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Tag Archives: texas special session

After Months of Controversy, Texas Bathroom Bill Dies Quietly

In the end, the controversial bathroom bill went quietly.

For more than a year, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led the crusade for a state law to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans — an initiative that resonated with social conservatives, including many pastors, who backed him up. Patrick for months stood firm in his pursuit for a bathroom bill even while similar campaigns in other states fizzled out.

He was met by loud opposition that only grew with time and eventually proved to be a considerable political force.

Transgender women, men and children from across Texas descended on the Capitol to testify about how the proposal — which would ban local policies that ensured transgender individuals’ right to use public and school restrooms that match their gender identity — could endanger their lives. The business community rallied against the legislation too, giving House Speaker Joe Straus cover as he refused to negotiate with Patrick on bathroom restrictions.

That led to a stalemate over the issue during the regular legislative session that played out in dueling press conferences featuring legislative leaders slamming each other over the issue, threats by Patrick to force lawmakers to return to Austin by holding must-pass bills hostage and last-ditch efforts to attach bathroom restrictions to other pieces of legislation considered in the middle of the night.

Gov. Greg Abbott was eventually forced to call a 30-day special session that revived the bathroom bill. But for all the bathroom-related commotion and cajoling that dominated the regular legislative session, when lawmakers wrapped up the special session on Tuesday, Patrick eulogized the bathroom bill as just one of several proposals that didn’t make it to Abbott’s desk because of Straus.

And in the end, it wasn’t all that hard to see it coming.

Shifting momentum

“We hope that this time, this issue remains settled: Texans don’t want harmful, anti-transgender legislation,” JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said as opponents of the bathroom bill seemed to release a collective sigh of relief when the House abruptly adjourned to end the special session Tuesday evening.

Opponents had been anxiously watching the clock tick down on the 30 days lawmakers were allotted to pass Abbott’s 20-item agenda.

But giving lawmakers a second shot to pass a bathroom bill only seemed to further shift momentum against the legislation as the debate stretched into the summer.

Little had changed for Straus — often a less vocal foil to some of Patrick’s priorities — who seemed to dig in his heels, arguing that the legislation would have dire economic and moral costs for Texas.

With the national debate over North Carolinas bathroom still lingering, he was backed up by top business executives, including the heads of dozens of Fortune 500 companies, who worried that Texas could invite the same economic blows the Tar Heel State faced after passing a similar bill, including cancelled corporate expansions and sports tournaments.

They called Abbott to express their displeasure and launched a flurry of letters warning about the harm that laws deemed discriminatory toward the LGBT community could cause.

The opposition grew to also include school districts, tourism officials, faith leaders and law enforcement officials.

“Everybody realized the issue really wasn’t going to be resolved without everybody being heard,” said Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, who was among those who spearheaded the business opposition.

Lost support

With the opposition growing louder outside the Capitol — eventually including major GOP donors and even Abbott’s campaign treasurer — the bathroom bill’s quiet death march inside the pink dome moved forward.

Within a week of returning to Austin for the special session, the Senate slogged through an 11-hour committee hearing and an eight-hour floor debate ending with a vote to advance the revived bathroom bill.

But it was almost immediately bottled up in the House, where Straus refused to refer it to a committee for consideration. Two other proposals that originated in the House were referred to committee but never got a hearing.

Support for the House bill seemed to drop as the special session began. Eighty Republicans had signed on as co-authors during the regular session — proponents of the bill regularly touted that number as they criticized Straus for keeping the bathroom bill from getting a House vote — but in the special session the number of co-authors dropped to 60.

“Some people were listening,” Lou Weaver, transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas, said of the drop in co-authors. “Whether it was to the trans communities, to our allies, to our advocates, the business community, faith leaders — whatever the case may be, they did switch.”

Meanwhile, House leadership faced little opposition from proponents of the bathroom bill as they quietly worked to keep bathroom restrictions from being tacked on to key education bills that were moving through the chamber by limiting the amendments lawmakers could propose when those bills reached the House floor.

Across the rotunda, rumors that the Senate was planning to attach the bathroom restrictions to education bills proved unfounded.

By last week, the bill supporters were already conceding that Texas wouldn’t pass a bathroom bill. Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, the legislation’s author, on Monday acknowledged that he had not recently talked about his proposals with the governor.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the bathroom bill’s demise.

According to those familiar with the negotiations, the measure was not even a factor as the House and Senate worked to hash out their differences over what emerged as the final sticking points of the special session: school finance and property tax legislation.

By then, some Capitol insiders had shifted focus to whether a second failed attempt would finally mark the end of the legislative debate.

“That’s the question: Is that the end of the bathroom bill?” Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist, said.

Fight isn’t over

LGBT advocates and their allies said they’re hopeful there’s been a shift in the debate, explaining that the prolonged fight at the Capitol gave them the opportunity to explain to leaders why proposals like the bathroom bill were discriminatory and dangerous.

But they admit the fight likely isn’t over.

During a late-night press conference on Tuesday, Patrick recounted a one-on-one meeting in which he urged Straus to pass a bathroom bill and “put this issue in the rearview mirror” because it wasn’t going away.

He was echoed earlier in the week by conservative groups that said they would urge the governor to bring lawmakers back for another special session to reconsider the issue.

Abbott has yet to rule out a second special session, but he did acknowledge during a Wednesday morning interview that “there’s no evidence whatsoever” that Straus will be swayed on the issue.

For his part, the speaker has so far only put out a short statement marking the end of the special session. It was short and focused on the House’s work to pass legislation “that was in the best interest of all Texans.” It didn’t mention the bathroom bill.

“The House was thoughtful, respectful and decisive in its solution-oriented approach,” Straus said.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business and Equality Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available 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. [Full story]
  • Both proponents and opponents of a Texas “bathroom bill” are steeling themselves once again as a special session kicks off in which Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to add the hot-button issue to the agenda. [Full story]
  • As Texas lawmakers reconvene for a special legislative session, IBM and other major companies are re-upping their opposition to legislation they say would discriminate against transgender children and harm its Texas recruiting efforts. [Full story]

Author:  ALEXA URA – The Texas Tribune

Gov. Abbott Slams House, Doesn’t Rule Out Second Special Session

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday put blame on the House — particularly Speaker Joe Straus — for the shortcomings of the special session and left the door open to calling another one.

“I’m disappointed that all 20 items that I put on the agenda did not receive the up-or-down vote that I wanted but more importantly that the constituents of these members deserved,” Abbott said in a KTRH radio interview. “They had plenty of time to consider all of these items, and the voters of the state of Texas deserved to know where their legislators stood on these issues.”

The comments came the morning after lawmakers closed out the special session without taking action on Abbott’s No. 1 issue, property tax reform. Abbott ended up seeing legislation get sent to his desk that addressed half his agenda. 

As the Senate prepared to adjourn Tuesday night, some senators said they wanted Abbott to call them back for another special session on property taxes. Asked about that possibility Wednesday, the governor said “all options are always on the table.”

“There is a deep divide between the House and Senate on these important issues,” Abbott said in the interview. “So I’m going to be making decisions later on about whether we call another special session, but in the meantime, what we must do is we need to all work to get more support for these priorities and to eliminate or try to dissolve the difference between the House and the Senate on these issues so we can get at a minimum an up-or-down vote on these issues or to pass it.”

In the interview, Abbott contrasted the House with the Senate, which moved quickly to pass all but two items on his agenda. The lower chamber started the special session by “dilly-dallying,” Abbott said, and focused on issues that had “nothing to do whatsoever” with his call. 

Asked if he assigned blame to Straus, a San Antonio Republican, Abbott replied, “Well, of course.”

Straus was very open in his opposition to at least one item on Abbott’s call: a “bathroom bill” that would regulate which restrooms transgender Texans can use. Its failure during the regular session was one of the reasons Abbott called an overtime round. Just as during the regular session, the House never took a vote on a “bathroom bill” during the special session.

“The speaker made very clear that he opposed this bill and he would never allow a vote to be taken on it,” Abbott said. “He told me that in the regular session. And he told me during the regular session that if this came up during the special session, he would not allow a vote on it, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that he’s going to change his mind on it, and that’s why elections matter.”

A Straus spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas Legislature closed out the special session Tuesday night amid a stalemate on property tax reform, leaving unfinished Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priority. [Full story]

ibility Wednesday, the governor said “all options are always on the table.”

 

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

Texas Legislature Ends Special Session Without Passing Property Tax Measure

The Texas Legislature closed out the special session Tuesday night amid a stalemate on property tax reform, leaving unfinished Gov. Greg Abbott‘s top priority.

Hours earlier, the House abruptly adjourned sine die – the formal designation meaning the end of a session – after advancing a school finance compromise to Abbott’s desk but declining to further negotiate on a key property tax proposal. When the Senate returned later in the night, it rejected the only remaining option to get the bill across the finish line, which was to accept the House’s version.

“We are not going to accept the take-it-or-leave it proposal from the House, and we are going to fight another day,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who had authored the property tax bill. “I hope the governor calls us back as soon as possible.”

It was a disappointing end for Abbott’s No. 1 issue, but the governor appeared pleased with the results of the special session. There was no immediate indication of whether he was open to calling another special session to keep trying on property tax reform.

“Our office believes this special session has produced a far better Texas than before,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement.

Abbott called lawmakers back for for the special session on July 18. Special sessions can last for up to 30 days, which gave both chambers until Wednesday to work.

Abbott ended up getting half his ambitious 20-item agenda to the finish line. The list of achievements included the must-pass “sunset” bills that will keep some state agencies from closing as well as proposals to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud, extend the life of maternal mortality task force, reform the municipal annexation process, limit local ordinance regulating trees and impose new restrictions on abortion.

At a news conference after the Senate adjourned, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also said he was proud of the Legislature’s accomplishments during the special session.

But Patrick’s tone quickly darkened when he turned to what was left undone.

He placed the blame for almost all of Abbott’s failed special session priorities on Speaker of the House Joe Straus.

“Thank goodness Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo,” Patrick said. “He would’ve been the first one over the wall.”

Patrick said the San Antonio Republican had treated the governor’s agenda “like horse manure,” blocking votes on measures like the “bathroom bill,” private school vouchers and defunding Planned Parenthood.

“We missed some major opportunities, but what I’m most upset about is the House quit tonight,” he said. “With 27 hours to go, they walked off the job.”

Straus came out with a statement of his own on Tuesday night, saying, “I’m proud of our House Members who worked diligently i the special session, passing legislation that was in the best interest of all Texans. The House was thoughtful, respectful and decisive in its solution-oriented approach.”

The House’s abrupt adjournment came after days of difficult negotiations with the Senate on school finance and property tax bills.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen had been expected to appoint members to a conference committee Tuesday so the two chambers could reconcile their versions of the bill.

But instead, shortly before the surprise motion to sine die, the Angleton Republican made an announcement.

“I have been working with members of the Senate for several days on SB 1, we have made our efforts, so I don’t want there to be in any way a suggestion that we have not, will not, would not work with the Senate on such an important issue,” he said.

Then he said he had not appointed a conference committee because he was “trying to keep the bill alive.”

“If we appointed conferees now, it would kill the bill because there is not enough time,” he said, explaining that under House rules, there would not be enough time left in the session to issue a conference committee report and have the chamber vote on it.

Bonnen’s announcement came after a vote on a school finance measure in which House members expressed deep disappointment —and  anger — that the bill they had sent to the Senate had come back largely stripped provisions the chamber had fought to keep, including reducing $1.8 billion in funding for schools to only $352 million.

“I’d tell the Senate to take back this crap and fix it,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, adding that she did not like “being bullied.” The House ultimately approved the changes to the bill, sending it to the governor’s desk.

While House lawmakers didn’t get their way with school finance, by adjourning Tuesday night, they forced the Senate to either accept their version of the property tax bill or let it die.  A key point of contention between the chambers: whether the the threshold requiring voter approval of property tax increases should be at the 6 percent preferred by the House or the 4 percent preferred by the Senate.

Some conservatives, including Patrick, have claimed an automatic election trigger would drive down property taxes. But such elections would only happen when taxes rise.

Bonnen and other House members repeatedly said the automatic elections would not drive down taxes. They also said transparency provisions that existed in at least two bills sitting in the upper chamber Tuesday would have made it more clear to homeowners which local government entities were behind rising tax bills.

And while the Senate focused on what increase should require voter approval, the House debated and passed far more bills during the special. That included legislation that would have lowered property tax payments for some Texans, including the elderly, disabled and military members.

So far at least two other Senate Republicans, Don Huffines of Dallas and Brandon Creighton of Conroe, have joined Bettencourt in calling for a second special session on property taxes. Patrick, at the post-adjournment news conference, said he would leave it up to the governor to decide.

Both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Abbott have said property tax reform is their top priority for the session. At the time the House adjourned sine die, Abbott was on track to claim victory on nine of the 20 items he had put on the special session call. As of Tuesday afternoon, he had signed five of them into law, and four more were on their way to his desk.

Patrick forced the special session by holding hostage a bill needed to prevent the shuttering of some state agencies during the regular session in May. At the time, he said he was doing so in order to push the House to move on two pieces of legislation: one that would regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans and another that would set new thresholds for when cities and counties must get voter approval for their property tax rates.

Just as during the regular session, the House never took a vote on a “bathroom bill” during the special session.

Brandon Formby, Emma Platoff and Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting to this story.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas House voted Tuesday to swallow a bitter pill and accept a version of a school finance bill that had $1.5 billion less in funding for schools than the lower chamber initially approved. [Full story]
  • Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Tuesday delivered some welcome news to weary state lawmakers: Their coffers should be richer than he previously anticipated. [Full story]
  • House and Senate negotiators will have the next two days remaining in the current special legislative session to hammer out their differences on legislation tackling property taxes, school finance and other items still in play. [Full story]

Author:  MORGAN SMITH AND PATRICK SVITEK

Analysis: Broken School Finance System Spawns Wild Solutions

Whether you feel sorry for them or not, Austin ISD property taxpayers will be sending $533 million of their local school taxes to the state for redistribution to poorer districts in the next school year.

That means that about 35 percent of the local school taxes collected in that district are spent elsewhere — the biggest “recapture” rate in the state.

And as far out as that might seem, it’s a sign that the state’s school finance system is working just the way state officials designed it to work. The state government puts up some money. The federal government puts up some money. Local school districts put up some money. They even out the spending per student, making (somewhat outdated) adjustments for costs of living, for different kinds of students with more expensive educational needs and for local districts’ ability to raise money from property taxes.

The better-off districts contribute some of their locally raised money to the districts where property tax revenue doesn’t cover the local cost of schools.

In Austin — the poster child for recapture in Texas right now — the school district is telling taxpayers they’ll be sending $2.6 billion to the state over the next five years. Property values are soaring and have been for years, and even in a better-balanced system, AISD would probably be putting money into the pot for school districts elsewhere.

To make matters worse, the state’s per-student spending has dropped over the last decade as its overall share of public education spending has dropped — to about 38 percent today from about 45 percent in 2007, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

That shifts even more of the load to local school districts — and it increases the amount of money taxpayers in AISD and other recapture districts have to raise for use in other school districts around Texas.

If the state raised its share, local districts would have less to pay. Recapture districts would be sending less to the state. Maybe — and this is probably fantasy — taxpayers would have less to complain about at town hall meetings when they’re chewing out their public officials over high taxes.

If state lawmakers can find the money to do it and get past their partisan and personal differences in these last days of the special session, they could increase state funding for education by up to $1.8 billion.

That money is hard to find, in part because so many legislators and honest number-crunchers either object to using the state’s savings account — known as the Rainy Day Fund — or to deferrals and other accounting tricks that can balance spending in the short term but have to be repaid later.

The Rainy Day solution eats into savings — and does it for ongoing expenses, to boot. The other — deferrals and accounting tricks — increase the size of the hole (already estimated at $7.9 billion by the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association) that will face budgeteers when the next Legislature assembles in January 2019.

Lawmakers are also talking about forming a commission that would study school finance, presumably to burn down the current setup and build a shiny new one in its place. Gov. Greg Abbott could put a commission like that together if the Legislature fails — former Gov. Mark White, who died last week, did just that in the 1980s to push the overhaul of public education generally regarded as White’s grand achievement.

If recapture taxes were separated from school taxes, Austin ISD taxpayers would see that they’re paying more on recapture than they are toward Travis County — and almost as much on recapture as they’re paying the city of Austin. Next year, according to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, those taxpayers will be sending more property tax dollars to the state than they do to the city.

That has public officials in places like Austin considering some creative financing of their own.

That’s got city officials talking publicly about raising taxes to move some non-educational school spending from the school district’s budget to the city’s budget — think maintaining buildings or watering lawns — to keep that money out of the reach of state school finance formulas. The idea here is that more of the money raised locally would escape the state’s recapture. Yes, city taxes would rise. But school taxes would drop. And less money would go to the state. It’s original — give it that — but it’s not something you’d see coming from a good government think tank.

Here’s a measure of how dysfunctional school funding has become in Texas: Austin’s ludicrous workaround would be an improvement.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • With a little more than a week left for this special session of the Texas Legislature, lawmakers are preparing closing arguments — and obituaries — for their pet issues. [Full story]
  • An eye-opening proposal to kill the local school property tax in order to force Texas lawmakers to build a new school finance system won unanimous approval Thursday from the House’s tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. [Full story]
  • Texas legislators would love to lower your property taxes, but none of the proposals they’re considering in the special session would do that. [Full story]

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

Texas House Approves Sending First Two Special Session Bills to Governor

The Texas House tentatively approved two bills Thursday that will keep several state agencies from closing, including the Texas Medical Board. If the chamber gives the measures final approval on Friday, they could be the first bills of the special session sent to Gov. Greg Abbott‘s desk.

The “sunset” bills lawmakers debated Monday were what forced Abbott to call the Legislature back for a summer special session, after the Legislature failed to pass legislation that would keep the agencies open during the regular legislative session that ended in May.

“With this, everything sunset is to the governor,” state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, said as he laid out the legislation.

More than 150 state agencies are subject to a review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission every dozen years. The Commission sends its reports to the Legislature. If the Legislature fails to extend the life of an agency — as it did during the regular session with the Texas Medical Board, Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners, Texas State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists, Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists and the Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors — the agency could be forced to shut down.

Legislators in both the House and Senate agreed during the regular session that the agencies needed to be extended but disagreed on how and when to do so.

Senate Bill 20, which passed the House Thursday on a voice vote after no debate, keeps those five Texas agencies open for another two years. Senate Bill 60, which also quickly cleared the lower chamber by a voice vote, repeals a rider in the budget passed during the regular session that would have prohibited funding for the agencies because lawmakers didn’t pass the related “sunset” bills as expected.

During a special session, the Legislature can only tackle issues related to the items the governor puts on the special session agenda. Along with passing the “sunset” bills, Abbott ultimately added 19 other items to his special session agenda, including property tax legislation, school finance measures and a “bathroom bill” that would restrict the bathrooms some transgender people could use.

The special session began on July 18 and must end by Aug. 16, 30 days after it began.

Alex Samuels contributed to this report.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Several must-pass sunset bills didn’t make it to the governor’s desk. We’ve compiled an overview of what it could mean for the state if these agencies are not reauthorized. [Full story]
  • Here’s where lawmakers are on the 20 issues Gov. Greg Abbott asked them to tackle. [Full story]
  • A bipartisan group of lawmakers have called on Gov. Greg Abbott to add ethics reform to the agenda of the special session. The governor’s office attacked the effort as “showboating.” [Full story]

Author:  Kirby Wilson – The Texas Tribune

Analysis: Hopes of Going 20 for 20 in Special Session Circle the Drain

Think Gov. Greg Abbott is still glad he called them back?

The Texas Legislature’s special “20 for 20” session has predictably bogged down. Abbott put together a to-do list tailored to please Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate and, conveniently, to erase any argument that he’s not as conservative as Patrick.

By that scorecard, the governor is going to be fine. If, however, you are the person in your office pool who bet that all 20 items on Abbott’s agenda would find their way into the law books, your cookie has crumbled.

Go shake hands with whoever predicted trouble.

The House and Senate ended this year’s regular session at odds. If anyone attempted to make peace, they did it privately and they failed. The Senate started the July-August special session at full speed. The House has slow-played. Patrick expressed his frustration last week, saying he hadn’t had a serious parlay with House Speaker Joe Straus in months.

That explains the progress they’re making, why the lieutenant governor’s pet project is stalled and why a number of the governor’s other requests are languishing.

Abbott’s troops are getting snippy, too, barking at would-be House ethics reformers via both mainstream and social media. Ethics isn’t on the special session agenda, but a group of Republicans and Democrats asked the governor to add it. One of them, state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, got Abbott’s goat earlier this year with a proposed ban on pay-for-play appointments, where a governor rewards big political donors with choice spots on state boards and commissions.

An Abbott spokesman called that “showboating.” Straus weighed in, saying the governor ought to add ethics reform to his list. A House committee opened hearings on Larson legislation that had been vetoed by Abbott earlier in the year.

Abbott’s chief campaign adviser, Dave Carney, tweeted that one of the leaders of the ethics effort, Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, was a “hypocrite” for asking for reforms now, after killing a bill this year that would have blocked lawmakers from leaving public service and immediately becoming lobbyists.

It’s not the kind of thing that deserves much attention, except as an illustration of how the Texas legislative machine’s gears are grinding.

Addition is harder than subtraction in legislative arithmetic. That’s why Straus is whomping Patrick on the bathroom bill. It’s easier to kill legislation than to pass it — especially when the public is divided.

Advocates of the “bathroom bill” seemed to have the upper hand during the regular session. Business leaders were slow to rally against it, though they were implored to get involved by Straus and others. The governor didn’t weigh in until late and then backed a version of the bathroom bill that couldn’t clear the opposition in the House. The version that did was too weak for the Senate’s taste.

In the special session, the outside tide appears to have turned. Businesses and other opponents that were quiet earlier in the year have piped up, offering what one called “cover to the weak” in the Legislature. There’s some evidence of that — and of pressure from House leaders — in the number of members who’ve signed on as sponsors of the bathroom bill. In the regular session, 80 of the House’s 150 members were on board. As of last Friday, with a dozen days left in the special session, there were only 49.

That bill hasn’t passed, but neither have bills that probably will pass before the special session is over. Give limits on future local property tax increases — a controversial issue that failed in the regular session — a reasonable chance of success.

What Patrick calls the privacy bill, others call the bathroom bill. An initial slogan for proponents — “no men in women’s bathrooms” — is largely responsible for that. It stuck, like toilet paper to your shoe. It quickly became apparent that this issue splits Republicans in a way that makes it difficult to guide through the Legislature and also useful as a wedge issue in Republican primary elections where social conservatives face social moderates.

Patrick tried to play bully rather than salesman this time, touting his polls on the subject and trying to force the House to do something it was initially reluctant to do. He pushed hard enough to move them from reluctant to resistant to oppositional.

Also, he’s losing: The Senate sped its bill to the House, where it has remained, waiting to be sent to a committee for consideration, for more than a week.

Come election time, each of the three leaders will have a way to brag about the results and rally voters, but only one of them is getting the policy result he really wants. That’s Straus.

That can’t be the result the governor had in mind when he called lawmakers back to Austin.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas legislators would love to lower your property taxes, but none of the proposals they’re considering in the special session would do that. [link]
  • Measuring the progress of legislation is easy: This one passed, that one didn’t. Political success in a legislative session is different: A mediocre legislative record can be a victory for all sides. [link]

 

Author:  ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

House Approves $1.8 Billion Package of School Finance Bills

The Texas House on Friday passed a package of bills that would put $1.8 billion into public schools and help out struggling small, rural school districts.

House members voted 130-12 to approve the lower chamber’s main piece of school finance legislation, House Bill 21, just as they did during the regular session.

The House also voted 131-11 to pass House Bill 30, which would fund the school finance bill by putting $1.8 billion into public schools. Once the House gives the measures final approval, they will head to the Senate.

The funds cited in the legislation would come from deferring a payment to public schools from fiscal year 2019 to 2020, and would allow an increase in the base funding per student from $5,140 to $5,350 statewide.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called this payment deferral mechanism a “Ponzi scheme.”

House Speaker Joe Straus lauded the House’s vote.

“The Texas House voted Friday to support our schools, relieve the burden on local property taxes and begin fixing our broken education finance system,” he said in a statement. “With House Bill 21, we have a great opportunity to help schools and address the biggest cause of higher property-tax bills.”

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that the school finance system was in need of serious reform, but ultimately constitutional. Gov. Greg Abbott added school finance reform to the agenda a few days into the special session in July.

The House Public Education Committee’s chairman, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the author of HB 21, has pushed his bill as a preliminary step to fixing a beleaguered system for allocating money to public schools.

“You cannot have property tax reform unless you have school finance reform. That is just a fact,” he said Friday. “We have the time to get this done. We just have to have the will to get this done.”

HB 21 would increase the base per-student funding the state gives to school districts, in part by increasing funding for students who are dyslexic and bilingual. It would also gradually remove an existing financial penalty for school districts smaller than 300 square miles, which was originally intended to encourage them to consolidate.

When Huberty brought HB 21 back in the special session, he added a controversial provision: funding to help charter schools build new facilities. Leaders of education associations opposed that decision, arguing legislators should look to fund traditional public schools before charter schools. Huberty removed that provision before bringing it to the House for Friday’s vote.

Huberty’s bill would also create a transitional $200 million grant program over the next two years to help school districts that lose money under his bill. Many of those districts rely on a state aid program designed to offset a decade-old tax cut. Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR, is set to expire in September; about 250 small, rural school districts depend on it to keep their doors open.

The House voted 67-61 Friday against approving House Bill 22, a separate measure that would have continued ASATR for two years before letting it expire in September 2019. Some school districts have warned they might have to close without the program, which totaled about $400 million this year.

Meanwhile, the Senate has tucked a few provisions to increase funding for public schools into a larger “private school choice” bill, funded by deferring payments to health care companies that provide Medicaid. The House has repeatedly voted against subsidizing private school tuition with state funding.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas Senate passed a bill that would provide funding for teacher bonuses and retirement benefits, slashing a controversial provision that would require school districts to increase teacher salaries without additional state money. [link]
  • In what seems to be an overture to the House, Gov. Greg Abbott added two new education-related issues to his special session call Thursday: school finance reform and increased benefits for retired teachers. [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

In Texas House, Property Tax Proposals Range from Minor Tweaks to Abolishment

Last week, amid a flurry of votes on more than a dozen other issues, the Texas Senate passed its main measure addressing Gov. Greg Abbott‘s call to reform the laws related to property taxes.

On Wednesday, members of the House took a far more expansive approach, considering proposals ranging from the narrow (carving out a new exemption for Purple Heart recipients) to the explosive (abolishing school property taxes altogether).

And with only two weeks left in the special session, challenges remain in getting many of these proposals to Abbott’s desk.

Take House Bill 72. There was pushback Wednesday on the legislation, which would let voters decide whether Purple Heart recipients should get property tax exemptions. State Rep. Scott Sanford successfully amended the bill to only allow spouses married to Purple Heart recipients at the time of the soldier’s injury to receive the tax benefits.

“Because we have so many gold diggers looking for Purple Heart recipients?” state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, cracked.

“We don’t want people to go shopping for tax exemptions,” answered Sanford, R-McKinney.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer had broader concerns with the bill, which he argued “gets into making value judgments about people’s service. And that’s an impossible task for this body.” The Tyler Republican also questioned what the cost would be to the cities who would lose property tax revenues from Purple Heart recipients’ properties. He then tried to amend the bill to extend the exemptions to the children of Purple Heart recipients.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, chair of the House Ways & Means Committee which deals with property tax proposals, ultimately withdrew the bill and a related resolution. He said he would bring them back to the floor on Friday.

“We don’t want to make a mockery of this bill,” the Angleton Republican said.

Bonnen fared better with his House Bill 32, which would overhaul several aspects of the property appraisal and notice processes in an attempt to help Texans better understand how property values and tax rates each contribute to their tax bills.

One of the key provisions would require local governments to announce a “no-new-revenue” tax rate each year and compare it to the rate they’re actually proposing. Taxpayers would get that information ahead of time so that they could intervene with local governments before the rates were finally set. The lower chamber gave initial approval to that bill Wednesday.

“This will be the most clear and simple process we’ve ever had in the area of property taxes,” Bonnen said.

That legislation is among dozens of property tax and appraisal bills the lower chamber is still working on as the special session heads into its second half.  On Tuesday, Bonnen’s Ways and Means Committee dramatically reworked Senate Bill 1, the Senate’s leading property tax bill, which could set up another battle between the chambers akin to the one that helped prompt this summer’s special session in the first place.

In the House version, SB 1 would require cities and counties to hold an election if they plan to increase their property tax revenues 6 percent, regardless of whether they are increasing the actual tax rate or just taking advantage of rising property values. The Senate had set that trigger at 4 percent. Patrick portrayed that version of the bill as something that would provide Texans with “dramatic reductions” in their property taxes.

“It will be the strongest tax reform and tax relief bill ever passed out,” Patrick said in an online video this week.

But the legislation is only poised to slow future tax increases by focusing on the amount of revenues local governments bring in from all existing land and buildings in their jurisdictions. Revenues – and individual tax bills – can rise with property values even if actual tax rates stay flat or are lowered.

During the regular session, Patrick said similar legislation would save the average Texas homeowner $20,000, a claim that fell apart under scrutiny.

Bonnen expressed concern that voters will mistakenly expect to see lower property tax bills if any version of SB 1 that becomes law.

“What’s frustrating is that SB1 doesn’t provide relief, it provides protection, and the last thing I want is property tax payers to believe that we are doing something to reduce or lower their tax burden. We’re not,” Bonnen said. “We don’t have the ability to do that, but what we do have is the ability to give it protections and transparency.”

But Bonnen’s Ways and Means Committee could face an impossible battle addressing education funding, which makes up the bulk of property tax bills in Texas. House education leaders have argued the Legislature cannot provide tax relief without addressing school funding. As the state pays a progressively smaller percentage of operating costs for public schools, school districts have had to raise their local property taxes to make up the funding.

The committee Wednesday afternoon considered legislation proposing ways to ultimately get rid of the local property tax altogether, in most cases replacing it with revenue from a higher sales tax. State Rep. Andrew Murr‘s House Bill 285 would increase state and local sales taxes enough to garner about $22 billion, enough to completely replace property tax revenue school districts collect to operate.

“It won’t happen in the special session,” the Junction Republican acknowledged.

State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, went further: he proposed legislation recommending the complete elimination of the property taxes by school districts as a way, to pressure legislators into coming up with an alternative system.

“I don’t have the answers, but I know this Legislature relies too heavily on local property taxes to fund our schools, and we need more direction to go forward,” he said.

What would replace that funding in the meantime?

“This bill does not give us a plan,” Darby said.

By the end of the day, that committee was slated to have held hearings on 25 property tax bills in addition to the 18 it has already sent on to the House. More than 50 other bills have been referred to the committee.

SB 1 is the only property tax legislation passed from a Senate committee. Two others are pending in the upper chamber’s Select Committee on Government Reform. But Bonnen isn’t worried that the House is going to leave the Senate little time to consider what could become a bevy of bills headed its way as the special session nears its 30-day end. He pointed to how the Senate quickly passed measures addressing nearly all of of Abbott’s 20-item agenda in the first part of the session.

“The Senate has proven that it can move anything at lightning speed,” Bonnen said. “So they have more than enough time to do that.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas Tribune wants to hear from Texans about how rising property tax rates are affecting them — and who should have the final say. [link]
  • When state senators revive legislation on Saturday that could require voter approval of city and county property tax rates, lawmakers will also consider something new: limiting how much money local governments spend. [link]

Author:  BRANDON FORMBYKIRBY WILSON AND ALIYYA SWABY

5 Takeaways From the First Half of the Special Session

Gov. Greg Abbott kicked off his first special session two weeks ago. That puts the Legislature at the halfway point if they choose to take the maximum 30 days they are permitted to meet — and given Abbott’s ambitious agenda, it’s looking like they may need all the time they can get.

So far, the special session hasn’t been too different from the 140-day regular session that ended in May. The Senate has rushed to pass nearly all of Abbott’s priorities. The lower chamber has taken its time and even taken some pride in its slower approach.

And the governor has maintained an optimistic tone through it all, even as significant hurdles for his agenda have only become clearer.

Both chambers have addressed the first order of business: passing “sunset” bills that would prevent some state agencies from closing, including the Texas Medical Board. Their failure to agree on such legislation during the regular session was one of the reasons that Abbott called the special session in the first place, and he had specifically asked the Senate to approve the measures before officially expanding his call to include 19 other items.

Here are five things to know about how the first half of the special session has developed:

1. The two chambers are operating at different speeds.

By the eighth day of the special session, the Senate had passed legislation related to all but two of the 20 items on Abbott’s call — a milestone Patrick hailed as unprecedented.

“No one in the Capitol can find anywhere in history that the Senate or the House” has moved that quickly, Patrick said. “It’s quite extraordinary, and I give credit to our Texas senators.”

The House, by contrast, has been taking a much slower approach. While the Senate was celebrating its workload last week, the lower chamber was still working through its first order of business: the “sunset” legislation.

“This is not a race,” Straus has told multiple media outlets, promising the lower chamber would be deliberate in its consideration of each item on the call.

As of Monday evening, the Senate had passed 20 pieces of legislation related to 18 items on Abbott’s call. The House had approved eight bills related to four items.

The Senate still has work to do if it wants to go “20 for 20,” a slogan promoted by Abbott’s office that Patrick and his senators have embraced. The upper chamber has not yet passed legislation to cap local spending or to prevent local governments from changing rules in the middle of construction projects. The bill to address the former, Senate Bill 18, was set to come up on the Senate floor Monday but did not, while the legislation dealing with the latter, Senate Bill 12, remains in the Senate Business & Commerce Committee.

2. The House is charting its own course.

Chafing at the governor’s narrowly proscribed special session agenda on the west side of the Capitol goes beyond House leadership’s vocal opposition to the high-profile “bathroom bill.” Lawmakers there have held hearings on topics not included on the governor’s call, stretched the boundaries of those that are and, in at least one case, directly flouted the governor’s wishes.

During a hearing last week, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, put her reasons for pushing for a bill that would reverse millions of dollars in therapy cuts for children with disabilities this way: “If the governor is going to bring us back here to talk about what bathrooms people can use or what we can do with our trees, then surely the disabled kids should take priority, and hopefully we add this to the call.”

Though the proposal is not on the governor’s list of priorities, lawmakers on the appropriations committee approved it 21-0. Since then, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has officially asked Abbott to include restoring the funding on the special session call.

Davis, who leads the House committee responsible for investigating wrongdoing in state government, also said last week that she would formally request that Abbott put ethics reform on the special session agenda. She said she plans to hold hearings and vote on all of the ethics bills referred to her committee.

Over at the House Natural Resources Committee, Chairman Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican, heard eight bills on water regulation last week, despite Abbott’s veto of five bills containing similar provisions during the regular session.

When they have considered Abbott’s priorities, House lawmakers have tended to put their own stamp on them. On Monday, the chamber approved House Bill 9, the Abbott-endorsed measure continuing the state’s maternal mortality task force — along with three other items giving the task force more guidance on what to study, including the rates of pregnancy-related deaths and postpartum depression among women of varying socioeconomic status, and adding a labor and delivery nurse to the task force’s membership.

Abbott is also unlikely to welcome a bill the chamber passed regulating city ordinances on tree removal last week, which while technically within the bounds of his special session agenda, replicates legislation he vetoed in June for not going far enough. The version of the legislation championed by Abbott, authored by state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, is stuck in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

The House’s unhurried approach has been met with near daily grumbling on the floor from the 12 lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus, whose conservative members say Straus is deliberately impeding legislation.

“Straus needs to learn you can’t govern by just saying ‘no’ all the time,” said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R- Irving. “I’m frustrated that the speaker has chosen to be the sole obstruction to a number of positive reforms supported by our governor and a clear majority of our legislators.”

3. All signs point to another standoff on “bathroom” legislation.

When it comes to divisive legislation regulating the bathroom use of transgender Texans, the House and Senate are veering close to the same spot they were in at the end of the regular legislative session.

The two chambers ended their 140 days at the Capitol at loggerheads over the issue, with House leaders unwilling to back legislation they said would hurt the state economically and target vulnerable children. After unsuccessfully trying to break the stalemate by taking hostage bills needed to prevent the shutdown of a handful of state agencies, Patrick forced the special session.

Halfway toward the deadline to make an agreement on the bill, the differences between the chambers only appear more prominent.

After plowing through an 11-hour committee hearing and an eight hour-floor debate, the Senate gave final approval to its “bathroom” measure just after midnight last Wednesday. The bill would require transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate or state IDs in schools and buildings overseen by local governments. It would also nix parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to allow transgender residents to use public bathrooms of their choice.

Meanwhile, the House has yet to schedule a committee hearing for similar legislation, and Straus has also held off on referring the Senate’s proposal to a committee for consideration.

State Rep. Byron Cook, the chairman of the committee that the bill must clear to get to the floor, has said he’s disappointed the debate over the bill has wasted so much time — and that it is “smoke-screening” more important issues. But Cook did say the bill will receive a hearing. State Rep. Ron Simmons, the Carrolton Republican carrying the bill, said he believes it will pass the full House if allowed to the floor for a vote. But neither of those statements necessarily adds up to a favorable outcome for the measure in the lower chamber.

Ahead of the special session, Straus said he was “disgusted by all of this” and expressed anxiety about the negative impact such a law could have on transgender children, including possibly an increase in suicides among an already vulnerable population.

Since then, opposition to the bathroom bill has only grown louder in echoing Straus’ concerns. After months of acting through business coalitions, CEOs and top executives for major businesses are attaching their own names to letters expressing hostility toward the legislation, including, on Monday, energy titans Shell and Exxon. Individual school districts have also begun voicing their disapproval of the proposals. Police chiefs from major cities have come out against it and warned they say won’t keep the public safe. And the National Episcopal Church re-emerged in the debate, asking Straus to remain “steadfast” in his opposition to any bathroom bill.

4. Property taxes are at the center of a debate over local control.

In interview after interview, Abbott has made clear he views property tax legislation one of the most important issues — if not the most important issue — lawmakers are taking up during the special session. It may be the only item where Abbott is willing to call lawmakers back to Austin again if they do not show progress on it.

The House and Senate are already closer than they were in the regular session when it comes to coming to an agreement on a proposal to require local governments get voter approval for some increased property tax collections.

But that doesn’t mean the two chambers are completely on the same page. And legislation in the House suggests that its members could be open to giving local officials more breathing room when it comes to how much money they can raise – and how much the state requires them to spend.

Senate Bill 1, which the Senate has already approved, could require cities, counties and some special taxing districts to get voter approval if they want to increase tax collections on existing land and buildings 4 percent compared to the previous year.

House Bill 4 sets the required election threshold at 6 percent. If the full House passes the current version of HB 4, that threshold would be one of many differences the two chambers will have to work out in a conference committee.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee has already sent 17 other bills related to property taxes on to the full chamber. The committee has considered 18 others, which are still pending.

Many of those bills show the lower chamber’s members are trying different ways to cut property tax payments for specific groups of property owners including the elderly, Purple Heart recipients, partially disabled military veterans, Texans serving in the armed forces and disabled first responders.

And while many of Abbott’s agenda items for the special session are aimed at limiting local governments’ powers on everything from spending to regulating trees on private property, one House resolution aims to make the state constitutionally responsible for covering a local government’s cost to comply with new laws.

“If the state requires you to provide some service, then the state needs to have the ability to send the resources to accomplish that goal,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican who co-authored House Joint Resolution 31. “The same way the state complains of the federal government requiring unfunded mandates, I think the same principle should apply to the state also.”

The House passed a similar resolution during the regular session, but it went nowhere in the Senate. Still, Rick Thompson with the Texas Association of Counties is hopeful that the measure could end up on a ballot in November.

Thompson is that group’s legislative liaison. He said HJR 31 is a welcome contradiction to other legislation being discussed this summer since many of the bills collectively tell cities and counties what they can and can’t do while they also limit how much money they can raise and spend without voter approval.

“It’s a tough bill to pass because the state obviously counts on being able to balance their budgets on the backs of unfunded mandates,” Thompson said.

5. The governor isn’t sweating his agenda’s fate — yet.

While Abbott started the special session vowing to publish daily lists of lawmakers who oppose his agenda, he has since dialed back the tough talk and sought to play nice with lawmakers, particularly in the House. He finally released his first batch of lists Friday — but only those of legislators who are supporting bills related to each item on the call.

Abbott also has not expressed any concern about the House’s sluggish pace compared to that of the Senate, saying he is pleased with the lower chamber’s speed and believes its members are taking his agenda seriously. In multiple media appearances, Abbott has voiced confidence in his agenda’s chances in the House, predicting the lower chamber will “outperform.”

At the same time, though, Abbott has resisted calls by House members to expand the call.

“The most important thing is we pass the 20 items that I put on the special session agenda,” Abbott told an Austin TV station Wednesday. “Once we get that done, we can consider other matters.”

“We must go 20 for 20 before we address anything else,” he added.

Abbott has also waved off questions about whether he is willing to call a second special session under any circumstances, saying it is too early to speculate. That could change soon, though, as lawmakers have about two weeks left to send measures to Abbott’s desk.

Alexa Ura, Kirby Wilson and Andy Duehren contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Exxon Mobil Corporation and the Texas Association of Counties have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • State Rep. Sarah Davis will ask Gov. Greg Abbott to put ethics reform on the agenda of the ongoing special session and said focusing on ethics would restore trust in the Legislature at time when it’s diminishing. [link]
  • We’re tracking how lawmakers are progressing on each of the 20 issues Abbott has asked lawmakers to tackle over the special session. [link]

Authors:  PATRICK SVITEKMORGAN SMITH AND BRANDON FORMBY – The Texas Tribune

House Passes Four Maternal Mortality Bills

House lawmakers tentatively approved a series of bills Monday aimed at helping Texas curb its unusually high rate of women dying less than a year after childbirth.

The primary measure, House Bill 9, would direct the state’s Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity to continue studying pregnancy complications and maternal deaths until 2023. Last year, a study in the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology revealed that Texas’ maternal mortality rate had nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014.

State task force data shows that between 2011 and 2012, 189 Texas mothers died less than a year after giving birth, mostly from heart disease, drug overdoses and high blood pressure.

State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale and the bill’s author, said giving the task force more time to make recommendations on how to prevent those types of health issues in pregnant women and new moms would help save lives and lower costs Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance programs for the poor and disabled.

“As in many things, prevention is better and often cheaper,” Burkett said.

HB 9 charges task force members with finding solutions to help Texas women struggling with postpartum depression; looking at what other states are doing on maternal care; and examining health disparities and socioeconomic status among mothers dying in Texas. The measure still needs one more House vote.

The Senate passed a similar bill on July 24. Both chambers will likely head into conference committee to reconcile the two measures.

The maternal mortality bill’s passage comes as state legislators quickly approach the halfway point of a 30-day special legislative session that started July 18. Gov. Greg Abbott‘s 20-item agenda for legislators — along with extending the lifespan of the maternal mortality task force — includes a bill that would restrict bathroom use for transgender people; one that would require voters to approve property tax increases above a certain threshold; and another that would prohibit insurance companies from covering abortions unless they are medically necessary.

House lawmakers gave initial approval to three related measures on Monday:

House Bill 10 and House Bill 11 give the task force more guidance on what to study, including giving financial incentives to managed care organizations that have good postpartum outcomes, and comparing rates of pregnancy-related deaths and postpartum depression among women of varying socioeconomic status. House Bill 28 would add a labor and delivery nurse to the task force.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Both chambers passed bills on Tuesday aimed at curbing postpartum depression and the alarming rise in Texas mothers dying less than a year after giving birth. [link]
  • Reproductive rights advocates have expressed concern that Texas lawmakers will take bolder steps in the upcoming session to defund abortion providers and dismantle access to abortion, birth control and other sexual health services. [link]

Author:  MARISSA EVANS – The Texas Tribune

State Senator Rodriguez: Texas Senate Ignored Rules To Push Agenda Through

The Lieutenant Governor sent out a press statement Wednesday bragging about the speed at which the Texas Senate passed a series of bills for his conservative agenda. About the only thing he got right was that a lot of bills passed, quickly.

From the content of most of the bills themselves to the process by which they were passed, the more appropriate terms are “reactionary,” “reckless,” or, “ramming legislation down people’s throats by any means necessary.”

This past week, the Texas Senate, which once prided itself on being known as a great deliberative body, ignored long-standing rules, disregarded the minority opinion, and threw itself into passing divisive primary election fodder, sacrificing good public policy and the democratic process.

We are there to represent all Texans, not just a segment of primary voters of one political party or the other. History shows that when we can not find compromise, then that usually means the proposal is likely bad for Texas.

The Senate rules exist to foster dialogue, compromise, and consensus. No more.

The bills that passed Tuesday and Wednesday include the anti-LGBTQ, anti-business “bathroom bill,” and proposals to harass doctors who perform abortions and their patients, divert public school funding to private schools through a voucher scheme, and curtail the ability of cities and counties to set local priorities – although some small cities and counties were exempted to secure needed rural Republican members’ votes.

The single biggest change illustrating this was a rules change. Previously, it took a two-thirds vote of the Senate to bring a bill to the floor. That forced consensus and compromise that protected the rights of Senators in the minority, typically those from rural areas, and it worked for generations of Texans. In 2015, the two-thirds rule was changed to three-fifths, and with 20 of 31 votes, the Republican majority can pass legislation without any input from the minority.

On the first day of the Special Session, the Senate dispensed with another rule meant to ensure adequate time to prepare for bills scheduled to be heard – Senate Rule 11.19, the “tag” rule. This rule affords any member of the Senate a right to request at least 48 hours written notice of the time and place set for a public hearing on a specific bill.

Instead of following our Senate rules, which provide order and transparency of our proceedings, the Senate voted 20-11, on party lines, to retroactively suspend the rule after I placed a tag on the sunset bill. The tag rule has been suspended a handful of times in the past, but always before a Senator placed a tag on a bill. However, no one in the Senate can remember or knows of an instance when the tag rule was suspended retroactively. It happened again, around 1 a.m. on Thursday, when the Senate retroactively overruled 11 tags that I placed on bills that were set to be heard on Friday morning.

The point of those tags was to give Senators and the public time to study the bills before committee hearings. Notably, the text of several bills wasn’t even available to the public when these committee hearings were scheduled. In legislation, every word and every line matter, especially when some bills, such as the tax rollback bill, can be 100 pages. Holding hearings where public input is limited and then voting within a few days of their introduction undermines major policy decisions.

In fact, the problem with this was evident during the committee hearings that took place. Testimony was limited to people who signed up one hour before or three hours after the hearings began. Because of the condensed period between bill referral and the hearings, both Senators and the public were confused at times about what was actually in the bills being discussed. In some cases, Senators actually admitted the bills were poorly drafted but they were rushing to get them out. Even when the bills were debated on the floor, nearly all of the amendments proposed were summarily rejected.

For example, S.B. 3, made it to the Senate floor with language that prohibited a political subdivision from passing bathroom rules designed “to protect a class of persons from discrimination.” That had to be changed on the Senate floor, because it’s so obviously discriminatory. While I appreciate the light it shines on the true motive behind this legislation, that sloppiness is a byproduct of the rush to pass bills without the deliberation and study that every bill deserves. Frankly, I expect more drafting issues to be uncovered as the bills are further reviewed in the House.

To add insult to injury, the Senate, again along party lines, overruled a point of order called by Sen. Watson that S.B. 3 violated a Constitutional rule that the legislature may only consider subjects on the call during a special session. The Governor’s proclamation did not include any mention of “athletic activities,” which were included in S.B. 3. Amazingly, the reason given for overruling the point of order was that the word “facilities” could be read to include “athletic activities.” This is nonsense!

What the Senate did in the first nine days is not “conservative.”

The conservative thing would be to respect long-standing Senate rules and the Texas Constitution. The conservative thing would be to pass the bills we had to, the Sunset bills, and leave further lawmaking until next session. If we are going to stay and spend considerable taxpayer dollars, the conservative thing to do would be to address issues that truly affect the lives of Texans, like funding public schools.

Texans have made their voices heard, even with the limited opportunity allowed by Senate leadership. The public must continue to do so as the action shifts over to the Texas House, where the voices of all Texans that the Senate refused to listen to must be heard.

***Author – Texas State Senator José Rodríguez

Senator José Rodríguez currently serves as the Chairman of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus. Rodríguez represents Texas Senate District 29, which includes the counties of El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, and Presidio. He represents both urban and rural constituencies, and more than 350 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.

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

Senate Gives Initial OK to Property Tax Rate Elections in Cities, Counties

Texans could soon have more direct control over the property tax rates that cities, counties and special purpose districts set as legislation that stalled during the state Legislature’s regular session is taken up by both chambers this week.

The Senate in a 19-12 vote on Monday gave preliminary approval to a bill requiring larger cities, counties and taxing districts to have an election if the amount of property tax revenues they collect on existing property and buildings exceeds 4 percent of the amount they took in the year before. Smaller government entities — those that collect less than $20 million in property and sales tax a year — will have to hold an election if revenue collections exceed an 8 percent increase.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said his controversial Senate Bill 1 is key to “slowing down” rising property tax bills.

“The public knows if there’s a case that’s made from elected officials that they should spend more of their hard-earned money, they will vote for it,” the Houston Republican said Monday night.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, successfully amended the bill to allow residents in smaller taxing units that collect less than $20 million in revenues — such as tiny towns or special purpose districts — to lower the property tax collection increase that triggers an automatic election from 8 percent to 4 percent. Texans in such small taxing units would vote to lower that threshold in May.

Bettencourt is optimistic that the Senate and House will agree on how to handle property tax rate elections during the special session. Their inability to do so during the regular session partially prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to call lawmakers back to work this summer.

“What I hope to have happen is a real negotiation,” Bettencourt told The Texas Tribune last week.

During the regular session, a proposed automatic tax rate election provision never made it out of the House Ways and Means Committee that State Rep. Dennis Bonnen chairs. Things could play out differently during the special session. Bonnen, R-Angleton, included an automatic election provision in his companion legislation, House Bill 4. He said a heightened focus on property taxes during the special session could prompt more of his colleagues to back such an election requirement.

“I think it’s going to be a little harder to sit back and not support something,” Bonnen said.

But not everyone shares his optimism. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, said Monday that he doesn’t think Texas House Speaker Joe Strauswants an automatic election provision to pass even though such a measure is in the House companion bill. HB 4 is among nearly three dozen property tax and appraisal bills that will be considered in that chamber’s Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

“I don’t think Straus wants to pass any of them,” Stickland said Monday. “My plan is to keep pushing so we know who is responsible for their death.”

Tea Party-aligned lawmakers and officials, including Stickland, have repeatedly criticized the Republican speaker for how he runs the lower chamber. But Straus spokesman Jason Embry said property tax legislation is a priority for the speaker.

Embry also said the House attempted to lower property taxes in the regular session by putting less of a financial burden on school districts. The lower chamber passed House Bill 21, which sought to increase state education funding by $1.5 billion. The bill died after the Senate lowered that amount and tacked on an amendment that would have would subsidized private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

“School districts collect more than half of the property taxes paid in Texas, and the House is the only body that has acted to address the most significant driver of higher property taxes,” Embry said.

Meanwhile, critics of Bettencourt’s election requirement say it will hamstring local governments’ ability to respond to residents’ demands for services like police and fire personnel, street repairs and timely trash collection. They also point to it as another example of state officials trying to micromanage local governments.

Bill Longley, legislative counsel for the Texas Municipal League, said this weekend at a Senate committee hearing that the legislation would harm local governments’ bottom line while failing to offer Texans substantial savings.

“Taxpayers will not see meaningful relief,” he said. “We’re talking about a very small portion of the city tax bill.”

He also said the biggest driver of property tax increases are from school districts and not cities or counties. Several city and county officials say that lawmakers are using the city and county property tax issue as a way to distract from their practice of spending fewer state dollars on education, which prompts school districts to raise their property tax rates to make up the difference.

“The state’s own budget is based on the largest portion of property taxes — school property taxes — increasing,” Longley said.

Bonnen’s version triggers a vote when increased revenues exceed 5 percent. But Bettencourt isn’t sweating that slight 1-point difference between the two versions. Both lawmakers also opted to separate property tax rate elections and overhauling the property appraisal process in legislation during the special session. They said having more bills to address property taxes increases the chances of legislation passing during the special session.

“It’s just important to have a few vehicles that can be used as necessary because you don’t have time to start the whole process again,” Bettencourt said.

Bonnen said his proposed overhaul of the appraisal and assessment process will make it clear to Texans which government entities are causing tax bills to increase. Bonnen said some local officials don’t lower tax rates to offset property value increases and then blame higher individual tax bills on those rising property values.

“You still have a local elected official making a choice that makes you pay more,” he said.

Bettencourt’s Senate Bills 93 and 96 have provisions that also seek to make it more clear to landowners what tax rates different entities charge and what could trigger an automatic election. Those have yet to make it out of the Senate Select Committee on Government Reform.

That committee, which Bettencourt chairs, heard hours of testimony on property tax legislation Saturday. Bettencourt kicked off the hearing by rolling through a PowerPoint presentation purporting to show soaring property taxes across Texas, citing statistics that some experts have called fuzzy math that takes statistical comparisons out of context.

Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, said his office had received 434 pages of letters from constituents complaining about property taxes, with some saying they were in danger of losing their homes due to rising taxes. Taylor grew emotional as he read excerpts from the letters.

“The purpose of government is to protect our God-given rights, it’s not to tax us out of our homes,” Taylor said.

Some current and former local officials said they supported Bettencourt’s property tax legislation, SB 1. Ron Wright, tax assessor-collector in Tarrant County, said it would offer relief and more transparency to taxpayers. And he dismissed criticism from those who call the bill an assault on local control, citing the ability of citizens to vote on tax increases.

“When they talk about local control, they’re talking about government control,” Wright said of the bill’s critics.

Andy Duehren, Emma Platoff and Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League 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 lower chamber responded to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s threats of a special session by moving key legislation — but omitting provisions that he wanted included. [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]
  • The Senate voted 18-12 in favor of bill that would require an election if a local government entity wanted to increase some of its tax collections by 5 percent or more. [link]

Author:  BRANDON FORMBY AND JIM MALEWITZ

Senator José Rodríguez Statement on Tagging 11 Bills Early Thursday

Austin – State Sen. José Rodríguez early Thursday “tagged” 11 bills. The tag is a right any member of the Senate has to request application of Senate Rule 11.19, which states that a Senator “shall receive at least 48 hours advance written notice of the time and place set for a public hearing on a specific bill.”

Instead of following tradition and our Senate rules, which provide order and transparency of our proceedings, the Senate voted 20-11 to retroactively suspend the rules after a tag had been placed.

Nobody in the Senate can remember this ever happening before Tuesday, when Sen. Rodríguez’s tag on the Sunset bill was retroactively overruled. Senator Rodriguez’s statement is as follows:

This evening, several of my Senate colleagues and I tagged 11 bills referred to committee shortly after midnight. We did this in order to give the public adequate notice of the hearings.

As it did yesterday when I tagged a bill, the Senate did something nobody here can remember it ever doing, which is vote to suspend the tag rule AFTER Senators already had placed the tags.

In so doing, the Senate disregarded its own processes and precedent in order to push through purely partisan bills without allowing time for democratic debate, denying a fair application of its rules to each of the Senators who had tagged bills.

In the case of more than one bill referred to committee, including SB 2 (vouchers) and SB 3 (“bathrooms”), at the time of referral, shortly after midnight, the text was still not accessible to the public via the state’s website.

By pushing these bills through without adequate notice to the public, the Senate is also disregarding the democratic process. We know a lot of Texans want to participate because so many people showed up to testify or register a position when similar bills came up during the Regular Session.  With respect only to the Senate committee hearings:

  • Bathroom bill (85R SB 6): 1,718 people
  • Property tax rollback rate (85R SB 2): 524 people
  • Vouchers (85R SB 3): 290 people
  • Union dues (85R SB 13): 167 people

These hearings are the public’s only opportunity to speak out for or against a bill on the legislative record.  They are also Senators’ only opportunity to question witnesses as part of the public record. Even though some of these issues have been discussed before, these are new bills that members of the public (and the members) have not had enough time to review.

Many of the bills have changed significantly compared to the bills that were filed last session (including the SB 3, bathroom bill, and SB 1, the property tax rollback bill).

Many of these bills were filed very recently, giving the public and members very little time to review them.

  • SB 1 (property tax rollback rate): a 99-page bill filed Tuesday
  • SB 2 (vouchers): not filed until right before this midnight session, but text not available online at the time of referral to committee
  • SB 3and SB 91 (bathroom bills): filed around 5:30 pm on Wednesday, but text not available online at the time of referral
  • SB 4 (tax dollars for abortion providers): filed on Monday
  • SB 10 (abortion complications reporting): filed on Tuesday

Five other bills (SBs 73, 77, 80, 85, and 87) were filed either Tuesday or late Wednesday. This means that, for some of these bills, including the bathroom bills, we are basically giving the public one day in the middle of a work week to find out about the bill and hearing, review the bill, make arrangements to travel to Austin, and prepare to testify.

This body has always protected the rights of the minority, and respected the rights of the public to comment in public hearings. This is why we have the rules we do. Disregarding them with a raw exercise of power in order to push through bills with significant opposition has not been the Texas Senate way until now. I will resist this in every way that I can.

Texas Senate Moves to Fast-Track Special Session Agenda

On the opening day of the special session of the Texas Legislature on Tuesday, over the cries of Senate Democrats, Lt. Gov.  Dan Patrick  took a step to fast-track two bills reauthorizing the Texas Medical Board and four other state agencies jeopardized by inaction during the regular session.

The Senate must first pass those bills before moving on to other items eligible for consideration, including the legislation championed by Patrick regulating bathroom use for transgender people.

After overruling objections from Democrats, the Republican lieutenant governor referred the bills to committee, which promptly — and  unanimously — approved them.  The full Senate must still vote on the bills, which is expected to happen Wednesday.

Democrats said Patrick’s move limited the public’s ability to weigh in on the legislation, without which, a letter from the Texas Medical Association sent to lawmakers Monday warned, the state’s ability to safely license and discipline physicians would be impeded.

“I would err on the side of making sure that the public did have input on every step of the legislative process,” said state Sen.  Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, during debate on the floor. “We are trying to move the people’s business forward without the people’s input.”

State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said the bills were too important to postpone.

“I think delaying and not expeditiously going forward to save these agencies makes little sense and is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Gov.  Greg Abbott was forced to call lawmakers back for up to 30 more days to avoid the shutdown of the medical board and four agencies, which became hostages in a war between the House and Senate.

Also caught in the legislative crossfire were agencies that license therapists, psychologists, counselors, and social workers.

Part of Patrick’s play Tuesday included a rare procedural maneuver that involved overriding state Sen.  José Rodríguez’s “tag” on the bills, which would have required 48 hours’ notice for them to be considered in a committee hearing.

According to Senate Democrats, it is a rule practiced in the Senate since at least 1939.

Rodriguez, D-El Paso, accused Patrick of cutting off discussion on important legislation “so that we can talk about what bathroom transgender people should use” in a fiery statement issued after the debate.

In addition to the sunset bill, Abbott also put 19 other items on the special session agenda, including the “bathroom bill,” the topic that inspired the showdown between the House and Senate in the first place.

Patrick has been the fiercest champion of proposals that would regulate bathroom use based on “biological sex,” which would keep most transgender Texans from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

Procedurally, the Senate — which Patrick has promised will go “20 for 20” in approving the governor’s agenda — must first pass the sunset bills before turning to the other bills.

A House committee is scheduled to take up its version of the legislation Wednesday.

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Texas Medical Association and Texas Hospital Association have been financial supporters of The Texas TribuneA complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The coming weeks will reveal whether the ongoing hostility between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus has paralyzed state policymakers as they take up the 20 items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda. [link]

Author:  MORGAN SMITH –  The Texas Tribune

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