The Final Push: A Special Session Update

The House chamber below a mostly empty gallery during the final days of the special session on June 27, 2011.
The House chamber below a mostly empty gallery during the final days of the special session on June 27, 2011.

The special session is down to the wire. Lawmakers must wrap up on Wednesday, with a few outstanding priorities left to tackle. Over the last several days, measures have moved like traffic — at times speeding through, at others stuck in a perpetual stop and go.

Gov. Rick Perry has sole discretion over the special session agenda, and he's put a variety of topics on it, from somewhat mundane fiscal bills needed to balance the budget to emotional issues like prohibiting "sanctuary cities" and HB 41, an anti-groping bill aimed at the Transportation Security Administration.

Two bills stand in the way of final adjournment: SB 1, which contains the school finance plan, and HB 3, the bill to reform the claims process for TWIA, the state's insurer of last resort. 

Here's a rundown of where the Texas Legislature stands going into the second-to-last day of the special session: 

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 and scheduled for debate in the House on Tuesday, June 28. 

What to watch for: The bill contains a provision to require online retailers to collect sales taxes if they do business in Texas and directly or indirectly have physical locations in the state (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. Last week, Amazon offered to invest $300 million in five or six warehouse and distribution centers in the state, employing 6,000 people, if lawmakers would let the company operate for four-and-a-half years without collecting sales taxes from its customers. Lawmakers aren't buying it. As of Monday afternoon, SB1's sponsor in the House, Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told the Tribune that Amazon's tax break is not in the bill and the governor has not approached him about the issue. While Perry could veto anything he disagrees with, Pitts said he believes the provision represents the will of both the House and the Senate. 

Bill: SB 2 is another fiscal matters bill needed to balance the state budget for the next biennium. Democratic State Rep. Donna Howard initially 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 Rainy Day surplus could be more than $2 billion with an improving economic climate. But her proposal died after Republicans instructed budget negotiators to strip it out of the final conference committee report. 

Status: The House and the Senate passed the conference committee report for SB 2 without Howard's amendment on Monday. It's now headed to the governor's desk. 

What to watch for: On the floor, Howard told the House that killing her amendment is short-sighted because the Rainy Day Fund is generating more money than anticipated. She warned lawmakers they would have to own up to cutting education by billions "when we had money in the bank." During debate in the Senate, Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said he had worked to keep the measure in the bill by putting a $700 million cap on it. But negotiators from the lower chamber wouldn't budge. 

EDUCATION

 

Bill: SB 6 is an education bill that broadens the way districts can use funding for textbooks.

Status: On Monday, the House and Senate voted to adopt the conference committee report. It now awaits the governor's signature. 

What to watch for: When SB 6 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. His counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, opposed the measure. In the end, Shapiro won.

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

Status: The bill's conference committee report was approved by the House and Senate on Monday. 

What to watch for: SB 8 passed the House, but not without a fierce debate from Democrats and a smattering of "no" votes from a broad spectrum of Republicans. Eissler said the bill would allow district officials to lower teacher pay and "save jobs." State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, fired back by telling the chamber the bill is "overkill." "I've not heard from one teacher who has applauded us for doing this," he said. Freshman state Rep. Lance Gooden, a Republican from Terrell who was elected to office by Tea Party voters, said, "My superintendents told me that teachers have taken enough of a beating this session. While some of the tools in SB 8 would be nice for them, they didn't think it was worth a vote against the teachers." It passed anyway, by a vote of 80-63. In the upper chamber, debate was limited. The bill passed with a 19 to 11 vote. 

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 House and Senate passed the conference committee report for SB 7 on Monday. The measure now heads to Gov. Rick Perry for a signature.

What to watch for: SB 7 is a fan favorite for abortion opponents, because it includes amendments aimed at taking more family planning dollars away from outfits like Planned Parenthood, and barring hospital districts that use tax revenue to finance an abortion from getting state funding, except in the case of a medical emergency. The measure is also home to two bills designed by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to give Texas more control over Medicaid and Medicare. The first is a health care compact, which would allow Texas to partner with other states to ask the federal government for control — both fiscal and governmental — over both Medicare and Medicaid. The second is a measure that directs state officials to seek a waiver from Washington to operate Medicaid with a federal block grant. Neither measure is likely to gain the support of the Obama administration. 

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. It is now headed to the governor's desk. 

What to watch for: 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 passed the House, and it's been tacked on as an amendment to the previously mentioned SB 7. It is now headed to the governor's desk. 

What to watch for: Though it's more likely than the health care compact, don't bet on the federal government giving 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 passes, 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, where it will likely land today.

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. Even if it makes it out of the Senate, it will likely die on the clock.

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 whether the governor vetoes it, signs it, or lets it become law without his signature. Democrats contend SB 4 violates the federal 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. Last week, lawmakers were at odds on how much to limit homeowners' ability to sue TWIA to recover damages when the agency fails to honor their insurance policies. Over the weekend, state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, and state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, developed a compromise that would clarify what TWIA has to do when it settles claims. It also would limit what lawyers can collect when suing over mishandled and inadequate claim settlements "I think we've reached kind of a delicate balance," Smithee said. 

Status: The House and Senate conference committee has filed a report, which still needs approval from the full House and Senate.

What to watch for: The new rules won't apply to cases already on file when the bill takes effect — probably in October — if lawmakers approve the deal, but it would change the provisions of policies that are already in force. Perry and Texans for Lawsuit Reform have made a priority of the bill. The Texas Trial Lawyers Association has been on the other side. And there's a personal edge to it, too; prominent plaintiffs' attorney Steve Mostyn has made a specialty of TWIA claims and also happens to be the Texas Democrat who spent the most money trying to get Perry defeated in the 2010 election cycle. Perry has said he wants the TWIA issue resolved before hurricanes season. If lawmakers don't pass the legislation, Perry has promised to call yet another special session.

SANCTUARY CITIES

Bill: SB 9 and HB9 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. HB9 only contains the "sanctuary cities" language, whereas 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: SB9 has passed the Senate, and is stalled in the House State Affairs Committee. HB9 has yet to make it out of either chamber and is also pending in that committee.

What to watch for: The State Affairs committee did not meet Monday, which means the clock will likely run out on HB9. It has little chance of moving forward, because even if it is passed out of committee today and is approved by the House on Wednesday, there would not be enough time to pass it out of the Senate. If the committee meets and passes out SB9, it would not see House floor action until Wednesday. It would have to be voted out and sent to the Senate without amendments. It's likely House members would filibuster the bill before it even advanced that far. Keep in mind that rules pertaining to timing and layouts can always be suspended. So, the bills are clinging to life, and are not dead until the final gavel bangs.

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 issue to the special session call last week, urged to do so by a number of lawmakers including state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview. A similar proposal was pulled down in dramatic fashion during floor debate last month by an angry state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, after the U.S. Department of Justice warned that its passage could violate federal law and disrupt commercial flights in Texas. After negotiations over the bill broke down last Friday, House Speaker Joe Straus shocked lawmakers by calling it a "publicity stunt" that would never be considered on the House floor "as written." A panel was formed to make the bill more legally palatable. It emerged on Monday afternoon significantly changed. Simpson added a “clarifying” amendment to address the concerns of the attorney general and prosecutors around the state. It re-ordered the wording of the section about private parts, adds a reasonable defense clause, and a provision to salvage the bill should it be ruled unconstitutional in the courts. Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Houston, offered an amendment to change the language of the bill from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion” — a lower standard for law enforcement to search someone. Taking no chances, the Senate passed its own version of the legislation, SB 29, Monday evening. The Senate version incorporates similar suggestions from the Attorney General's Office and the District Attorney's Association, but has slightly different language.  To have "effective consent," TSA officials would have to describe how they are going to search the person and receive verbal permission before they could conduct a search. 

Status: The House tentatively approved HB 41 on a voice vote Monday afternoon. It's now headed for a third reading vote today. The Senate gave final approval to SB 29. One or the other has to pass both houses before the end of the session.

What to watch for: Simpson told reporters after the vote that he is slightly concerned the bill is going to third reading so close to the end of the session. He said he accepted Fletcher's amendment because it was "the best thing to do politically." He also struck a conciliatory tone: "This is a miracle it got this far. If it passes, it will be a miracle. I'm hopeful... trust providence." After the House adjourned, InfoWars radio host Alex Jones, who stormed the Capitol with a rally of protesters after the original bill died in the regular session, stormed the Capitol again. He called the altered version of the bill a "monstrosity" and specifically blamed Perry for advancing the "pedophile protection program," his description of the TSA's searches. "What they've done is pass a bill that masquerades as freedom," Jones yelled, eliciting cheers from the crowd. Late Monday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst weighed in on the Senate's passage of SB 29, saying, "We all want our skies to be safe and we all want to fight terrorism. But airport security must focus on stopping terrorists, not harassing innocent travelers.  With the passage of SB 29, the Texas Legislature is not only telling the TSA to change their policies − we're telling the Obama Administration we will not be intimidated and we will vigorously defend our Constitutional rights."

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