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Disabled Texans say Bathroom Bill Could Further Complicate Their Lives

For Octavio Armendariz, using the bathroom while he’s home is no big deal. When the autistic eight-year-old is out in public with his mom, it’s a different story.

Rosanna Armendariz isn’t comfortable with Octavio, who has the social and emotional development of a three-year-old, navigating the men’s bathroom alone. So she brings him into the women’s bathroom with her instead.

“We started getting looks from the time he was around seven,” she said. “I guess by that age many boys are using the men’s room, and since autism is an invisible disability, people don’t automatically realize why my son would be in the women’s room with me.”

As lawmakers this summer debate yet another controversial measure regulating bathroom use based on biological sex, disabled Texans say they — like many transgender men and women — believe the Legislature is further complicating something that’s already difficult to navigate.

On Tuesday, the Texas Senate advanced Senate Bill 3, which would restrict bathroom use in local government buildings and public schools based on the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate or DPS-issued ID, and gut parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to allow transgender people to use public bathrooms of their choice.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, argues her measure is meant to protect privacy in the bathroom and would dissuade sexual predators from taking advantage of trans-inclusive bathrooms policies.

Rosanna Armendariz plays a motor skills game with her son, Octavio, at their home in El Paso. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

But for many caretakers and disabled Texans, the issue goes much deeper. Rosanna Armendariz said she fears if a “bathroom bill” passes, people might think her son is breaking the law — even though the Senate’s version of the measure exempts people with disabilities.

“As my son gets older, someone might get upset and call the police if they see him in the women’s room,” she said. “It’s horrifying to think me or my disabled son could be subject to criminal prosecution just for using the toilet.”

In an effort to address this exact issue, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, tacked an amendment on to Kolkhorst’s bill on Tuesday exempting disabled Texans from having to use the bathroom matching their biological sex.

Advocates for the disabled say it’s not enough: Not all disabilities are obvious, and even with Lucio’s amendment, they say, a person with a disability would be forced to prove they have one.

“When you look at the word ‘disability,’ it covers a very broad scope of people — from mental illness to physical disabilities to someone who might be in a wheelchair,” said Chase Bearden, director of advocacy and engagement for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. “You don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.”

Initial bill fell short

A similar bill to regulate bathroom use failed during this spring’s regular legislative session, and Gov. Greg Abbott put “privacy” legislation on his wish list for lawmakers to address during this summer’s 30-day special session, which began July 18. Despite staunch opposition from the business community, law enforcement, LGBT advocates and transgender Texans, the Senate version of the bill was fast-tracked through the upper chamber and is now on its way to the Texas House, where it likely will get a chilly reception.

The measure senators supported during the regular legislative session, Senate Bill 6, included specific exemptions for people who needed assistance using the bathroom, including children younger than 10 and people accompanying children into a bathroom different than their biological sex.

The original text of this summer’s bill, SB 3, listed no such exemptions.

“Because of some of the signals we received from the governor’s office, we left [those exemptions] out,” Kolkhorst said when explaining her bill on the Senate floor.

The amendment Lucio added Tuesday exempts people giving and receiving assistance in the restroom, including children under 8, the elderly and disabled Texans, among others.

Amy Litzinger poses outside of a bathroom stall that’s too small for her and her attendant. Litzinger, along with many other disabled Texans, is concerned about the implications a “bathroom bill” will have on her and her attendants. | Photo courtesy Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

“Sen. Lucio added an amendment to clarify that anyone with a disability or their caregiver is exempted, which furthers the point that this legislation protects the privacy and dignity of everyone,” Kolkhorst said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

But advocates argue the language of the amendment unfairly leaves the burden of proof on caretakers.

“It’s a good thing that legislators carved out an exception that recognizes the common use of caretakers for assistance, but the exception is not broad enough to address the reality of disability in the bathroom,” said Lucille Wood, a clinical professor at UT-Austin’s School of Law.

While the amended bill mirrors federal protections for disabled Texans and their caretakers, Wood said, it gives “sex segregation a voice,” which she worries will impact how disabled Texans navigate using the bathroom.

“It’s ratcheting up the political climate in which caretakers will have to demonstrate the person they’re helping really has a disability,” she said. “It is a climate in which fear is ruling the day. Fear over common sense.”

Bathrooms already an ordeal

Amy Litzinger knows firsthand what it’s like to endure stares in the restroom. The 29-year-old from Austin has quadriplegia and uses an attendant for everything from getting dressed to eating meals — and of course, using the bathroom.

“I can’t transfer myself in and out of my chair, so I’m never in a bathroom alone,” Litzinger said. “… I literally can’t go the bathroom by myself — physically. I don’t really have a choice.”

Before a committee meeting in the Texas Health and Human Services building, Amy Litzinger and one of her attendants, Jamie Massaro, demonstrate that they must leave the accessible bathroom stall door open because it is too small. | Photo courtesy Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

One of her attendants is transgender, she said. And when her attendant isn’t available, it’s sometimes up to her father to help her. While the current version of the bill wouldn’t penalize her attendant or her father, she said it adds to the stigma.

“Believe me, people aren’t taking opposite-gender people into the restroom because they want to,” Litzinger said. “… I don’t think most legislators understand how much an ordeal bathrooms already are for most of us that have disabilities.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The rift over the bathroom bill in the Texas Legislature won’t end with the special session; it’s a prelude to the March 2018 primary elections. [link]
  • The Texas Senate backed a bill that would bar some transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity in schools and buildings overseen by local governments. The bill would also nix parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances. [link]

Author:  ALEX SAMUELS – The Texas Tribune

Analysis: Texas Republicans Deciding Where to go on Bathrooms

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have figured out how to make mainstream Republicans a splinter group in their own party. Or maybe it’s the other way around: The party’s traditional establishment has slipped out of the mainstream and is just now coming to realize what a pickle it’s in.

The “bathroom bill” is popular with social conservatives, who are loud and energetic about it, and not with business conservatives, who have been quiet and passive for most of the year. The lieutenant governor is on the side of the social conservatives. Abbott was late to the game, but he joined in with Patrick by resurrecting the issue for consideration during the special session when the business community would have preferred leaving it in the legislative mortuary.

Now that the issue has resurfaced, that conservative old guard is showing a sign or two of life, and the Texas Legislature’s special session offers voters some foreshadowing of the Republican cage match coming in the party’s 2018 primaries.

The prompt, you might remember, was a directive from the Obama administration’s Department of Education on how public schools might handle restroom and locker room access for transgender students. That guidance has since been rescinded by the Trump administration, but Patrick and other advocates have forged ahead anyway, trying to override school districts and other local governments with a state policy requiring people to use the facilities designated for their “biological sex.”

It’s been politically rewarding in spite of their lack of success in making it the law of the land. Patrick latched onto a powerful issue — for Republican primaries, at the very least. With the notably persistent exception of House Speaker Joe Straus, that issue set the state’s conservative business establishment on its heels, sticking Republicans in the Legislature with a dilemma: Vote for your business supporters or for your socially conservative constituents.

Straus bugled for help early in the year, saying the state needed to protect its economic successes. “If you are concerned — I know many of you are — now is the time to speak up,” Straus told members of the Texas Association of Business (TAB), which had taken a position against the bill.

For whatever reason, their backing was more private than public during the regular legislative session.

Between January and June, while Patrick was trying to gain enough support to get his pet through the Senate and also Straus’ House, business appeared to be asleep at the switch. A group of top execs from Amazon, Apple, Celanese Corp., Cisco, Dell Technologies, Facebook, Gearbox Software, Google, GSD&M, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, Microsoft Corp., Salesforce and Silicon Labs eventually sent a letter to state leaders objecting to what they saw as discriminatory legislation.

It landed on the last weekend of the session, when the bill’s demise was already all but certain — more a punctuation mark than a game-changer. But it was a sign of opposition to come.

Patrick couldn’t get his version of that legislation out of the regular session, and forced a second round by blocking consideration of must-pass “sunset” bills needed to keep five state agencies in operation.

Now, the business establishment is making its presence known in a way it failed to do during the regular session earlier this year. TAB last week brought a gaggle of business leaders to the south steps of the Capitol — the regular gathering place for protests — to talk about their opposition to the bill and their assertion that it would cloud the state’s business climate. On Tuesday, several big-city law enforcement leaders — presumably the people who’d be policing the potties if the legislation passes — spoke against it from that same location.

TAB and others have peppered lawmakers with letters from regional business leaders who oppose the legislation, including some notable conservatives who’ve backed the same state officials promoting it.

A sprinkling of prominent Republicans have decided to speak out against the “bathroom bill,” too, including Denton County Judge Mary Horn and Michael Williams, a former Texas education commissioner and railroad commissioner.

“Spending time on this during a legislative session is time wasted trying to solve a problem that does not exist,” Horn wrote in a public letter to Abbott, Patrick and Straus. “There are already laws on the books protecting individuals from all criminal acts. Focusing attention on this issue wastes time, money, and is bad for Texas.”

Williams was more informal about it. “35 years ago when I ‘came out’ as a Republican it never crossed my mind my party would some day worry about what bathrooms people used,” he wrote in a Sunday afternoon tweet.

Those voices were muted earlier in the year and might provide some cover for lawmakers opposed to the “bathroom bill” now. But this is all prelude to the March primaries, when Republican voters will get a chance to say what side they’re on — and to identify the GOP’s real mainstream.

Facebook, Google, GSD&M, Microsoft, the Texas Association of Business and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • They were unlikely to sway a committee of Republicans considering bathroom restrictions for transgender Texans, but a transgender 7-year-old and her mother waited for their two minutes. [link]
  • Some of the 20 topics Gov. Greg Abbott is asking the Texas Legislature to consider during a special session have been his priorities since his State of the State Address in January. On some of the other topics, though, he’s been relatively quiet. [link]

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

EPISD Board of Trustees Votes to Oppose Bathroom Bill

The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Monday morning to send a letter to state legislators outlining the District’s opposition to the so-called Bathroom Bill being considered by Texas lawmakers.

The bill could severely restrict access to bathroom and other facilities for transgendered individuals who seek to use restrooms that best suit their needs. If approved, the law would impact the way school districts manage facility access for transgendered students.

“EPISD has a long history of being a District of inclusion and a safe space for all children. The Bathroom Bill being discussed in the Legislature is harmful for children and addresses a problem school districts do not have,” said Superintendent Juan Cabrera. “Our students are safer not because we restrict their access, but rather because we create opportunities for learning and understanding.”

EPISD’s forward-thinking policies prohibit discrimination and harassment of any student on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, disability, age, gender stereotyping and perceived sexuality, perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

The letter from EPISD is addressed to Texas Speaker of the House Joe Strauss and the members of the El Paso County Delegation to the Texas Legislature.

In it, the District asks legislators to allow local schools – and not the state – to come up with ways to handle bathroom access for transgendered individuals, since administrators, teachers and parents have the best interest of students in mind and can make decisions that impact them in a positive manner.

EPISD works with transgendered students on a case-by-case basis to come up with accommodations that best suit their needs based on the input from teachers, parents and the students themselves.

Senator José Rodríguez files Special Session Education Bills

Austin – Sen. José Rodríguez has filed a number of bills for the upcoming Special Session, which begins on Tuesday.

The bills filed address the most important issue that should be central to the Special Session, school finance, as well as ensuring that the state does not sanction discrimination against LGBTQ Texans, and providing greater opportunity for mail-in ballot voting while ensuring ballot integrity.

Details and comments by the Senator are as follow:

Education

  • S.B. 40 by Rodríguez, Garcia, Menendez, Watson, West, Whitmire & Zaffirini (comprehensive school finance reform): This bill provides a long-term solution for school finance reform by removing inequitable provisions not based on actual costs, increasing funding for vulnerable student populations, and updating the system as a whole to ensure all our children will get a quality education.

“It is long past time for comprehensive school finance reform, something that not only is necessary but is supported by an overwhelming majority of the public and legislators,” Rodríguez said.

  • S.J.R. 6 by Rodríguez, Garcia, Menendez, Watson, West, Whitmire & Zaffirini (requires state to provide 50 percent of school funding): This joint resolution provides for a constitutional amendment that will require the state to pay its equal share of the operating costs of public schools.

“The State is increasingly funding schools on the backs of local property taxpayers, while at the same time, complaining about high local taxes. True tax reform must take into account the main driver of property taxes – schools, which are the State’s constitutional obligation. In fact, the State’s share of the base funding for schools has decreased from 43.5 percent in 2015 to 37.7 percent in 2019. To address this, I have filed legislation that would require the State to fund at least half of our schools’ operating costs. This would dramatically reduce local property taxes and help ensure quality education for all Texas students.

  • S.B. 41 by Rodríguez, Garcia, Menendez, Watson, West, Whitmire & Zaffirini (increases bilingual education weight): This bill increases the ELL education funding weight from the current weight of 0.1 to 0.25. This funding weight has not been updated since 1984. Updating it would alleviate achievement gaps, expand dual language programs, reduce recapture payments, and help the almost one million students that need additional services.

“The investment in our students is an investment in our future,” Rodríguez said, regarding funding weights. “This is long overdue.”

  • S.B. 37 by Rodríguez (teacher stipends): This bill creates a $500 stipend for those with at least three years of experience, and $500 for those in TEA-determined shortage areas. These stipends would take effect in 2019, since this was not budgeted for in the current biennium. To attempt to implement the stipends now would constitute an unfunded mandate on schools, forcing either local tax increases or cuts elsewhere.

Quality teachers are the backbone of our education system and we need to recruit and retain the best, especially in the areas of math, science, bilingual education, special education and career and tech that are currently in short supply,” Rodríguez said. 

Equal rights for LGBTQ Texans

  • S.B. 38 by Rodríguez, Garcia, Hinojosa & Whitmire (comprehensive LGBTQ non-discrimination): This bill prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the areas of housing, public accommodation, employment, and state contracting.

“Discrimination of any kind runs counter to the values of opportunity, personal faith, and freedom that all Texans hold dear. However, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community still have experiences of discrimination in Texas, without any recourse at law,” Rodríguez said. “There are examples across the state of LGBT people being denied housing for themselves and their family, losing a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identify, or being denied service at business held open to the public. 

“Discrimination is also bad for business. An inclusive Texas is crucial to recruiting and retaining talent, attracting entrepreneurs and company relocations, and maintaining a strong travel and tourism industry.

“S.B. 38 will ensure that all Texans can live in our great state without fear that they will be denied the same protection afforded their friends and neighbors, simply because of who they are or whom they love.”

Voting

  • S.B. 36 by Rodríguez (absentee voting by mail): Current law limits mail in ballots to voters who have a disability, are 65 years old or older, in jail but otherwise eligible, or will be out of town Election Day. Mail in ballots reduce long lines at the polls, ensure greater access to the ballot, and have been proven to be reliable. Currently, 27 states and the District of Columbia offer “no excuse” absentee voting, which does not require an applicant to provide an excuse to request a mail in ballot. California, Oregon, and Washington were the first to pass this law in the 1980s, and studies from early 1990s showed an increase in voter turnout.

“I hope any discussion about reforming mail in ballot fraud will include proposals to expand access for the vast majority of eligible voters,” Rodríguez said. “Texas consistently ranks on the bottom in terms of voter turnout – eighth to last in 2016 – and that is the real problem when it comes to our election reform.”

Analysis: A 2018 Texas Legislative Battle Map, Federal Courts Willing

The three federal judges hearing the latest arguments in the state’s redistricting case could make significant changes to the makeup of the Texas House — if they decide to change the maps before next year’s elections. If they don’t — or if the changes they make are relatively minor — not very many House districts are competitive in a general election.

The Texas Senate is out of the court’s reach; the political maps for those 31 seats were agreed to and blessed by both the courts and the state years ago. With a couple of exceptions, they’re not very competitive — at least in general elections. Democrats have a virtual lock on 10 seats, Republicans on 17. In the remaining seats, statewide Republican candidates and statewide Democratic candidates finished, on average, fewer than 10 percentage points apart in last November’s election.

Fifteen Senate seats will be on next year’s ballot.

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, is the incumbent in the closest district, where Donald Trump squeaked past Hillary Clinton by 0.59 percent — 1,806 votes out of more than 308,000 cast. Other candidates on the Republican side outperformed the president, winning by an average of 46.8 percentage points.

Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, represents a district where Republican and Democratic statewide candidates, on average, finished 8.9 percentage points apart. His is the only Republican Senate district where Clinton beat Trump (by 4.7 percentage points). Huffines wasn’t on the 2016 ballot, but he’s gearing up for a 2018 re-election bid.

Republicans did better in the district represented by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston — winning by an average of 12.2 percentage points in statewide races. But Trump’s winning margin was a mere 0.89 percentage points. Huffman’s seat will be on the 2018 ballot.

In the House, all 150 seats will be on the 2018 ballot; statewide candidates finished at least 10 percentage points apart in all but 14 of those districts. Put another way, in 83 districts, Republicans won by at least 10 percentage points in the average contested statewide race. In 53 districts, the average statewide Democratic candidate won by 10 percentage points or more. (For the state as a whole, the average Republican won by 14.1 percentage points in 2016.)

The 14 seats where the margins were in single digits make up a preliminary target list. That’s unfortunate for the GOP because only two of the target seats are currently held by Democrats. Conversely, the list has Democrats dreaming of chances to cut into the 95-55 Republican advantage in the Texas House. What’s more, Clinton won in all but three of those seats, hinting at possible trouble for Republicans who will be running in the first midterm election of the Trump presidency.

Which incumbents have trouble in the rearview mirrors? Democrats Victoria Neave of Dallas and Philip Cortez of San Antonio; and Republicans Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Linda Koop of Dallas, Matt Rinaldi of Irving, Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale, Sarah Davis of West University Place, Tony Dale of Cedar Park, Angie Chen Button of Richardson, J.M. Lozano of Kingsville, Jason Villalba of Dallas, Larry Gonzales of Round Rock, Gary Elkins of Houston and Dwayne Bohac of Houston.

The federal judges way up there in the first sentence could change all of this. They’re at the end of a week of hearings over the congressional and Texas House political maps adopted in 2013 (after 2011 maps were tossed out as unconstitutional) to decide whether the state’s mapmakers cheated any of the state’s voters out of their electoral influence.

If those judges decide the maps in use aren’t fair, the lines could be changed before the 2018 primaries and, with them, the odds for the incumbent members and incumbent parties in each district.

Texas Democrats start the election cycle with a reasonable chance to pick up a handful of House seats. They’re hoping the courts put more districts in play. But they’d need to flip 21 seats to regain the majority they lost in the 2002 elections. That’s a stretch.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • It’s true that three of the Republican incumbents in the Texas congressional delegation live in districts where Donald Trump lost, but unless judges change the state’s political maps, two of those districts are still dominated by the GOP. [link]
  • Winning some more seats in the congressional delegation or the Legislature would make Texas Democrats happy, but the real prize at stake in the state’s redistricting legislation is federal oversight of the state’s Republican mapmakers. [link]

Author: ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick Proposes Millions for Teacher Bonuses and Retirement

With less than a week before the start of a special session of the Texas Legislature, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick laid out a proposal Thursday to give teachers bonuses and increase their retirement benefits, with plans to pay for both long-term using money from the Texas lottery.

Patrick called a press conference to roll out his own priorities for the next 30 days and tear down the House’s plan for revamping a faulty school funding system as a “Ponzi scheme.”

Patrick’s plan, in part, would provide $600 to $1,000 bonuses to long-term and retired teachers, inject $200 million into the Teacher Retirement System, give $150 million to struggling small, rural districts, and provide $60 million for new facilities for fast-growth school districts and charter schools.

Over the next two years, Patrick said, $700 million to pay for the plan would come from a deferral of funds to managed care organizations. Over the long-term, $700 million would be directly allocated from the Texas Lottery if voters approved an amendment to the Texas Constitution to ensure that transfer of funds continues indefinitely.

Patrick called on school districts to reprioritize 5 percent of their funds over the next four years to increase teacher salaries. Districts, he said, “have to be better about how they spend the money. They have to put more focus on teachers.”

Mark Wiggins, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said most schools don’t have the financial wiggle room to reallocate funding without additional money from the state. “We haven’t seen any of these proposals. That’s why it’s tough to say where our members would come out on them,” he said.

The House passed a bill during the regular session that would have put $1.5 billion into public schools, in part by deferring a payment to schools to 2019. Patrick Thursday called that budget trick a “dangerous political stunt” and a “Ponzi scheme.”

The Senate tacked a “private school choice” provision to the House’s school finance reform package, effectively killing both issues in the regular session, since House members oppose public subsidies for private schools.

House Speaker Joe Straus and top House education leaders have appeared before education groups in the last month, chastising the Senate for not approving key reforms to the school finance system and refusing to change their positions on controversial issues such as “private school choice.”

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a 20-item agenda for the a special session beginning on July 18, including several education issues that the House and Senate clashed over during the regular session. Patrick stressed Thursday that he supported all 20 items, while pitching a multi-layered plan beyond the governor’s agenda.

Soon after Patrick’s press conference, Abbott praised the lieutenant governor’s efforts.

“My office has been working with lawmakers in both the Senate and House these past six weeks, and if these items do not get passed, it will be for lack of will, not for lack of time,” Abbott said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Rep. Dan Huberty, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he plans to file a bill during the special session to reform school finance — and to continue to reject “private school choice.” [link]
  • Speaking to hundreds of educators ahead of a special session packed with education bills, House Speaker Joe Straus chastised the Senate for underfunding school finance reform. [link]
  • Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor on Wednesday afternoon said that he would not appoint conferees to negotiate with the House on a proposed school finance overhaul. “That deal is dead,” he said. [link]

Author:  ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

Abbott Officially calls Special Session, Allowing Lawmakers to Begin Filing Bills

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a declaration for a special session of the Texas Legislature Monday, formally inviting lawmakers back to Austin to pass “sunset legislation” that will keep several key state agencies open.

The long-awaited procedural move allows lawmakers to begin filing bills for the special session set to begin on July 18.

In addition to the formal declaration, Abbott also released a draft version of 19 additional items he plans to add to the special session agenda later on. Last month, Abbott announced that lawmakers would consider 20 total legislative items during the special session.

Lawmakers’ failure to pass “sunset” legislation during this year’s 140-day regular session forced Abbott to call the special session. Absent that measure, government agencies including the Texas Medical Board, which licenses doctors across the state, will have to shut down.

“With today’s proclamation, and with bill authors already lined up for all special session items, I look forward to working with the House and Senate to finish the people’s business,” Abbott said in a statement.

During the special session, lawmakers will return to several controversial issues that deeply divided the state’s Republican leadership, including a so-called “bathroom bill” that seeks to restrict which bathrooms transgender Texans can use. In his unofficial supplemental call, Abbott described that issue as “legislation regarding the use of multi-occupancy showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and changing rooms.”

Abbott also wants legislators to take on school finance reform, school choice for special needs students and several local control measures.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott is plotting an aggressive approach to the upcoming special session of the Legislature, diverting from his above-the-fray style to try to see through an ambitious 20-item agenda. [link]
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced he was calling the Legislature back for a special session to address must-pass “sunset” legislation and 19 other measures. Here’s what Texans can expect ahead of July 18. [link]

Author: ANDY DUEHREN – The Texas Tribune

Texas is Putting Troubled Nursing Homes on Notice

Texas nursing homes beware: The state’s tolerance for mistakes is dropping fast.

In September, a new state law takes effect that will make it more difficult for long-term care facilities cited for repeat violations to avoid hefty fines from regulators.

It’s an effort by legislators and advocates for the aging to crack down on bad seeds in the nursing home industry. And there are a lot of them.

A January AARP Texas report found the quality of the state’s nursing homes on average was “shamefully poor.”

More than half of them received just one or two stars out of a possible five in the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rating system, according to a 2015 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Aging and Disability Services, which regulates long-term care facilities, identified some 17,466 violations over the course of fiscal year 2015, but only took enforcement action — everything from fines to license revocations and denials — in 40 cases.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, sought to change this in the last legislative session. He filed a bill that, among other things, gives the state the ability to fine repeat offender nursing homes without first having a chance to fix violations.

His bill — eliminating a so-called “right to correct” loophole for the most serious offenses — passed the Senate but never made it out of the House, and eventually got attached as an amendment to another successful health care bill.

Schwertner said in April that the state “needs to send a clear and unambiguous message that we’re serious about protecting our most vulnerable citizens from abuse and neglect.”

“Whether it’s children in foster care, individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities living in long-term care facilities, or our parents and grandparents residing in nursing homes, our state needs to do a much better job of protecting those who cannot protect themselves,” he said.

But Phillip Hopkins, president of TAG Management Services, which operates long-term care facilities in Texas, said businesses like his are facing mounting regulations and pressure to be perfect in an industry where mistakes can happen and staff turnover is high.

He said allowing them to correct problems before being hit with fines is crucial to providing high quality care. If one of his company’s nine nursing homes is dinged for a light bulb being unscrewed or a resident missing a shoe, he said, “we’re going to be chasing our tails.”

“We fix it and concentrate on it, but if they fine me on everything that happens it dilutes the system,” Hopkins said.

Legislators and advocates for the elderly have been vexed for years over how few troubled nursing homes are fined. In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, 328 of the state’s 1,200 nursing facilities accounted for 94 percent of all serious violations. But the state fined only 22 of them, according to the AARP report from earlier this year.

The Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the effectiveness of state agencies, wrote in a July 2015 report to the Legislature that the Department of Aging and Disability Services “needs to step up to the plate and more aggressively take on its role as a regulator.” But the commission also said that the department’s power over long-term care facilities is “a regulatory touch so light that the industry feels little consequence from committing repeated violations.”

“In the agency’s defense, statutory provisions keep penalty caps low and prohibit the collection of fines for many violations later corrected by providers,” the report said. The department “cannot effectively ensure the safety of these vulnerable populations while wearing statutory handcuffs and without effective enforcement tools.”

Bob Jackson, state director at AARP Texas, said because nursing homes have been allowed to fix violations without facing consequences, they’ve gone back to their old habits — over and over again.

“There’s a cadre of nursing homes that are at the bottom and never get better,” he said. “They correct the one-time citation but there’s not an incentive … There’s no sting in it for the provider.”

The nursing home industry puts the onus back on agency surveyors, who they say don’t always enforce violations the same way.

Scot Kibbe, director of government relations for the Texas Health Care Association, which represents 600 nursing homes, said that kind of inconsistency makes it difficult for nursing homes to meet survey goals that will improve their standing. He said nursing homes can appeal a surveyor’s findings — but that’s a long, costly process.

“Many are struggling for lack of funding, and then if you keep tacking on penalties, you’re not solving the problem,” Kibbe said. “It’s maybe putting them further in the hole.”

Disclosure: AARP Texas, the Texas Health Care Association and the Kaiser Family Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Find a full list of Tribune donors and sponsors here

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas Legislature is faced with a budget challenge that has pitted the Republican majority’s desire to cut government spending against a vulnerable faction: nursing homes. [link]
  • Nursing homes were spared the draconian cuts proposed by lawmakers at the beginning of the 2011 session. Still, despite growing caseloads and rising medical costs, they move forward with less state and federal support. [link]

Analysis: A Governor (Belatedly) Setting the Legislature’s Agenda

Gov. Greg Abbott is doing in advance of the special session what Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did at the beginning of the regular session: laying out a bunch of priorities, setting the agenda.

Better late than never.

The governor is fiddling with something interesting here — using a special session as a way to focus an unfocused Legislature, to force them to work on his issues instead of issues of their own, to sidestep some of the parliamentary landmines that scramble the minds of all but a few of the Capitol’s wizards, to get things done.

Abbott started with a rule of his own, telling the Senate to pass the legislation that forced him to call a special session in the first place — a “sunset” bill that will extend the lives of a handful of government departments that would otherwise die, including the doctor-licensing Texas Medical Board. Once the Senate has temporarily mended its hostage-taking ways, the governor has promised to add 19 issues to the agenda, including lavatory legislation and property tax caps, that were the primary reasons for the Senate’s obstinacy.

The session hasn’t started yet — it hasn’t officially been called. But Abbott, after suffering the frustrations of the first six months of 2017, finally has the wheel.

Special sessions and their governor-driven agendas are nothing new, but it’s interesting to watch in the hands of a relatively new governor. Abbott took office in January 2015; this is the first special session he’s ever called.

He said at the outset what the issues would be. Now he’s trickling them out again, one at a time, naming the bill authors, picking his favorites and giving them each a moment in the gubernatorial spotlight.

There’s some stagecraft at work here, too. Lawmakers can always file bills that aren’t on the governor’s agenda for a special session. They’re not eligible for consideration, but filing is a way to shine attention on something and to try to get the governor to add it later. But lawmakers can’t file any bills until the official proclamation of a special session is released. Abbott hasn’t released that and is using the time available to bring a little more attention to the things he wants done.

He got a bellyful of lawmaker filings earlier this year. He’s going from a legislative session where more than 6,000 bills were filed and considered and passed or killed in 140 days, with or without his input, consent, guidance or knowledge, to a 30-day special session with an agenda entirely in his hands. Quite the luxury.

For a guy who’s been trying to extend the control of his office, this could be addictive. Two years ago, he got his fingers deeper into the budget than his predecessors, successfully (for now) challenging a limit on what is and is not within a governor’s veto power when it comes to state spending. Line-item vetos are allowed in Texas, but Abbott reached into “riders” — descriptive texts directing agencies on just how to spend the money appropriated in the budget. Before Abbott, those parts of the budget were considered out of reach.

Abbott is lately picking the pockets of cities and counties, joining with the Legislature to weed out local ordinances he doesn’t like in favor of overarching state laws. During this year’s regular session, ride-hailing regulations approved by voters in Austin and by elected city councils elsewhere in Texas were run down. Texting-while-driving laws, a regular feature in local statutes, are new to state law; one of Abbott’s special-session items would strike those local ordinances now that the state has stepped in. The property tax restrictions so dear to Abbott and the Senate (and to at least 77 percent of the state’s voters, by the way, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll) would require local governments to ask voters before raising taxes more than a small amount.

It’s safe to say local officials across the state are unhappy with the state’s ambitions.

And now the governor is getting his first taste of really and truly bossing the Legislature around. It’s a turn from regular sessions, where his handful of “emergency items” gets no more attention than the legislative package of any relatively powerful legislator. Abbott was successful with most of his pets earlier this year (his call for ethics reform got only a muted reply), but compare that to Patrick, who listed 30 items and put at least two dozen in the bank.

Now it’s Abbott’s turn: He’ll be in for the usual surprises when the session starts and the legislative animals chew up the furniture and tear up the lawn, but the lead-up has been going well. The governor looks like he’s in charge, for perhaps the first time this year.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas lawmakers will return to Austin in a month to take another swing at more than a dozen issues they couldn’t resolve during the regular legislative session. So what has changed? [link]
  • The state’s top leaders couldn’t close a session-ending deal over the final weekend, giving advocates of bathroom and property tax legislation — if the governor allows it — another chance. [link]
  • A review of Gov. Greg Abbott’s schedule during May provides a glimpse into the final stretch of the legislative session, where the governor tried in vain to bring together lawmakers to avoid a special session. [link]

 

Author: ROSS RAMEY – The Texas Tribune

Abbott Plots Aggressive Approach to Special Session

Gov. Greg Abbott is plotting an aggressive approach to the upcoming special session of the Legislature, diverting from his above-the-fray style to try to see through an ambitious 20-item agenda.

The push came into public view Thursday, when Abbott’s office began announcing lawmakers who will take the lead on individual items — state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, intend to author legislation cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud, for example. Abbott’s office is working to line up similar pairs for all 20 items.

These are not the only preparations his office has been making for the special session, which begins July 18. Since its announcement, his staff has been privately meeting with a range of stakeholders to solicit their input and build support for the agenda.

“I think there clearly is a sense that they’re much more engaged,” said Dale Craymer, the president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which met last week with Abbott’s staff.

People like Craymer note that it’s natural for the governor and his office to be more hands-on in the lead-up to a special session because the agenda is entirely of the governor’s making. But some also say the increased level of engagement is notable after a regular session in which Abbott faced some criticism for being absent from legislative battles.

Abbott sought to recapture the spotlight June 6 when he laid out his surprisingly lengthy special session call, asking lawmakers to take up everything from raising teachers’ pay by $1,000 to pre-empting local ordinance regulating trees on private land. He ordered legislators to first pass a series of bills that prevent some state agencies from closing.

People who have spoken to Abbott’s office in recent days say they realize the agenda is a heavy lift but are determined to get it done. Abbott’s staff, one of those people said, “are not walking into this unaware of the challenge.”

“The buzz is that they’ve called every trade association in town, they are visiting with people from across the state, visiting aggressively with folks in making sure that as much of this agenda as possible is passed during the special session in hopes that there’s not another,” said Luis Saenz, a lobbyist who used to work for Abbott’s office.

One trade organization Abbott’s office has met with is the Texas Building Owners and Managers Association, which represents commercial real estate throughout the state and has an interest in property tax reform. The group’s president, Brett Williams, said Abbott’s office walked him through all 20 items and left him with the impression that they are “trying to get the issues across the line.”

Abbott, for his part, has declined to say whether he is willing to call subsequent special sessions if lawmakers do not complete his checklist in their first 30 days. Technically, the special session is not even official yet — Abbott has not filed the proclamation that would allow lawmakers to start filing bills, and his office has not given any indication of when he may.

Regardless, Abbott’s office sees a number of sources for optimism once the special session gets underway: Without any must-pass bills — aside from the agency-saving measures — there is less potential for hostage-taking. It’s much harder for the House to get away with killing legislation in the Calendars Committee, which sets the daily agenda, when there aren’t thousands of bills flowing through it. And in general, the spotlight will be burning bright and hot on the 20 items with far fewer distractions.

Abbott’s massively funded political operation — his re-election campaign has a $34.4 million war chest and no serious opponent — will also be closely watching the special session. Sources say he and his office plan to make clear “who’s with him and who’s not” on his agenda for the special session, which will unfold with a few months until candidate filing begins for the 2018 election cycle.

What remains to be seen is whether the preparation will be enough to overcome the challenges that led to a special session in the first place: sharp differences on priorities between the House and Senate and, to a lesser extent, between the House and the governor. There have been few signs those tensions have thawed since the end of the regular session.

In a speech last week, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, jokingly compared Abbott’s special session agenda to a pile of manure while throwing cold water on multiple agenda items.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, meanwhile, has continued to present himself as Abbott’s eager partner at the top of the state government, all but pledging the Senate’s full support for the governor’s special session agenda.

“I’m glad we’re having a special session,” the lieutenant governor said in a radio interview Wednesday. “The governor and I are linked shoulder-to-shoulder on these issues.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas lawmakers will return to Austin in a month to take another swing at more than a dozen issues they couldn’t resolve during the regular legislative session. So what has changed? [link]
  • A review of Gov. Greg Abbott’s schedule during May provides a glimpse into the final stretch of the legislative session, where the governor tried in vain to bring together lawmakers to avoid a special session. [link]
  • Well before the current legislative standoff over public accommodations for transgender Texans, the political elements of the “bathroom bill” fight were falling into place. [link]

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Analysis: “Tax relief,” Maybe, but no Savings for Taxpayers

State officials are talking once again about your property taxes. Like you, they hate those taxes. A lot.

But they’re hoping to fool you, once again, into thinking they are going to lower the price of local government and public education.

None of their proposals or their recent actions would do that.

School property taxes are the biggest part of every Texas property owners’ tax bill. They are also the only local property tax that goes up and down primarily because of what happens in Austin.

State officials don’t set your school property tax rate; they just decide how much money local officials are required to raise.

In practice, it amounts to almost the same thing.

If the state spends less money per student, the local districts have to spend more. They get their money from property taxes, so property taxes go up.

And then, state officials complain — alongside property taxpayers across Texas — about rising property taxes.

The current long slide in state funding started in 2007 — right after lawmakers rejiggered the formulas and balanced state and local funding, with each covering 45 percent of the total cost of education and the federal government picking up the remaining 10 percent.

The numbers ten years later: Locals pay 52 percent, the state pays 38 percent and the feds are still at 10 percent.

According to the Texas Supreme Court about a year ago, local property taxes and the system they finance remain constitutional. Lucky for the state that’s not a criminal court, though: Taxpayers clearly feel robbed.

State officials can feel the heat of that ire. But their new budget doesn’t address the school finance problem. They killed legislation that would have put another $1.5 billion into public education — the only bill in the regular session that would have moved school taxes, if only indirectly and only a little bit.

And their effort to limit growth in property taxes levied by other local governments failed, too. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will put that one taxesTxon the agenda of the midsummer special session. One version, passed by the Senate and apparently favored by the governor, would have required voter approval for any local property tax increases of more than 5 percent.

It wouldn’t save you any money — contrary to the rhetoric billowing from the Senate — but it could lower the speed at which your property taxes grow. It’s like promising a gazelle you can make the lions a little slower.

Texas lawmakers have replaced the idea of lowering state taxes with a new one: Complaining alongside taxpayers who want lower taxes. Actually doing something about it has remained out of reach.

They could replace an unpopular tax with a less unpopular one, but they have few options — none of them particularly lucrative. The Texas Lottery was an example of this, and it served mainly to underscore our widespread innumeracy: A surprising number of Texans thought state-run gaming would cover the full cost of public education in Texas. In fact, the Texas games earn the state about $2.5 billion very two years, about as much as taxes on alcoholic beverages and less than half as much as the (also) unpopular business franchise tax. Lawmakers budgeted $41 billion for public education over the next two years; the lottery will cover about 6 percent of that.

They could cut spending, except it has proven nearly impossible to do that in Texas, partly because the state budget is, relatively speaking, pretty tight, and partly because when you get down to it, the programs that would be cut are more popular than the tax cuts that might result.

People want roads and schools and prisons and whatnot, and the political experts who run the government — give them their due for getting into and then remaining in office — have ascertained that it’s more rewarding to keep current programs alive than to cut taxes.

That’s a safe assumption, isn’t it, since they haven’t cut those programs or whittled those taxes?

But state leaders can hear the voters, too, so they’re trying to force local governments to hold the line on taxes. They can’t provide any relief themselves, but maybe they can make someone else do it.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • In their just-ended legislative session, Texas lawmakers mowed through a list of politically divisive issues that could have lasting effects on how others see a state that’s been known for years as a mecca for business. [link]
  • There’s a simple test to tell you whether the promise of a tax cut is really a tax cut: Is there money in your hand? [link]
  • Some Texas lawmakers want to kill the franchise tax that so many businesses hate. So far, so good. But it might leave a hole in the state’s pocket when it inevitably comes time to rebalance the state’s financing for public schools. [link]

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

Here’s What Gov. Greg Abbott has Said – or Not Said – About Special Session Items

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he was calling back the Texas Legislature for a special session, he promised to “make it count,” setting a wide-ranging agenda of 20 issues for lawmakers to consider beginning July 18.

Some of the topics, including school finance reform and property tax reform, have been on Abbott’s legislative wish list since his State of the State address in January, while others have received little or no recent mention from the governor.

Abbott stipulated that lawmakers must first pass “sunset” legislation to reauthorize several key state agencies before he will allow them to turn to the other topics, which range from municipal annexation to a controversial “bathroom bill.” Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.

Here’s a look at Abbott’s previous comments on those topics.

Public schools — and bathrooms

Easily the most controversial topic of the regular session was Senate Bill 6 — the “bathroom bill” — which would have required transgender Texans to use bathrooms in government buildings and public schools that match their “biological sex” and prohibited local governments from adopting or enforcing local bathroom regulations. While Abbott remained silent on SB 6, he did signal support for another bill — House Bill 2899 — that would have nixed existing municipal and school district trans-inclusive bathroom policies and prevent locals from enacting any new policies. He nodded to HB 2899 during his special session announcement.

Two of Abbott’s items focus on public school teachers: one that would raise their salaries by $1,000 and one that would grant school administrators more flexibility over teacher hiring and retention. Abbott discussed local school control and teacher quality during his 2015 State of the State address: “We can bring out the best in all of our teachers by getting rid of these one-size-fits-all mandates and trusting our teachers to truly educate students in the classroom … We must also return genuine local control to the school districts in Texas.” In 2014, before he was governor, Abbott called for paying teachers up to $2,000 more per year if their students performed well on Advanced Placement tests. More recently, he’s been quiet on raising salaries for teachers.

After the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the state’s school finance system was constitutional — but critically flawed — Abbott backed school finance reform in his 2017 State of the State address in January: “Both the House and the Senate are right to tackle the vexing issue of school finance now rather than putting it off … It is time to construct an entirely new system. With a sense of urgency, we must create better ways to fund education.”

One contentious issue that contributed to the demise of school finance reform efforts during the regular session was “private school choice” for special-needs students. Abbott added it to the special session agenda after having endorsed the idea in December 2016. “It would be far more efficient to provide that money to parents for them to choose which school is best for their child, knowing that, in the City of Houston, for example, where there are hundreds of schools, there may only be 10 that have the resources and capabilities of addressing the special needs of that particular parent’s child,” he said. He also generally backed “school choice” during his 2017 State of the State address.

Property taxes and local regulations

Efforts to change the process for property appraisal and tax rate increases collapsed during a standoff between the House and Senate during the final days of the legislative session, but lawmakers are set to have another shot in July. Abbott called for rollback elections for property tax increases during his State of the State address in 2017: “We have to remember, property owners are not renting their land from the city. That is why we need property tax reform that prevents cities from raising property taxes without first getting voter approval.”

Abbott also asked lawmakers to address local regulations on spending, trees on private land, construction project rules and permitting. The governor has broadly criticized local regulations but has not addressed all of these items recently.

Earlier this year, he publicly pushed for an end to local rules regulating what property owners do with trees on private land, but he has been quiet on local construction rules (his special session call includes “preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects”).

In a 2015 opinion piece in Forbes, Abbott wrote that he wanted to “speed up the permitting process to help businesses get their projects done faster,” which echoes his comments in his call for a special session.

Abbott wants the Legislature to address municipal annexation rules during the special session after a Democratic filibuster killed a bill meant to allow Texans to vote if a city wanted to include their property in its borders. He’s been quiet on that issue.

Although he just signed a bill instituting a statewide texting-while-driving ban, Abbott has asked lawmakers to pass legislation during a special session stating that the statewide ban overrules any local regulation on the issue. He advocated for such a pre-emption during the session.

Abortion, health and medicine

The special session agenda includes three items relating to abortion policy in Texas: barring taxpayer funding from subsidizing health providers that perform abortion, requiring women to obtain separate insurance policies for non-emergency abortions and increasing reporting requirements for when health complications arise during abortions. During his 2017 State of the State address, Abbott promised to embrace any legislation that “protects unborn children and promotes a culture of life in Texas.”

At the end of his Tuesday announcement, Abbott asked the Legislature to extend a task force dedicated to studying maternal mortality in Texas. Abbott has not been particularly vocal on the topic in the past; a previous statement to the Tribune from spokesman John Wittman said Abbott is “committed to reducing the maternal mortality rate.”

He also put legislation that would strengthen patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders on the agenda. He’s been quiet on that topic.

Government and elections

During the special session, Abbott wants lawmakers to prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars for collecting public employee union dues. He addressed the topic during his 2017 State of the State address: “We must end the practice of government deducting union dues from paychecks of employees. Taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to support the collection of union dues.”

The Legislature used part of its regular session to pass a bill that curbs voter fraud at nursing homes and widens ballot access to elderly Texans who live in them. Abbott wants further action during the special session asking for a bill “cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud.” In late 2016, after the state began investigating alleged mail-in ballot voter fraud in Tarrant County, he tweeted, “We will crush illegal voting.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Advocates and families of transgender Texans are preparing for a special session of the Texas Legislature that’s sure to continue the heated debate over which bathrooms transgender individuals are allowed to use. [link]
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he’s calling lawmakers back for a special legislative session starting July 18. Here’s what he’s committed to adding to the call.    [link]
  • Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 18. Abbott said that after legislators address a bill to keep some state agencies from shuttering, he’ll add another 19 items to the agenda. [link]

Author:  ANDY DUEHREN – The Texas Tribune

Texas Bill Provides Alternatives to Jail for Inability to Pay Fines

AUSTIN – A measure passed by the Texas Legislature is designed to prevent people convicted of low-level crimes from being sent to jail when they can’t afford a fine or fees.

Senate Bill 1913 was approved by just five votes in the waning hours of the legislative session and awaits the governor’s signature.

Its sponsor, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, says the purpose is to keep Texas jails from acting as “debtor’s prisons.”

Attorney Brett Merfish with the public-interest group Texas Appleseed, says the idea is to stop what’s known as the “cycle of court debt.”

“People would not be taking up space in our local jails, and instead be able to serve out their sentences and also not lose their jobs, not have that interruption in their lives,” she says. “Usually, if people are indigent and can’t pay, being in jail can lead to a cascade of other consequences in their lives.”

The bill requires judges to evaluate a person’s ability to pay fines for lower-level offenses that most often don’t include jail time, such as traffic tickets or low-level misdemeanors, and would keep them out of jail simply because they can’t afford the fines. It also allows judges to lower fines, set payment plans or order community service in those cases.

Merfish says a Texas Appleseed study shows significant numbers of Texans are spending time in jail simply because they are poor.

“These practices are widespread – so, in these cases of fine-only offenses, over 16 percent of them are satisfied by jail credit, which we think is an indicator for when people can’t pay,” she adds.

She says each year, hundreds of thousands of Texans are caught in the cycle of court debt, often losing their jobs, cars, homes and even custody of their children.

“There’s certainly further reform, but we’re happy with this as a first step to having practices and procedures in courts that will highlight this issue for judges, and ensure that people are given alternatives to payment,” explains Merfish.

Last year, ACLU Texas filed suit against the Galveston County town of Santa Fe, alleging its city court assessed assessed excessive fines and warrant fees on people convicted of low-level crimes to help fund the city’s $600,000 budget shortfall. The case is still pending.

Author: Mark Richardson – Texas News Service

Abbott Pushes Back Announcement on Special Session

Gov. Greg Abbott‘s announcement on whether he will call a special session is not expected to happen before next week.

On Monday, Abbott said he would share his verdict “later this week.” On Friday, his office said he would not make the announcement Friday or over the weekend.

Abbott is facing pressure to bring lawmakers back to Austin to deal with unresolved debates over property taxes and a “bathroom bill” that would regulate which restroom transgender Texans can use. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been pushing for a special session to address those issues.

Asked Wednesday morning about a special session, Abbott said he was waiting for the budget to be certified and wanted to go through more bills on his desk. Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Thursday evening he had certified the budget.

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Uncertainty, Deep Tension Mark the End of the 85th Regular Session

Texas’ 85th legislative session has come to an uncertain, rancorous end after a 140-day period that saw the state extend its rightward march and tensions between the two chambers reach new heights — largely because of disagreements within the ruling Republican Party.

Lawmakers gaveled out Monday afternoon — first the House, then the Senate — under a cloud of uncertainty over whether Gov. Greg Abbott would call a special session, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been pushing for to deal with a number of incomplete priorities. Abbott was coy Monday morning, saying he would announce his decision “later in the week” — and making clear that he would be in charge in the event of an overtime round.

“I would normally say, ‘I’ll see you in 18 months,’ God willing,” Patrick told senators as the chamber prepared to adjourn for the last time in the regular session. “But we’ll see you a little sooner than that.”

The final day was also consumed by a scuffle on the House floor that seemed to embody some of the sharpest tensions of the session: State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, traded accusations with House Democrats after Rinaldi said he called immigration authorities on people in the gallery protesting the state’s new “sanctuary cities” law. The dustup punctuated a session in which Democrats and Republicans alike waged fierce battles over illegal immigration, abortion and LGBT rights.

“This session has been very, very difficult and emotional in many different ways, in many layers, over contentious issues, and there are enough of us here to remember a time in Texas when respect and decorum ruled the day,” state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said Monday at a news conference held by House Democrats. “It’s just ironic — my senior members that have been here dozens of years have told me this is the worst session they’ve ever seen.”

Even after both chambers gaveled out Monday afternoon, the fault lines were clearer than ever. Patrick issued a statement that accused the House of killing several of his priorities, including those related to property taxes and bathrooms, which the lieutenant governor said remain “must-pass legislation.” Straus, for his part, issued a statement saying his chamber “feels very good about where we ended up, and now we look forward to returning home.”

The session got underway on Jan. 10 in the shadow of Comptroller Glenn Hegar‘s dour revenue estimate, in part due to the downturn in oil prices, ensuring budget writers had their work cut out for them. For weeks, the two chambers sparred over the best way to balance the budget, with the Senate using an accounting trick to free up $2.5 billion — Straus called it “cooking the books” — and the House turning to the state’s savings account, colloquially known as the Rainy Day Fund.

Budget writers ultimately struck a deal that relied on a bit of both methods.

The session also opened against the backdrop of a new Republican administration in Washington led by President Donald Trump. Texas Republicans were hopeful Trump would provide some relief for a state that spent the last eight years at war with a Democrat-led federal government, but the benefits ultimately appeared to be limited.

On one of the items where Texas Republicans have long sought assistance from the federal government — border security — budget writers maintained the current spending level of $800 million.

That did not mean Trump’s influence was not felt under the pink dome. His hardline stance against illegal immigration dovetailed with Abbott’s push for a ban on “sanctuary cities,” arguably the most rancorous proposal of the session. After the Senate passed the legislation, Senate Bill 4, House leadership sought to water it down, an ultimately unsuccessful endeavor thanks to a polarizing amendment by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler.

The amendment allows law enforcement officials to ask the immigration status of anyone they detain — not just those they arrest. Its passage, mainly along party lines, marked something of a coming-out party for the newly formed House Freedom Caucus, a group of 12 conservative lawmakers who spent the session working to advance their priorities through their knowledge of the rules and procedure.

“Our fingerprints are on many pieces of policy,” Schaefer said in an interview earlier this month, “and that’s not by accident.”

The sanctuary cities ban was one of four emergency items Abbott declared in his State of the State address, and he signed it into law weeks before the session concluded. He did so without advance notice on a Sunday evening on Facebook Live, spawning another round of protests against the bill.

While Abbott, Patrick and Straus were generally on the same page regarding SB 4, they were far more splintered on a “bathroom bill” that would require transgender people to use the restroom that matches their birth gender. Patrick charged into the session vowing to fight for it, while Abbott kept his distance and Straus made clear he viewed it as potentially bad for the state’s economy.

There were few big surprises regarding the issue during the first half of session. The Senate approved its bathroom bill, Senate Bill 6, early on and sent it to the House, where it languished amid continued resistance from House leadership. But in April, the House debuted what some had hoped would be an alternative to SB 6, House Bill 2899, and got the governor to break his silence — Abbott called it a “thoughtful proposal.”

Still, HB 2899, which would have invalidated local trans-inclusive policies and school accommodations for transgender students, remained stuck in a House committee — even as it accrued a total of 80 co-authors. The issue wouldn’t show signs of life again until after a remarkable turn of events that began May 11, when the Freedom Caucus, at a boiling point with House leadership, went on a bill-killing spree that claimed what is known as the sunset safety net bill. In the House, the failure of the measure, which keeps some state agencies from shuttering, meant the Senate would have to pass it to avoid a likely special session.

Patrick seized the opportunity, vowing to hold the bill hostage until the House acted on a bathroom bill and property tax reform. Abbott aligned himself with Patrick, calling them priorities in the home stretch — but stopped short of threatening a special session over them.

“It definitely, I think, kind of shifted the balance, so to speak, or shifted the playing field on what was going to get done in the session or whether there was going to be leverage at all for this issue or the property tax issue,” one Freedom Caucus member, state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, recalled Sunday.

With time running out, the House worked to appease Patrick, passing measures that dealt with the two issues more narrowly than the lieutenant governor had preferred. The period marked the apex of pressure that Patrick had been applying on the House since the session’s early days, hoping to bend it to his chamber’s more conservative will.

“I think Speaker Straus did a terrific  job of being basically the voice of reason in that regard,” state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said Monday, reflecting on the Senate pressures. The House had its priorities, Zerwas added, “we got them done, and the lieutenant governor had some of his priorities that didn’t really sync up with our leadership here, so you know, I think ultimately that’s how the political process works. I think we got done the things the state, the citizens, expect us to get done.”

In the final days of the regular session, there appeared to be some hope lawmakers could work out a deal to avoid overtime — Abbott sounded optimistic as of Friday morning. But whatever chance there was for compromise seemed to plummet over the weekend, when the chamber leaders held dueling news conferences — twice — to assign blame to the other side for putting lawmakers on the brink of a special session.

By Monday morning, Abbott, known for his aversion to special sessions, was striking a somewhat different tone. Asked at a bill-signing ceremony whether he planned to call lawmakers back to Austin, he raised the possibility for the first time in 140 days. “I’ll be making an announcement later this week,” the governor said.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • In some ways, the standoff over the bathroom bill had been years in the making.
  • Abbott signed a bill Monday morning that allows ride-hailing companies like Uber to return to Austin.

 Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

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