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Field Notes from the 84th Session's Final Weekend

Last-minute dramatics changed the script on several high-profile bills late in the session.

House Speaker Joe Straus gavels out the 84th session of the Texas Legislature on June 1, 2015.

Before we let the 84th legislative session recede into the sunset, here are some final field notes from the final weekend.

One of the most unexpected dramas that developed in the last week of session was over a seemingly purely local bill, HB 3405. Written by Dripping Springs Republican Jason Isaac, the bill was intended to regulate groundwater pumping in an area of western Hays County in his district.

His district also bore the brunt of some of the worst destruction from the Memorial Day rains that inundated much of the state.

The bill seemed all but dead after a procedural point of order was raised against it. The House parliamentarian, though, later reversed his own ruling, an extremely rare event.

"While the aspirational goal of an arbiter should be to be completely error free, that goal is unlikely to be achieved," Parliamentarian Chris Griesel wrote by way of explanation in the House journal. "Every day on the house floor, the parliamentarian makes errors that can have serious consequences."

It was not immediately clear what led to the reconsideration of the point of order. Many residents near flood-devastated Wimberley had called lawmakers and even the editor of the hometown paper of Mary González, the El Paso Democrat who had raised the original point or order.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also hinted that he had a role in the reversal after a trip to Wimberley just before HB 3405 was revived. He told the Tribune, “I am grateful that the House reversed the P.O.O. because it is the number one legislative issue for Hays County. After visiting Wimberley to survey the flood damage, I believe this bill is even more critical. I appreciate the House working on this."

Given its new lease on life, HB 3405 was passed out of both chambers over the weekend and now awaits action by the governor.

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One piece of legislation that is now definitively dead is SB 1735. The bill sought to make changes in the Hazlewood program, which gives college tuition support to veterans and their dependents.

Bill author Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, on Saturday discharged the conference committee that was negotiating the bill. But before he did that, he warned that not coming to an agreement this year guarantees rising costs will force the issue again in two years.

And, he added, the cost crunch facing colleges and universities could be much greater. It could end the entire program, not just benefits for dependents of veterans, he said.

Senators afterward congratulated Birdwell for taking on the politically difficult issue. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, speaking from the chair, added that he was personally offended by some of the attacks by the bill's critics on Birdwell, a veteran who was severely injured in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

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State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, was successful on Sunday in killing a conference report on a sunset scheduling bill, HB 3123. He objected to the addition by the House and Senate negotiators of new language pushing back a sunset review of the Railroad Commission to 2023.

In addition, several Metroplex-area lawmakers objected to bringing the North Texas Tollway Authority into sunset review. They said doing so broke a promise made with the transit agency.

The conference report was adopted on Saturday in the Senate with little discussion, but with several senior lawmakers weighing in against the report, the tide turned quickly in the House on Sunday.

The motion to take up the conference report died on 90-52 vote.

The House instead voted to concur with Senate amendments on the bill, sending HB 3123 to the governor’s desk without those Railroad Commission and NTTA provisions.

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State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, who recently had a health scare when an emergency medical scan revealed a ruptured appendix, urged his colleagues in a personal privilege speech Friday to be attentive to their health.

He noted that a House doctor of the day basically demanded that he get the scan that revealed the serious medical situation.

Reynolds told colleagues that had the doctor not been so insistent, “I would have put it off,” he said. “It’s possible I could have passed away in my sleep or on the House floor.”

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