Special Session 2017: Here's What's On The Texas Legislature's Agenda
The 2017 regular session of the Texas Legislature was one of the most contentious in recent memory. It had plenty of protests, some infighting, a few filibusters and even a death threat. Now, after all that drama, lawmakers are headed back for more.
The Legislature gaveled out in May without passing a bill needed to keep key agencies from shutting down, which left the door open for Gov. Greg Abbott to call the special session that begins Tuesday. When announcing it, he said he was going to make the session count and listed 19 additional items for lawmakers to tackle.
We've outlined the items below.
Sunset Scheduling Bill
This is the whole reason the Legislature came back to Austin. Unless lawmakers pass what's called a sunset scheduling bill, several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, will shut down – or at least begin to shut down– before lawmakers come back to Austin in 2019.
The Texas Sunset Advisory Board reviews every state agency to see if it is still functioning well, if their operating procedures need to change, or if the agency needs to be shuttered altogether.
If an agency is not reviewed by a certain date, it automatically shuts down. The agencies either need to undergo a review or have it rescheduled in the 2017 session. If a bill doesn't authorize a reschedule of a review, the agency closes.
During the regular session, that rescheduling bill was used as a political football. During the final days, the Texas Senate refused to take it up unless the House passed a property tax bill and a bill that banned transgender people from using restrooms of their choice. The House passed both, but the House versions did not appease the Senate, so the scheduling bill died.
Teacher Pay Increase
This is one of a few items on the special session list didn't receive a lot of attention during the regular legislative session.
While the Texas House offered a fix for the state's "Byzantine" school finance system that came with an additional $1.5 billion in school funding – which, theoretically, school districts could have used some of that for teacher raises – that bill died after a legislative spat over school vouchers.
But Abbott's not explicitly pushing lawmakers to change the school finance system in the special session; he's just asking for a $1,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise. That would cost about $350 million a year. Abbott says that can be done without any spending increases. But he hasn't offered any ideas for how to pay for it.
While education groups don't oppose a pay raise, many, like the Association of Texas Public Educators, are worried about where that money is going to come from.
ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey says it could mean "cuts to school programming, increases in class sizes, cuts to teachers’ benefits or even staff layoffs. This isn’t fair to the students, the teachers or the school district."
In a speech last month, Speaker Joe Straus reiterated the House's goal to pass major school finance legislation.
Administrative Flexibility In Teacher Hiring And Retention
Abbott says providing this flexibility, which was another lightly debated item in the regular session, would help schools pick and keep the best teachers.
Teachers groups, including the Texas State Teachers Association, have long pushed for teacher protections. TSTA says administrative flexibility sounds more like a "political cliché for continuing to refuse to address the No. 1 need of Texas public schools – more state funding."
School Finance Reform Commission
While Abbott did not call on lawmakers to pass school finance reform in the special session, he is asking lawmakers to think about it. The governor wants legislation to create a commission that would spend the next year and a half coming up with ideas to overhaul the current system.
Republicans spent much of the legislative session voting down bills and amendments that would have created a range of commissions and studies to work on big issues facing the state.
School Choice For Special Needs Students
School vouchers are a priority in the Senate. The body has passed voucher legislation in the last two legislative sessions. And both times, the bills have died in the House. The only voucher vote that was taken on the House floor this session was one that added language in the budget that said the House didn't want any state funds to be spent on private school tuition.
But Abbott wants to give it another go, even though the House and Senate don't appear to be any closer to an agreement.
Property Tax Reform
Abbott has asked lawmakers to pass a new bill further limiting the amount cities can collect in property taxes before triggering an election. He said a law limiting tax collection “will reform the spiraling property taxes in Texas.”
During the regular session, the House and the Senate were split over Senate Bill 2, which would have capped how large a percentage tax increase a city can collect at either 4 or 5 percent – compared with 8 percent, which is current state law.
“Our finance people tell us that if the cap, as it was proposed in the Senate, happens, that it’s going to require us to cut what the residents here consider to be essential services,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said.
Caps On State And Local Spending
The Texas state budget is not allowed to grow, from budget to budget, by more than the growth in the state's economy. This cap is explicitly defined heading into each legislative session by the Legislative Budget Board, which sets a percentage increase.
Abbott has called on lawmakers to pass a bill requiring state and local budgets to calculate that cap in a different way. He wants them to instead use growth in population and inflation. Conservative groups say this would create a budget that more accurately reflects growth in Texas.
“Limiting the growth of both state and local spending to population and inflation will contain government spending while also retaining flexibility for our faster growing communities,” Abbott said in his announcement of the special session.Those who oppose the idea say it would restrict government spending, even as the state's population – and the need for state services – continues to boom.
Limiting Local Tree Ordinances
Abbott's dig at local tree ordinances was a surprise item on his agenda for the special session. He wants lawmakers to roll back local preservation ordinances. About 60 Texas cities have rules to help preserve trees. Abbott and others think some of the rules amount to an infringement on property rights.
Supporters argue that cities regulate land use all the time. They say tree rules help improve air quality and reduce urban heat, among other things. Stuck in the middle of the big debate are landowners who think some tree rules are overly restrictive, but disagree that the state government should tell local authorities how to regulate.
Construction Project Rules
This item involves limiting the rules that local governments can put on developers that want to build in their cities. Abbott wants to prevent cities from being able to change the rules midway through a construction project. He calls the practice “a taking of private property rights.”
This item does not appear to be tied to a specific bill from the regular session, but the idea is gaining support from industry representatives. Scott Norman, executive director of the Texas Association of Builders, said unexpected regulations often come up in the building process.
“Whether they be changes to building code, impervious cover requirements or tree ordinances, things like that, those things, if they are changed once a project is underway, it can have a drastic impact,” Norman said.
Faster Permitting Processes
Abbott has called on lawmakers to take up legislation to speed up permitting by local governments. It’s a process that has been notoriously slow and convoluted in Austin, though the city has recently taken steps to address its permitting backlog.
Later this year, the city is set to open applications for a new expedited permitting process. So far, city staff have tested the program on five projects. All of them got their permits overnight, as opposed to the typical wait of several weeks. The expedited permit program is set to open to the public by October.
Some industry representatives have taken issue with Austin requiring builders to abide by certain construction worker protections when using the expedited program.
One of the many local control issues on the table during the special session deals with the power of cities to annex land outside their boundaries.
This past legislative session, state Sen. Donna Campbell, a Republican from New Braunfels, authored Senate Bill 715, which would have required a petition or an election on annexations for residents who would be absorbed into a city. It was ultimately filibustered by state Sen. Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio. Menendez said people in unincorporated areas often benefit from the city’s services, and he doesn’t think those communities would exist if it weren’t for their proximity to major cities.
“The reason for annexation laws being what they are is because people are purposefully creating neighborhoods and developments on the outer edge of a city limit in order to avoid city taxes, but they’re still working, shopping and doing the things that they need inside the city’s themselves,” he said.
Campbell and Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty are expected to introduce new annexation legislation during the special session.
Texting While Driving
On Sept. 1, House Bill 62, a new statewide law restricting texting while driving, will go into effect. Abbott has asked lawmakers to ensure that it's the only law of its kind in Texas. An attempt to pass an amendment like this during the regular session failed.
“I am calling for legislation that fully preempts cities and counties from any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles. We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas,” he said, employing language he used when signing HB 100, the law regulating ride-hailing companies throughout the state.
By mandating a statewide texting-while-driving law that supersedes local regulations, lawmakers would undo key parts of Austin’s hands-free rule, which began in 2015. While Austin’s ordinance prohibits using a phone without a hands-free device while driving, the new statewide law applies only to texting while driving.
Should the law overrule Austin’s rule, residents would once again be able to hold their phones to make calls, use maps and music apps while driving.
Privacy (The 'Bathroom Bill')
After remaining silent during most of the legislative session, in the final weeks Abbott announced his support for a bill that restricts restroom access for transgender people. In his special session announcement, he appeared to be more interested in the House bathroom bill. The Senate's version was more restrictive, affecting all state-controlled buildings and allowing private business to deny bathroom access. The House focused only on public school bathrooms.
Opponents – including LGBTQ advocates, business groups, chambers of commerce and tourism bureaus – continue to say this is a discriminatory law. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says passing a bathroom bill is a top priority for Texas. House Speaker Joe Straus says it is not.
Abbott would also like to see a bill pass barring voluntary payroll deductions of union dues from state employee paychecks. Senate Bill 13, which would have done just that, failed to get out of the House after passing in the Senate during the regular session. The bill’s author, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, argued it’s not the role of the state to collect dues for unions and that the change would be only a small inconvenience.
The bill would have required that almost all state employees pay membership dues on their own, rather than go through automatic payroll deductions. Fire, police and EMS unions would have been excluded and still be able to collect via payroll deduction. The exclusions mean the bill would affect only teachers and other state employees, including those at the Department of Corrections and in child protective services jobs.
The exclusions raised concerns from Democrats and some Republican senators, like Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, who said in committee hearings, “I was just kind of raised what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Democrats, union groups and educators called the bill unnecessary and discriminatory.
“I am a lifelong conservative Republican and it is breaking my heart that I’m feeling attacked by the people that I helped elect,” said Sue Ellen Ener, a Beaumont teacher, in February committee testimony. “And it’s beyond me how less government involvement in my personal life looks like this.”
Texas is a right-to-work state and any employee must opt-in to any union payroll deductions. The bill was filed in response a nonbinding referendum question on Republican primary ballots.
There is no cost savings to the state if a bill passes.
Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Providers
Out of the 20 items on Abbott’s special session call, three are related to abortion. Among them is a measure prohibiting localities from using taxpayer money on contracts with organization that provide abortions – i.e., Planned Parenthood.
There is already a federal and state ban on taxpayer funding of abortions. The federal ban is the Hyde Amendment. Anti-abortion advocates argue the law doesn't go far enough. They argue taxpayer money shouldn’t go to groups like Planned Parenthood for any services they provide – even if those services aren’t abortions.
Groups who support abortion rights say this measure could have bad health outcomes. In the City of Austin, for example, the city has a contract with Planned Parenthood for a program that teaches teenage women how to reduce their risk of getting HIV or STDs – and avoid unintended pregnancies.
Opponents of the ban also say that this is yet another effort by conservative state lawmakers to take away local control from mostly liberal-leaning Texas cities.
Abortion Insurance Coverage
Abbott also wants state lawmakers to prohibit abortion coverage in private health insurance plans in Texas.
This is a bill that has come up every session since the Affordable Care Act was passed. The first versions of it prohibited coverage of abortions in health plans sold on the Obamacare insurance exchange. The argument there is that taxpayer money pays for the subsidies and tax credits in those plans.
Through the years, Republicans have tried to expand that prohibition to all private insurance. Joe Pojman with Texas Alliance for Life has argued that anyone who pays insurance premiums is paying into a system that covers other people’s abortions.
Women’s health and abortion-rights activists have said that would create a financial barrier for even more women seeking a legal abortion – especially low-income and middle-class women – regardless of whether they have a private insurance plan. They also argue the state would be overstepping its boundaries in interfering with private insurance contracts.
The bills in the past have included a rider for women to buy abortion coverage separately. But Blake Rocap with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas says the way the bill previously has been written has interfered with how insurance companies price those riders, allowing insurance companies to overcharge women for these plans.
Abortion Reporting Requirements
State lawmakers rolled some new abortion reporting requirements into an omnibus abortion bill this past session. It included new measures that moved basic abortion data collection, now done on paper, to an online database. It also put the onus on physicians to report the data in a short window of time.
Abbott wants to expand those new requirements to reporting on abortion complications in the state.
Abortion rights activists say they aren’t opposed to “good, neutral health care data collection,” but they are worried the new requirements put a target on the physician performing the abortion.
Blake Rocap with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas says it could “endanger the physician’s confidentiality and targets the physician for regulatory harassment” for something as simple as paperwork errors.
Anti-abortion groups say it’s necessary to make sure current laws protect women in the state, as well as hold bad doctors accountable.
Rocap says he thinks this is all a reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year striking down an abortion law in Texas that placed onerous restrictions on abortion providers. Among the hurdles the state could not clear in court was showing proof that it needed to step in and regulate providers more.
Abbott has asked lawmakers to pass a measure requiring a patient’s consent before a hospital can put a “do not resuscitate” order in his or her chart.
DNR orders are legal orders written by a doctor signaling that a patient should not be resuscitated via CPR or advanced cardiac life support. Some people put them in living wills, but they can also be written up in a hospital.
“Current law does allow, with respect to in-hospital orders, for the physician to make this decision to place a do not attempt resuscitation order, even if it’s against the wishes of the patient,” state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, recently told Houston Public Media.
Mail-In Ballot Fraud
Currently in Texas, only select populations have the option of voting by mail. For the most part, that includes people who are 65 years or older, disabled or out of the country.
Abbott says the state has prosecuted a growing number of people committing voter fraud through the state’s vote-by-mail system. Voter fraud is rare, but experts have found that mail-in voter fraud is more common that in-person voting fraud.
Abbott recently signed legislation aimed at cracking down on voter fraud at nursing homes.
Voting rights advocates have been quick to caution lawmakers about onerous voting restrictions, which have largely been spurred by a Republican-led fight against alleged voter fraud in the state. Advocates say those crackdowns often lead to voter suppression in the state.
Maternal Mortality Task Force
One of the few bipartisan issues Abbott asked the Legislature to revisit was the state’s maternal mortality crisis.
Texas has experienced a sharp increase in the rate of women who have died while pregnant or shortly after giving birth. There were a couple of bills dealing with the issue that passed – including measures improving access to care for low-income women with post-partum depression and another that improves maternal death investigations and reporting practices.
However, one important bill, Senate Bill 1929, was killed by a group of conservative lawmakers known as the Texas Freedom Caucus during a bout of political infighting.
SB 1929, which was introduced by Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, would have extended the work of the state’s existing maternal mortality task force, which is set to end in 2019.
The bill also included an amendment from Democratic state Rep. Shawn Thierry asking the state to look specifically at why black women were three times more likely to die.