As Special Session's End Approaches, Key Goals Remain Unfinished
With six days left, all of the goals of the special session — redistricting, transportation funding, abortion legislation and criminal justice reform — remain unfinished.
With less than a week left in what has become a complicated special session, Texas lawmakers have yet to cross off anything on their to-do list.
Gov. Rick Perry has directed lawmakers to focus on four issues during the current 30-day special session, which must end by Tuesday. With six days left, no measure has cleared the crucial hurdle of passing both the House and the Senate.
The many moving parts of those measures must all come together in the next few days before the session's conclusion if lawmakers are to complete the tasks Perry gave them. Both chambers could convene this weekend to move measures forward.
Here is where things stand currently on each of the special session’s key issues:
Redistricting: Perry called on lawmakers to approve interim redistricting maps drawn by a federal district court as “the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and United States House of Representatives.” The Senate has done exactly that. A House committee approved the same maps on Tuesday. On Thursday, the full House is scheduled to debate the maps, which are certain to face resistance in the lower chamber. Democrats have called the maps discriminatory. Some Republicans have questioned whether approving the court-drawn maps will head off efforts to delay next year’s primaries as Attorney General Greg Abbott and other backers of that strategy have predicted.
Transportation funding: Perry did not tell lawmakers how he wanted them to find more money for transportation infrastructure projects in a special session. He just told them to find it. A proposal from Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, to ask voters to approve amending the state constitution to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund quickly emerged as the leading one. The Senate unanimously passed Senate Joint Resolution 2 on Tuesday. The House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on a similar measure from House Transportation Chairman Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, on Thursday. A sticking point has emerged around a provision in the Senate version that would block the diversion if the Rainy Day Fund balance drops below $6 billion. With or without that provision, it remains unclear whether the measure can win the needed support of two-thirds of that chamber's 150 legislators before the special session concludes.
Abortion: Immediately after Perry added the “regulation of abortion procedures, providers and facilities” to the special session agenda, Republican lawmakers began moving ahead with proposals that had floundered during the regular session. Late Tuesday evening, the Senate passed Senate Bill 5, a broad measure that would require that abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers and that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The measure also would require doctors who administer the abortion-inducing drug, RU-486, do so in person. But anti-abortion lawmakers aren’t pinning their hopes solely on SB 5.
The Senate will meet again on Friday to consider bills that would implement those regulations individually along with a bill to ban abortions at 20 weeks of gestation. The House State Affairs Committee will take up its own abortion regulation bills at a hearing on Thursday. Both chambers will need to reconcile differences and approve identical measures by Tuesday.
Criminal justice: Perry added sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder to the call on the same day he added abortion to the agenda. He told lawmakers to tackle legislation "establishing a mandatory sentence of life with parole for a capital felony committed by a 17-year-old offenders." Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for those younger than 18 amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The justices said that if life without parole is a sentencing option for juveniles, juries and judges must have flexibility to consider other factors that might warrant a lesser sentence for the offender.
The ruling left Texas prosecutors with no sentencing scheme for 17-year-old capital murderers, because state law only allowed them to pursue life without parole. Senate Bill 23, by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, seeks to address that problem by requiring that 17-year-old murderers receive the same sentence as 14- to 16-year-old capital murderers who are certified to stand trial as adults: life with parole eligibility after 40 years. That bill has passed the Senate and was approved Wednesday by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. It could be eligible for a vote by the full House as soon as Friday.
But some legislators in the House are concerned that SB 23 would still leave the state open to constitutional challenges and want to see changes to the bill to allow more discretion for juries and judges. If there are major changes to the bill at this point in the process, its passage before Tuesday could be jeopardized.
Public Integrity Unit: Although Perry only put four issues on the special session call, his line-item veto of Travis County's public integrity unit has prompted House leaders to take up that issue anyway. Perry vetoed $7 million in funding for the unit tasked with investigating hundreds of public corruption cases after Democratic Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to resign following her arrest and conviction for driving while intoxicated. The House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on House Concurrent Resolution 6 from state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, which attempts to override Perry’s veto.
Managing Editor Brandi Grissom contributed to this report.
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