The Last Seven Days: A Special Session Update

With the special session constitutionally limited to 30 days, lawmakers have just a week left to resolve the bills on the call — and a lot of loose ends to wrap up. 

Gov. Rick Perry has sole discretion over the special session agenda — and he's put a variety of topics on it, from sanctuary cities and health reform to, as late as this week, an anti-groping bill aimed at the Transportation Security Administration.

So far, legislators have produced a mixed bag of results. Three weeks in, some bills are headed to the governor's desk. Others have only cleared one chamber. A few are headed to conference committee, where lawmakers will negotiate the differences. And one major unresolved bill threatens to push the House and Senate into yet another special session. 

Here's a rundown of where the special session stands:  

FISCAL MATTERS 

These are bills lawmakers have to pass to balance the budget and carry out the spending cuts in House Bill 1, the state budget for 2012-2013.  

Bill: SB 1 contains the school finance plan for distributing the $4 billion in cuts to districts statewide, several payment deferrals and tax accelerations. The bill is expected to generate $3.5 billion in revenue. Debate in the House started June 9 and lasted for 16 hours. 

Status: Passed the House and the Senate. Currently in conference committee.

What to watch for: The bill contains a provision to collect nearly $600 million worth of sales taxes from online retailers who do business in Texas (like Amazon.com). Perry warned against this and vetoed a similar bill (HB 2403) during the regular session. Lawmakers responded during the special session by attaching it to SB 1 as an amendment. The budget conferees could decide to strip the measure, or Perry could veto the entire bill. According to the Austin American Statesman, Amazon.com is seeking a deal with the state to provide 5,000 jobs in exchange for an exemption.  

Bill: SB 2 is another fiscal matters bill needed to balance the state budget for the next biennium. Democratic State Rep. Donna Howard successfully tacked on an amendment to direct any surplus in the Rainy Day Fund to enrollment growth in Texas schools, which are underfunded by $4 billion in this budget. According to some estimates, that could be over $2 billion with an improving economic climate. 

Status: The measure passed the House and the Senate and is currently in conference committee.

What to watch for: Republicans (some, not all) instructed budget negotiators to strip the Howard provision from the final bill. It remains to be seen whether they will do so. If it survives the conference committee with the Howard amendment intact, two-thirds of both chambers must approve the bill.

Bill: SB 6 is an education bill that broadens the way districts can use funding for textbooks. When it passed the House, it contained House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler's testing bill from the regular session, HB 500, which permits districts to set their own policies about how new end-of-course STAAR exams count toward a student's final grade. It also would allow districts to suspend a new requirement that students receive a cumulative score on 12 exams in four subject areas to graduate; instead, students would have to pass a total of four exams, one in each subject.

Status: It has passed the House and Senate, and is in conference committee.

What to watch for: Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro is not a fan of Eissler's STAAR provision. She successfully stripped the Eissler amendment in the Senate, but negotiators from the House could try to work it back in during conference. 

Bill: SB 8 is a comprehensive mandate relief measure that allows school districts to furlough teachers, reduces contract termination notification requirements and expands the Texas Education Agency's authority to grant waivers for the 22:1 student teacher size ratio.

Status: The bill passed the House and Senate and is now in conference committee. 

What to watch for: Teachers are fiercely opposed to the bill 

 

HEALTH CARE 

Bill: SB 7 is an omnibus health care bill designed to save the state more than $400 million over the 2012-2013 biennium. The bill aims to make Medicaid more cost-effective, allow doctors to partner with hospitals and other health care groups to reach better outcomes and expand Medicaid managed care into the Rio Grande Valley. 

Status: The measure passed the House and Senate, and is now in conference committee.

What to watch for: SB 7 includes a slew of controversial amendments (think health care compact, family planning funding) that could be left out of the final bill, or force a tough vote between moderate and more conservative Republicans, once the conferees reach a compromise. 

Bill: HB 5 would allow Texas to join with other states in a so-called “health care compact,” in which state leaders would ask Congress to grant them control of the purse strings and authority to operate Medicare and Medicaid. 

Status: The bill passed the House, and it's been tacked on as an amendment to the previously mentioned SB 7.

What to watch for: The measure looks likely to pass, either as a stand-alone or on SB 7. Though Georgia and Oklahoma have passed similar legislation, such a compact would likely face an uphill battle in Washington, D.C.

Bill: HB 13 would allow Texas to petition the Obama administration for a block grant to operate the Medicaid program, which insures poor children, the disabled and impoverished adults.

Status: The measure has passed the House.

What to watch for: The bill has been sent to the Senate, but it hasn't been assigned a committee. Again, it's not likely the federal government will give Texas the authority to use federal funds without any strings attached.

Bill: SB 28 would institute a statewide ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and many public places. If passed, supporters say it would save an estimated $31 million dollars in Medicaid spending over the next biennium. 

Status: Passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and headed to the Senate floor.

What to watch for: Despite widespread public support for the measure, it faces opposition from owners of smoker-friendly establishments and a corps of conservative lawmakers who killed the amendment during the regular session.

 

CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING 

Bill: SB 4 is the Texas Legislature's effort to draw congressional maps for the next decade. The bill passed the House last week following hours of debate in which Democrats argued that the redistricting plans under consideration would "ensure" minority voters lack proper representation in Congress. The plan approved by the supermajority in the House resembles the version that came out of the House Redistricting Committee on June 9. In short, it preserves the GOP's overwhelming majority the state's congressional delegation.

Status: The bill has passed the House and Senate, and has been sent to the governor.

What to watch for: The bill is on its way to the governor's desk, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge the issue is likely to be settled by a court or the U.S. Department of Justice. Democrats contend SB 4 violates the Voting Rights Act and diminishes minority voting blocs by splitting them into different districts. 

 

TEXAS WINDSTORM INSURANCE ASSOCIATION (TWIA):

Bill: HB 3 is meant to overhaul the claims process for homeowners along the coast whose properties are damaged by hurricanes and to ensure that TWIA, the state's insurer of last resort, remains solvent. But lawmakers are at odds on how much to limit homeowners' ability to sue TWIA and to recover damages when the agency fails to honor its policies. The House wants a very strict bill; the Senate's isn't as stringent. 

Status: It passed the House but is stuck in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, where an attempt to pass the bill on Monday failed. Negotiations are underway. 

What to watch for: Lawmakers say the involvement of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which wants steep legal requirements, and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which wants less tough ones, along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, have negatively affected lawmakers' ability to write a bill that is fair to coastal residents. Dewhurst called it "must-pass" legislation. Perry has said he wants the TWIA issue resolved before major hurricanes expected this season hit the Gulf Coast. If lawmakers can't reach a consensus by June 29, Perry may be forced to call yet another special session.

 

SANCTUARY CITIES

Bill: SB 9 would ban and prevent sanctuary cities in Texas. It it passes, Texas law enforcement officials will be allowed to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain or arrest. Any local entity that refuses to allow its peace officers to do so would be denied state funding. SB 9 also strengthens regulations for anyone applying for a driver's license or state-issued ID. In addition, it expands the federal government's Secure Communities initiative to every detention facility in the state. (It's already in every county jail.) 

Status: Passed the Senate, and is now in the House State Affairs Committee.

What to watch for: The House committee may vote SB 9 out of committee on Wednesday, which means it's likely to see floor action next Monday. Keep in mind HB 9, which is the House's sanctuary cities bill (minus the Secure Communities initiative), is also pending in committee. It gives lawmakers a second option, in case SB 9 gets stuck on a technicality.

 

TSA "ANTI-GROPING” BILL

Bill: HB 41 is intended to ban invasive pat-downs by TSA agents during security screenings at airports. Perry added the bill to the special session call late Tuesday. The move appears to be in response to a letter sent to Perry by the bill's main sponsor, state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview. HB 41 was pulled down in dramatic fashion during floor debate last month by an angry state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, after the Department of Justice warned state officials that its passage could violate federal law and lead to a no-fly zone over Texas.

Status: The bill has passed out of committee and is headed to the House floor, where it's scheduled to be debated on Friday.

What to watch for: This time around, Simpson said he has changed the bill slightly. The original legislation would have been enacted immediately upon passage, but HB 41 would be effective 90 days after passage “so the TSA can respond and so there can be some breathing room,” Simpson said. On the Senate side, Patrick has filed an identical version of the bill,SB 29, and it is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Transportation & Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, June 23. 


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