Patrick Puts Religious Liberty, Ethics on Senate To-Do List

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Thursday began to detail interim charges for the Texas Senate, signaling he would like members to revisit some unfinished business from the most recent legislative session.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signs bills on the last day of the 84th session June 1, 2015

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Thursday asked state senators to revisit some unfinished business from the most recent legislative session, rolling out interim charges that include politically charged issues such as religious liberty, union dues and ethics.

All three sparked heated debate throughout the session, and one of them — ethics — represents an item that Gov. Greg Abbott declared an emergency (legislators fell short of his expectations). They are now on Patrick's to-do list for lawmakers before they next meet in 2017.

Also Thursday, Attorney General Ken Paxton added his voice to the mix, making known that he wants both chambers to set interim priorities that include both religious liberty and anti-abortion legislation. GOP calls for action on the latter issue have grown louder with the release of undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing procuring fetal tissue for research.

In the wake of the last session, social conservatives have been especially upset the Legislature did not make more progress on religious liberty, calling for a special session on the issue ahead of the June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. Patrick is asking the State Affairs panel to "make recommendations that ensure that the government does not force individuals, organizations or businesses to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs." 

Patrick's focus on religious liberty comes amid a heated campaign over a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston that would extend protections to gay and transgender residents in the state's largest city at businesses that serve the public. Similar protections have been enacted in other areas of the state, and national and state gay rights leaders have indicated that local protections against discrimination are the next frontier in the battle for gay rights.

On ethics, the Legislature never passed a comprehensive package of reforms back by Abbott that was meant to address conflicts of interest at the Capitol. Patrick is now asking senators to "recommend changes necessary to inspire the public’s confidence in a transparent and ethically principled government."

Union dues also proved to be a flashpoint during the session. There was a late — and ultimately unsuccessful — push to pass a bill that would have ended automatic payroll deductions for union and non-union dues of most public employees. Patrick, whose Senate approved the anti-union bill that died in the House, is asking members to reconsider ending the practice.

Patrick also laid out interim charges for the Senate committees on Natural Resources and Economic Development as well as Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs. The lieutenant governor is asking the former panel to study the effect of proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, a perennial target of GOP lawmakers, and recommend "legislative or constitutional action" if necessary. 

Patrick said interim charges for other Senate committees would be announced Friday. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has not yet announced any interim charges for the lower chamber.

Paxton also weighed in on issues he'd like the Legislature to consider in the interim, requesting more protections on religious liberty in light of the Supreme Court's ruling and additional restrictions on abortion in the state. 

In letters sent to Patrick and Straus, Paxton asked that the Legislature consider "clarifying" protections for religious organizations and ensure that the state's compliance with the high court's ruling does not "needlessly trample the religious liberties" of government employees. He also asked the lawmakers to push for uniform discrimination laws and ordinances across the state.

In response to a series of sting videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing procuring fetal tissue for research, Paxton also endorsed additional regulations on abortion providers. Echoing a recent proposal by Abbott, Paxton asked that the Legislature consider a ban on the sale of aborted fetuses and increased reporting requirements on fetal tissue donation.

The sale of fetal tissue is already illegal. But if a patient consents, abortion clinics may donate fetal tissue for use in medical research. Federal law allows clinics to be reimbursed for costs “associated with the transportation, implantation, processing preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue” for research purposes.

Paxton's focus on abortion providers comes after Texas Republicans in recent months have renewed their fight against Planned Parenthood after the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, released undercover videos alleging that Planned Parenthood is illegally profiting from the sale of tissue of aborted fetuses — a charge Planned Parenthood officials have vehemently denied.

Republican senators have already made clear they intend to enact additional restrictions on fetal tissue donation in Texas when they convene for the next legislative session in 2017.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.