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In Senate Abortion Fight, Other Bills Became Collateral Damage

Legislation that would create sentencing guidelines for 17-year-old murderers and increase funding for road construction were not the target of state Sen. Wendy Davis' filibuster, but died amid her high-profile effort.

State Sens. Robert Nichols and Joan Huffman.

Legislation that would create sentencing guidelines for 17-year-old murderers and increase funding for road construction were not the target of state Sen. Wendy Davis' abortion filibuster, but died amid her high-profile — and eventually successful — effort. A spokeswoman for Rick Perry, who added all three issues to the special session call, has said it's too soon to know whether the governor will call lawmakers back again. 

Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, attempted to defeat the omnibus abortion measure by speaking until midnight, when the special session was legally required to conclude. Along with that bill, senators on Tuesday were also scheduled to approve final passage of measures related to transportation funding and criminal justice. Both measures had passed the Senate earlier in the session but had been amended in the House, requiring senators to concur with the changes.

In anticipation of Davis' filibuster, the authors of the two other measures had asked Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to take up their bills first, but were rebuffed. Dewhurst's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Davis blamed Dewhurst for the failure of the other legislation.

"The lieutenant governor, for whatever reason, chose not to advance those bills first," Davis said after the failure of SB 5 and the dramatic conclusion of her filibuster.

Throughout the day, senators were discussing various possibilities for saving the two measures before the special session's midnight conclusion. Most included arcane parliamentary maneuvers.

"The filibuster may fail. I'm always optimistic," Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said Tuesday afternoon. "That's the greatest possibility right now.“ 

Nichols is the author of Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would have asked 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, raising nearly $1 billion a year in additional financing for road construction and maintenance.

Senate Bill 23, from state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, would have revised the sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.

If the bill didn't pass, Huffman said midday Tuesday, district attorneys who are prosecuting 17-year-olds charged with capital murder would still have no sentencing option for those offenders after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v. Alabama. That ruling eliminated mandatory life without parole for capital murderers younger than 18.

"There's just nothing there," she said, adding that those cases would remain in limbo unless prosecutors decided to charge the offenders with something less than capital murder.

"Everything would stay in limbo," she said, until the next special or regular legislative session.

SB 23 would have given prosecutors the option to seek a sentence of life with parole after 40 years or life without parole for 17-year-olds. The bill was headed for passage but was slowed down after the House added an amendment to the measure. If the House had approved the bill exactly as it came out of the Senate, it could have quickly been sent to the governor. But the amendment sent the bill back to the Senate, where it remained stuck for more than 13 hours Wednesday behind the abortion bill. Huffman said she respected the House's decision despite the procedural problems it caused for SB 23.

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