. That law only applied to ballots cast in-person, where experts have found scant evidence of widespread trouble.

During this year's regular session, the Legislature did send Abbott an under-the-radar bill that would address one type of mail-in ballot fraud — overhauling voting at nursing homes.

Here are the 19 items, as described by Abbott's office:

Teacher pay increase of $1,000      

Administrative flexibility in teacher hiring and retention practices

School finance reform commission

School choice for special needs students

Property tax reform

Caps on state and local spending

Preventing cities from regulating what property owners do with trees on private land

Preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects

Speeding up local government permitting process

Municipal annexation reform

Texting while driving preemption

Privacy

Prohibition of taxpayer dollars to collect union dues

Prohibition of taxpayer funding for abortion providers

Pro-life insurance reform

Strengthening abortion reporting requirements when health complications arise

Strengthening patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders

Cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud

Extending maternal mortality task force

 

This is a developing story that will be updated.

© 2017 Texas Tribune


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