Back to mobile

Floor Pass

Pro-choice activists march down Congress Avenue.
Patrick Michels
Pro-choice activists march down Congress Avenue during the Stand For Life rally at the Capitol Monday night.

Before the sun rose today there was already a blue shirt (anti-abortion) and orange shirt (abortion-rights) line at the south steps of the Capitol waiting for the hearing on the abortion ban bill. The hearing wouldn’t start until 10 a.m. but it didn’t matter as more and more people converged on the Capitol for possibly one of the most controversial bills to be debated in decades at the Legislature.

Senate Bill 1 would ban abortion at 20 weeks gestation and require abortion clinics to make costly upgrades that advocates say would close most of the clinics in the state. The bill has now undergone four boisterous public hearings in the space of four weeks, one spectacular filibuster in a failed special session in June and a jam-packed House committee hearing last week.

Today was no different in the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services though Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), chair of the committee, tried to limit the size of the hearing by holding it in a small hearing room rather than in the Senate chamber, which has public seating for at least 500. She also reduced public testimony time to two minutes each. Consequently, Capitol staffers and state troopers spent a lot of time shuffling witnesses into and out of the public hearing room.

There were plenty of people to shuffle. Although registration to testify opened at 9 this morning, supporters and opponents of the bill began gathering outside the statehouse doors before sunrise. By 11 a.m., when  Nelson stopped allowing new witnesses to register, the crowd was at least 1,700 strong snaking around the Capitol extension.

Senators spent the first hour discussing SB1 after Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) outlined the bill. As before, he heard questions from his Democratic colleagues, and as before, he batted their queries away. Requests for evidence to support the claim that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks, to make exceptions for victims of rape or incest, or to consider the concerns of the medical associations went the way of all previous pleas. That is, precisely nowhere.

To mix things up, impassioned anti-abortion physician Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) placed tiny blue and pink sneakers on his desk to symbolize the humans who couldn’t speak for themselves. Later, a bill opponent left a pair of flip-flops on the witness desk to represent the women who would die from unsafe abortions, were SB1 to pass. Some levity came courtesy of Ellen Cooper, the expert witness from the Texas Department of State Health Services, who said that the state inspects abortion clinics every year but only reviews ambulatory surgical care centers (the standard to which SB1 would hold clinics) every three to six years because there are so many of them. Orange-clad audiences in the overflow rooms hooted derisively.

Yet this public hearing was more muted than recent gatherings at the Texas Capitol. The tenor of the movement took on a more ominous note this weekend when the coalition that is organizing bill opponents (now called the Stand With Texas Women Coalition) warned abortion rights activists about safety at the Texas Capitol. Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said that the coalition has become more cautious given the emotionally charged nature of SB1. They became particularly concerned when they learned that anti-choice activists were bussing in from all over the country, and they worried that extreme elements might ignite an already volatile situation. “Knowing that [anti-choice activists] were going to be coming in larger numbers, and they were putting out a nationwide call especially … we don’t know who may be coming in.” As a result, the coalition broadcasted tips to their supporters about staying safe in the face of aggression, harassment or danger if it should arise.

Indeed, the anti-abortion lobby did come out in force today. A rally organized by a host of “pro-life” groups, and headlined by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, promised to be a big draw. Another star speaker, Attorney General Greg Abbott, is considered to be the gubernatorial favorite now that Governor Perry has said he won’t seek re-election. At the same time, a pro-choice march left from the south gates of the Capitol while inside, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services continued to hear testimony.

Sen. Nelson said that the committee would not vote on SB1 until after the full House debate on their version of the bill, which is scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m. The Senate committee also plans to hear testimony from everyone who managed to register before 11 a.m. today. Given the numbers, the Senators may still be sitting at their desks alongside Sen. Deuell’s baby shoes late into the night.

Opponents of the anti-abortion bills in the Capitol rotunda Sunday night.
Nick Swartsell
Opponents of the anti-abortion bills in the Capitol rotunda Sunday night.

Updated at 11:15 AM: The House has passed SB 5 on a 95-34 vote. The question now is whether Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will try to take up the bill today in the Senate. In order to do that, a rule requiring a 24-hour layout will have to be suspended. That takes a two-thirds vote.

Original: Despite 12 hours of procedural delays by Democrats—and a gallery packed with opponents—the Texas House gave initial approval at 3:23 a.m. Monday to a strict anti-abortion bill. The House is expected to pass the measure, Senate Bill 5, on a final vote later on Monday.

SB 5 would impose some of the harshest anti-abortion restrictions in the nation. It would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. It would require all abortion clinics to refit their facilities to meet ambulatory surgical center standards, a move that health advocates say will be so costly that all but five clinics in the state would close. The bill also would prevent clinicians from prescribing the abortion pill remotely, as they do currently for rural women in early stages of pregnancy. And it would require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to a hospital no more than 30 miles from the abortion clinic, effectively excluding out-of-state abortion doctors.

Opponents of the bill resisted a vote for hours. From the moment the House gaveled in at 2 p.m. on Sunday to the moment SB 5 passed on second reading early Monday morning, Democrats wielded points of order and parliamentary inquiries with swift regularity. They also offered 13 amendments to the bill, causing the crammed gallery to snicker appreciatively at scripted exchanges between Democrats at the front and back microphones (State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston): “Do you know who will want to see substantial evidence” [regarding fetal pain at 20 weeks]; State Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth): “Who?” State Rep. Wu: “The courts!”)

But it became wearisome. Indeed, before midnight the sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker) stopped responding to Democrats’ questions about the bill. In a rare move, Laubenberg continually tabled Democratic amendments without ever coming to the front microphone.

Democrats knew they couldn’t stop the bill from passing, but their goal was simply to delay it long enough to give their colleagues in the Senate a chance to kill the bill with a filibuster. The House version of SB 5 still must return to the Senate for a final vote, and time is running out. The 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry ends on Tuesday, though Perry can call as many sessions as he desires. Senate rules require a 24-hour waiting period before the Senate can debate the bill. So House Democrats hoped to delay SB 5 long enough to give Senate Democrats a chance to filibuster the bill when it returns to the Senate on Tuesday. (Unlike in Washington, Texas Senators hoping to filibuster must talk the entire time.) Every hour that House Democrats delayed on Sunday was one less hour Senate Democrats would have to filibuster.

Republicans knew that time was wasting away. So at 2 a.m., Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) moved to end debate and force a final vote on the bill, on the basis that debate was becoming repetitive. After 20 further minutes of Republican huddling around Speaker Joe Straus’s podium, the motion passed, leaving as many as 15 more Democratic amendments without debate. And despite hours of inventive foot-dragging by Democrats, the House passed SB 5 to a symphony of boos, yells and shouts of “shame!” from the gallery.

In fact, it was the packed gallery that made this bill’s passage especially dramatic. Abortion-rights advocates had started arriving at the Capitol before noon on Sunday. An informal coalition of reproductive rights organizations, including NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Jane’s Due Process, Whole Woman’s Health, Faith Action Women’s Network, Equality Texas and Planned Parenthood, had spearheaded their mobilization via social media. One campaign message advised:  “Wear ORANGE, bring snacks and plan to stay late!” Many arrived in orange but for those who didn’t, the coalition distributed 1,000 orange t-shirts bearing the logo “Stand With Women”.

By 1.30 p.m., a Planned Parenthood spokesperson said, all shirts had been handed out. Conversely, anti-abortion organizers suggested that their crowd wear blue. Yet orange-clad opponents of the bill kept arriving and once the gallery filled, the “orange army” spilled out into the lobby, rotunda and eventually, into rooms in the Capitol annex. Judging by the counts of orange and blue in the gallery, the abortion rights advocates outnumbered the anti-abortion crowd by 10 to one. Even at 9 p.m., more than 150 people in orange waited to enter the gallery. By 2 a.m., the Texas Democratic Party, which helped organize the turnout, announced that there were still more than 200 orange shirts watching the proceedings in the House chamber.

This meant that there were many activists present to witness Rep. Laubenberg’s gaffe earlier in the day. When State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) asked that the 20-week abortion ban exempt victims of rape and incest, the bill sponsor dismissed her. Women who had been raped could go to a hospital and get a rape kit, Laubenberg said, suggesting that the rape kit be used to have the woman “cleaned out.” With lashings of snark, activists tweeted about her misunderstanding of the issues that affect the women whose lives she hoped to legislate.

Yet despite yesterday’s political theater, Rep Laubenberg’s colleagues, as well as some Democrats, still approved her bill by large majority. This morning, Democrats have delayed their return to the House for a third-reading vote on the bill.


Scenes from the Sunday night/Monday morning House fight over the omnibus abortion restriction bill, Senate Bill 5.
  • SB5-rotunda-Swartsell

    Abortion rights protesters ring the upper tiers of the Capitol rotunda. (Nick Swartsell)
  • SB5-outside-House-chamber-Swartsell

    Abortion rights protesters crowd the entry to the House chamber Sunday. (Nick Swartsell)
  • 20130623_Michels_TexasLegislature_037

    Republican women join Rep. Jodie Laubenberg as she defends Senate Bill 5 Sunday night. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130623_Michels_TexasLegislature_025

    The crowd waves its applause Sunday night as Rep. Jessica Farrar speaks against Senate Bill 5. (Patrick Michels)
  • SB5-rotunda-crowd_Swartsell

    Abortion rights activists in orange filled the floor of the Capitol rotunda Sunday afternoon before the House debated Senate Bill 5's strict abortion restrictions. (Nick Swartsell)
  • SB5-pro-life-tape-Swartsell

    Pro-life demonstrators, identifiable by the word "LIFE" written on the tape over their mouths, surrounded by abortion rights activists in Capitol hallways Sunday. (Nick Swartsell)
  • 20130623_Michels_TexasLegislature_008

    House Parliamentarian Chris Griesel talks House rules with lawmakers before the Senate Bill 5 debate Sunday afternoon. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130623_Michels_TexasLegislature_046

    Rep. Senfronia Thompson waves a coat hanger during Sunday night's discussion of Senate Bill 5, a warning about dangerous home abortions that will follow clinic closures. (Patrick Michels)
  • SB5-crowd-Swartsell

    Opponents of Senate Bill 5 pack the stairwell outside the House chamber Sunday. (Nick Swartsell)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_135

    Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, the House sponsor of Senate Bill 5, defends her bill as Rep. Jessica Farrar looks on. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_096

    Rep. Mary Gonzalez presents an amendment to Senate Bill 5, while the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg stands nearby. After midnight, Laubenberg stopped coming to the microphone to speak against amendments. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_063

    Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer prepares one of a few procedural attempts to block Senate Bill 5. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_111

    Rep. David Simpson beside one of many signs around House members' laptops with Bible verses, a show of support for Senate Bill 5. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_131

    House members pass the time early Monday morning before a vote on Senate Bill 5. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_133

    Reps. Jason Villalba, Tony Dale, Larry Gonzales and John Otto at their desks early Monday morning, while Democrats give final speeches against Senate Bill 5. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_140

    Rep. Jeff Leach applauds the House's early morning vote for Senate Bill 5, while Rep. Phil Stephenson looks up at the jeering crowd in the gallery. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_157

    Abortion rights supporters pack the stairs outside the House chamber early Monday morning as Rep. Dawnna Dukes speaks. (Patrick Michels)
  • 20130624_Michels_TexasLegislature_172

    Rep. Senfronia Thompson with Rep. Jessica Farrar, surrounded by a crowd of abortion rights supporters after the House's early morning vote on Senate Bill 5. (Patrick Michels)

After more than six hours of fervent debate, the Texas Senate late last night passed an omnibus anti-abortion bill on a 20-10 vote.

Senate Bill 5 requires all abortion clinics to refit their facilities in line with ambulatory surgical center standards, a move that health advocates say will be so costly that all but five clinics in the state will close. The bill also prevents clinicians from prescribing the abortion pill remotely, as they do currently, for rural women in early stages of pregnancy. And it requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to a hospital no more than 30 miles from the abortion clinic, effectively excluding out-of-state abortion doctors.

But Republican Sen. Glenn Hegar, a rice farmer from Katy and the sponsor of the bill, dropped one major provision, the clause banning abortion after 20 weeks. He did express hope that it might make a comeback in the House.

Democratic senators spent hours pushing back. They grilled Hegar about the empirical evidence to suggest that ambulatory care centers are safer than stand-alone clinics; about the intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship; about the requirement to have physicians prescribe three times the clinically accepted pharmaceutical dose for medical abortions; about the absence of measures like contraception and sex education to prevent abortions; about the increased cost of abortion care; about the number of clinics that would close; and about women’s reduced access to their constitutionally protected right.

To each criticism, Hegar’s only response was that his bill improved patient safety. In fact, he said it so many times that Sen. Sylvia Garcia quipped, “If I had a dollar for every time you said ‘raising the standard of care,’ you’d probably be able to buy me a good steak dinner.”

Democrats gamely proposed 19 amendments that would link bill adoption to moonshot goals like having Planned Parenthood back in the Women’s Health Program or Texas accept Medicaid expansion. But Hegar, with a face that was consistently expressionless for most of six hours, swiftly and calmly quashed each Democratic proposal.

Just after an 11 p.m. invocation from Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) to technically bring about a new legislative day (blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted because of righteousness, etcetera), Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) made a last-ditch effort to stop the bill on third and final reading. He mourned the fact that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had suspended the two-third rule—which requires a two-thirds vote to bring bills up for debate—in the 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry, allowing senators to “ram through any partisan meat that fail[ed] in the regular session.” After outlining the damage to women’s health following recent legislative decisions like cuts to the state’s family-planning budget and the eviction of Planned Parenthood from state-funded care, Watson asked: “Are we really reducing abortions, or just the legal ones?”

But Hegar never looked ruffled, perhaps because he’d also received spades of encouragement from fellow Republicans as well from avowedly “pro-life” Democrat Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr.

Hegar’s work done, the bill is expected to proceed to a House committee on Thursday, where activists for abortion rights as well as anti-abortion activists will gather again for public testimony.

Meanwhile in other news this week, the nonpartisan Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition honored a group of senators and state representatives for negotiating the return of $200 million for women’s health in the state budget. Among the awardees were Sen. Jane Nelson and Sen. Bob Deuell. Both voted for the omnibus anti-abortion bill last night.

And the name of the award they received this week? Women’s Health Heroes.

Critics of new abortion regulations at the Senate hearing.
Jen Reel
Abortion-rights activists turned up in vintage fashion, as a reminder that the Legislature's proposed regulations would be a throwback to 1950s law.

Abortion-rights activists thought it was too good to be true, and it was. Four strict anti-abortion bills that failed to pass in the 83rd Texas Legislature’s regular session that ended in May got new life on Tuesday when Gov. Rick Perry added abortion to the list of issues lawmakers can debate in a 30-day special session.

“We have an obligation to protect unborn children, and to hold those who peddle these abortions to standards that would minimize the death, disease and pain they cause,” Gov. Perry said in a statement on Tuesday. Within hours, an omnibus anti-abortion bill (Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Glenn Hegar) had been filed. A Senate committee held its first hearing on the bill yesterday.

Senate Bill 5 has teeth. It sets out to ban abortion after 20 weeks, making an exception only if the mother’s life is endangered or if the fetus has a “profound and irremediable anomaly.” The definition of an anomaly? One that a physician determines will cause the fetus to die within minutes or hours after birth regardless of medical treatment. Other provisions of SB 5 will require abortion clinics to be located within 30 miles of a hospital to which the abortion doctor has admitting privileges. Telemedicine gets the thumbs down too from a clause that requires patients to have two separate in-person exams with a physician for medical abortions. Finally, and perhaps most devastating, SB 5 requires all abortion facilities meet the minimum standards of ambulatory surgical care centers. Abortion-rights activists claim the requirements are unnecessary and a back-door way to close clinics.

On Thursday afternoon, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee met for almost four hours of public testimony in the over-air conditioned Senate chamber. Forty two people testified before the committee: 20 in favor of the bills and 22 against. Some opponents came dressed in 1950s getup–pillbox hats, white gloves and dainty shoes–to demonstrate that SB5 takes women back in time. The anti-abortion lobby–in power suits and with blow-dried hairdos–didn’t look too far from that era either.

Because the contents of the bills had been recycled from previous drafts in the regular session, the testimonies weren’t surprising.

Senate Health and Human Services Committee chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)
Jen Reel
Senate Health and Human Services Committee chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

Abortion-rights activists noted that fetal anomalies are frequently only detected 20 weeks into pregnancy, and that the painful decision to terminate should be the woman’s decision, not her physician’s. They argued that the surgical center requirements in SB 5 could force all but five clinics of the more than 40 in Texas to close, reducing access to safe legal abortion and driving women toward back-street abortions. Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of Whole Woman’s Health abortion clinics, told the committee that requiring abortion clinics to become ambulatory care centers would increase their operating costs by roughly $40,000, with no demonstrable improvements in patient safety.

Alternatively, a speaker representing the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops testified that SB 5 provides commonsense measures to protect women, arguing that the provisions would improve the standards of care. An African-American pastor from Dallas said that abortion is used as genocide in black communities. The chamber heard emotionally wrought stories from women who had refused to terminate pregnancies after hearing that their fetuses, some of whom later died, had congenital abnormalities. Self-described “pro-life” obstetricians told the committee of the countless patients they had seen who’d been harmed during abortion procedures.

The public hearing ended with a request from Elizabeth Graham, the leader of Texas Right to Life, that the committee remove a key exemption from the 20-week abortion ban. Fetuses with congenital abnormalities shouldn’t be aborted, she argued, because that punishes the “preborn” disabled. Committee members looked thoughtful as Chair Jane Nelson gaveled the committee into recess.

The committee meets again on Friday at 11 a.m. Not one abortion-rights activist I spoke to believes that SB 5 won’t pass.

Gov. Rick Perry signs House Bill 5
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry signs House Bill 5 Monday at the Capitol, surrounded by, from left, Sen. Donna Campbell, Sen. Dan Patrick, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Lawmakers, test reform advocates and reporters packed the governor’s reception room at the Capitol earlier today, where Gov. Rick Perry was scheduled to “give remarks and sign education bills,” per a press release sent Friday.

His office didn’t announce just which “education bills” he planned to sign, and his announcement came after a week of speculation that Perry planned to veto House Bill 5, the session’s most sweeping measure to scale back high school testing.

The Quorum Report cited “sources generally close to the Governor’s office” on Wednesday raising the possibility of a veto, and a few more reporters cited that report (and “growing chatter in the Capitol“) in their own stories on veto speculation. Dallas Morning News education columnist Bill McKenzie mused on how Perry could veto three test reform measures, including HB 5, without hurting his career.

Some business leaders worried that cutting testing, and giving students new graduation requirements focused on career—not college—readiness, meant offering a weaker education. But a veto would have been profoundly unpopular among parents and students who’ve demanded fewer tests.

The bill’s author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock tweeted Thursday that he’d been invited to the signing, but not told why. But with Aycock summoned along with parents and students who’d spent dozens of hours this session complaining to lawmakers about Texas’ 15 required high school tests, there didn’t seem much suspense. Either Perry was going to sign the bill, or he’d arranged the sort of particularly cruel veto ceremony the rulers in Game of Thrones might appreciate. (Spoiler alert.)

He put the speculation to rest early in his remarks, naming HB 5 among the six bills he’d sign, saying they strike “an appropriate balance between our need for rigorous academic standards and the student’s need for flexibility, a balance between our needs for accountability and the appropriate level of testing in the classroom.”

Perry allowed that he had “deep concerns about how [HB5] would impact our students” at first, but was satisfied with the final version. “By standing our ground and not compromising on the high standards that we set for our students, we’ve made this a much better bill.” That’s as much as Perry hinted that he’d been on the fence, and he emphasized that HB 5 doesn’t weaken standards. “Texas refuses to dilute our standards in any way,” he said, “because our standards are working.”

Seated at a table in the middle of the crowd, Perry made great drama of the big moment. “Brother Aycock, brother Patrick,” he said, summoning the bill’s author and its Senate sponsor, Houston Republican Dan Patrick. “Got a low-number bill right here.” Parents in the back of the room let out hoots and shouts of joy as he signed the bill.

Perry also signed House Bills 809, 842, 2201 and 3662, and Senate Bill 441 today—bills that, generally speaking, create new technical courses and career programs in schools.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams was among a handful of other officials who took a turn at the mic, and he hinted at the monster task now facing the state education agency to implement the new bills. Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes had a similar take, noting universities will need more counselors now, to help students bridge the gap between their new high school course requirements and their major in college.

HB 5 isn’t the last of the test-reform measures left for Perry to sign, and he’s got just six days left to do so. Bills that could give high-scoring students a pass from some tests in elementary school, or exempt a handful of “high performance” school districts, are still in limbo, though if Perry takes no action, those bills become law. When the Texas Tribune‘s Morgan Smith asked the governor about some of those other testing bills today, Perry said only what his office had been saying about HB 5 before today: he’s still thinking on it.

“We will notify you at the appropriate time,” Perry said. “I just don’t have the final solution yet.”

The Legislature’s session had barely ended Monday afternoon before a new one began. The Senate adjourned sine die (indefinitely) just after 5 p.m. and, not 15 minutes later, received word that a special session would be called at 6 p.m.

The Senate floor was mostly quiet all day, save a few small children babbling and cooing in chairs next to their parents and grandparents. After several hours, the Senate passed three memorial resolutions in memory of Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s (D-El Paso) late grandson, Rex Van de Putte; Sen. Royce West’s (D-Dallas) late son, Remarcus West; and Greg Spaw, the late son of the Senate secretary. The Senate later adjourned in their honor.

“We can all be proud of the responsible steps made this session to invest in our citizens, fund water infrastructure, and build an even stronger foundation for the future of our economy and Texas families,” Governor Rick Perry said in a statement. “However, there is still work to be done on behalf of the citizens of Texas.”

Perry called the special session to pass a redistricting plan, making maps used in the 2012 election permanent. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters this evening, “I expect the governor to add more topics to the call, but I think he’s going to roll these out and make some progress on the bills first.” So far four bills have been filed, all from Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo).

After the special session was gaveled in, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) nominated Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) for President Pro Tempore, and he was voted in. There was a brief argument over the two-thirds rule, and, though Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) put up a fight that included statistics on discrimination in the current districts, Dewhurst remained firm that there would be no blocking bill this session. With Democrats no longer able to block bills with the two-thirds rule, Republicans will be free to pass any number of conservative bills—abortion anyone?—if they choose and if Perry adds those topics to the call. (In a special session, the Lege can consider only issues on the governor’s call.)

“I expect to see some pushback, but remember I’ve operated this way in special sessions on redistricting going back to 2003,” Dewhurst said, referring to the summer of 2003, when he ditched the two-thirds rule for the first time to pass Tom DeLay’s mid-decade redistricting plan.

The first hearing of the special session will take place at 9 a.m. on Thursday. Welcome back to the session.

Detail of Texas Capitol dome.

The Lead:

Well, kids, we’ve reached sine die—the 140th, and last, day of the 83rd Legislature’s regular session. (The circus is apparently staying in town for an immediate special session on redistricting, but more on that in a minute.)

First, as usual, the 139th day saw frenetic lawmaking. The House and Senate passed all the major bills on their calendars yesterday—and even wrapped up at a decent hour—including the budget and all its related bills, HB 500 which enacts hundreds of millions in tax cuts for business, a pretty decent ethics reform, and two Medicaid reform bills.

There will be many headlines from this session: undoing some cuts from 2011, tapping the rainy day fund for water projects, passing $1.4 billion in tax cuts without fulling restoring the 2011 reductions to public schools.

What we’ll remember about this session in the year’s to come will be Medicaid expansion—or lack thereof.

It had been clear for weeks (and perhaps months) that Medicaid expansion was dead at the Capitol. But yesterday lawmakers drove the point home, passing a bill that bans Medicaid expansion in Texas.

The Lege on Sunday sent the governor SB 7, a Medicaid reform bill. The measure includes an amendment tacked on by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) that forbids the state from expanding Medicaid under Obamacare. That eliminates even the smallest chance that the Health and Human Services Commission would negotiate a “Texas solution” on Medicaid. It gave Republicans a chance to vote against a key provision of the national health reform law they hate so much.

But it means Texas will turn away an estimated $100 billion—yes, $100 billion—in federal funds over nine years that will now go to other states. Refusing Medicaid will deny health coverage to roughly 1.5 million Texans.

Gov. Rick Perry may well have sacrificed the chance expand health coverage to millions—and reap the economic boon of $100 billion flowing into the state—for presidential ambitions that few pundits think are realistic. That decision—and the Legislature’s choice to go along with it—will be remembered and debated for years to come.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Hey, they passed a budget. Good on them. Details from the Observer here.

2. The Lege also enacted two major education reform bills that will expand charter schools and reduce the number of high-stakes tests. The record vote in the House on the testing bill was unanimous—a rare sight indeed. The Observer‘s Patrick Michels has more.

3. HB 500, which exempts hundreds of millions from the franchise tax, avoided a filibuster threat from Sen. Rodney Ellis and is headed to the governor. The Statesman has more.

4. The Tribune has a roundup of the transparency bills the Lege passed and finds the session lacking. They did pass the sunset bill for the Texas Ethics Commission yesterday that includes a few good reforms such as forbiding retiring lawmakers from spending their campaign accounts for two years after they leave the Lege.

5. Don’t go on vacation yet. The Houston Chronicle notes that a special session on redistricting could be imminent.

Line of the Day:

“The majority still refuses to take responsibility for their actions in 2011. Instead, even with lawsuits looming that have determined the State of Texas is not meeting its constitutional obligation, they’re allowing billions of our tax dollars to sit unused rather than investing it in the future of our children and this state.” —Rep. Abel Herrero on budget, which doesn’t fully restore cuts to public schools and would leave more than $8 billion in the rainy day fund.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Those correcting amendments. There’s not supposed to be any substantive lawmaking today—just correcting minor mistakes—but every now and then an industrious lobbyist tries to sneak something through.

2. The parties.

3. The end of the Hot List. We don’t produce the Hot List during special sessions, so this is our last one until 2015. Happy Sine Die!

The session’s two biggest school reform bills, one from each chamber, have danced around the House and Senate in the session’s closing days—a stalemate that broke Sunday night as both bills passed each chamber around the same time.

Members of the lower chamber began with their own House Bill 5, which reduces the required high school tests from 15 to 5, creates a new set of graduation plans for high schoolers, and lets the state rate its schools on an “A to F” scale. The final version of the bill is closer to the House’s proposal than the one passed by the Senate.

Its author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) urged a quick finish for one of the session’s centerpiece bills, and one that saw hours of debate on the House floor in March. “Let’s just vote it,” he said tonight.

Rep. Mark Strama—who voted against HB 5 when it passed the House—spoke in favor of the bill this time, devoting his final speech on the House floor to the proper role of testing in education policy. (He’s announced he won’t seek reelection.)

“HB 5 is an improvement over current law,” Strama said, but he defended the standardized testing movement of the last 20 years, crediting it with helping African-American and Hispanic students to close the “achievement gap” with Anglo students. “The problem with testing in Texas was the stakes we had attached to those tests,” he said.

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he’d vote for the bill too, despite his concern that that it doesn’t go far enough to help “the kids that are going to be on the bottom, I don’t care which test you give. … If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill.

Senate Bill 2, which would let the state approve around 100 new charter school operators in the next six years, had a less certain fate in the House, where charter expansion bills have died in the last two sessions.

In addition to the new charters, SB 2 moves some authority over the charter application process from the State Board of Education to the education commissioner; makes it easier to close low-performing charters; and allows school boards to turn low-performing campuses into charters.

Debate was quick, with the most critical questions from Fort Worth-area Democrats Lon Burnam and Chris Turner.

Burnam grilled Aycock, the bill’s House sponsor, on the exemptions from class size limits and disciplinary program requirements that in-district charter schools would get. Turner noted it would take just one year of low performance before a campus could be turned to an in-district charter.

That bill passed 105 to 41, with no votes from a handful of Republicans along with Democrats. The Senate passed SB 2 without debate, on a 28-3 vote.

The Senate wrapped up the night’s major school bills, taking up HB 5 just after 10 p.m. and approving it unanimously after a speech by Senate Education Chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston). Patrick said he wore his wedding tie tonight, one of the few times he’s ever put it on, because tonight was such a special night.

“It’s a great night for the future of students [and] parents,” he said, before senators voted for the bill and took turns hugging him beside his desk.
State Rep. David Simpson speaks to the Texas House.
Patrick Michels
Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview)

The end of the regular session draws near, and the House is one step closer to sealing the state’s budget for the next two years. With a vote of 110 ayes and 29 nays Sunday afternoon, the House passed House Bill 1025, a general appropriations bill that is necessary to the budget. The fight isn’t over yet: The House still needs to pass Senate Bill 1 tonight too.

HB 1025, in its final form, includes disaster recovery relief, $2 billion for the state water plan, and $200 million for the Permanent School Fund, among others.

Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), who is opposed to the budget package, attempted to shoot down HB 1025 by calling two points of order on the bill. Both were overruled. Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton) chastised Simpson for attempting to derail a bill when, he said, it’s vital to passing the budget.

“We get to a point in time—tomorrow, it’s sine die. This bill is just as important as SB 1. … I just think that this is a very important bill and we need to think about if we’re going to fund the priorities of this state,” he said.

House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) put a little fear of God in the representatives before the vote, speaking on how 1025 is necessary to help pay for such state needs as relief from natural disasters.

“Let me make it very clear: If we don’t get 100 votes, we will not be able to pay for our wildfires. We cannot do our disaster recovery. We can’t help the city of West after the explosion they had. We can’t pay for water. There’s a whole lot in this bill that we’re paying for, but we need 100 votes.”

Pitts’ vision of a statewide armageddon if HB 1025 should fail seemed to do the trick. With his words fresh in mind—and with House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) casting a rare vote for the bill from the dais—representatives overwhelmingly passed the bill.

As of this writing, the House had moved on to debate on Senate Bill 1—we’ll update this post after lawmakers vote. —Emily Mathis

Update at 7:40: The House just passed the last of the remaining budget bills, SB 1. Lawmakers only debated the budget briefly, but Simpson, once again, accounted for most of the drama.

After trying to derail the bill with a few more unsuccessful points of order, Simpson stood for a passionate speech against the budget reminiscent of his remarks late last session, complaining about the “political magicians” in the Capitol and the “accounting ingenuity” by which they keep the general public out of the budget process.

He spoke specifically about $500 million for CPRIT, the scandalized state cancer research fund, which was added into the budget in conference committee. Most Texans could never see the bill before their lawmakers voted, he said, because last-minute details of the budget bill were only available on the Capitol’s internal document system.

“I daresay that 25 million people are not here in the Capitol,” Simpson said.

“That’s why they send you here, Dave!” Rep. Larry Philips (R-Sherman) heckled from his desk in the back of the chamber.

“Don’t put your sumer vacation above doing what is right,” Simpson urged. “This is not a good budget though there is good in it.”

Voting began as soon as Simpson finished his speech—and ended before he could reach his desk. Walking briskly, he tried in vain to signal to his deskmate Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) to vote for him, and arrived just in time to hit the button himself, just after voting closed. Slamming books onto his desk, he walked back up and called Speaker Straus down from the dais to share some angry words.

It was the only drama in the House’s budget debate, as most lawmakers seemed light-hearted and relaxed on the next-to-last day of the session. Lawmakers’ kids played on their parents laptops or raced toy cars on the House floor. Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) walked the floor with his iPad, asking if anyone knew who was behind the Fake Joe Straus Twitter account. “I just don’t see how you can be doing something like that,” he said. “I’m sure somebody’ll find out.”

Rep. John Otto noted SB 1 includes $5.2 billion more for schools over the current budget, and focuses the spending increase on the state’s poorest districts. Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown) reminded Otto that the Legislature cut more from education in 2011 than it would replace in SB1.

Herrero was one of 29 votes against the bill, along with 28 conservative Republicans. The Senate passed its last piece of the budget deal earlier Sunday, so the budget heads to Gov. Rick Perry next. —Patrick Michels

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.

The Lead:

It’s the penultimate day of the session, and lawmakers have much left to do. The House still must pass the budget and approve two supporting measures—HB 1025 and SJR 1—key to the budget deal.

Meanwhile yesterday’s developments weren’t kind to the cause of transparency in politics. As the Observer‘s Olivia Messer writes, Gov. Rick Perry’ vetoed a bill that would have required disclosure of dark money. The bill, SB 346, would have forced politically active nonprofits to make public who was donating the money for their political activities.

The veto wasn’t unexpected. The bill had been primarily aimed at Michael Quinn Sullivan and his tea party group Empower Texans, which in recent elections has been marshaling funds in its nonprofit corporation, a 501(c)(4), and using the money to attack Republicans they view as insufficiently conservative, including Speaker Joe Straus and members of his leadership team. By spending through its nonprofit (instead of its PAC), the group doesn’t have to disclose where the money comes from. This is often referred to as “dark money.” SB 346 would have changed that. But MQS, as he’s often called, is close to the governor’s office, so hence the veto.

Supporters of disclosure even saw their backup plan foiled. Anticipating a veto, they had attached the disclosure provisions in SB 346 to another bill—the measure reauthorizing the Texas Ethics Commission. But, as Quorum Report noted, a conference committee yesterday—at about the same time Perry was releasing his veto statement—stripped the disclosure language from the Ethics Commission bill. So much for that.

With one day left in the session, it looks likely that we’ll endure another campaign cycle with some political nonprofits influencing elections without disclosing their funders. Good times.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Senate passed SB 21, requiring drug tests for some applicants for unemployment benefits. The Statesman has more details. Democrats had managed to defeat a separate bill requiring drug tests for welfare applicants. Unemployed Texans weren’t so lucky. The bill now goes to the governor, who’s expected to sign it.

2. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports on efforts to save the Texas Railroad Commission and its oversight of oil and gas drilling. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, employing his well-known light touch, told the paper that the commission had opposed his sunset bill reauthorizing the commission. “I take that as a clear sign that they’re not interested in the agency continuing.” Ah, sarcasm, the grumpy man’s wit.

3.  Lawmakers reached a deal on the System Benefit Fund, which is supposed to help low-income families with their electricity bills, though the Lege has diverted the money to other purposes in recent sessions. The deal, endorsed by Rep. Sylvester Turner, will ensure that low-income families get help on their bills. Quorum Report has details.

Line of the Day:

“This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas. Governor Perry’s veto of SB 346 legalizes money laundering in Texas elections. The Governor’s veto is ironic since money laundering is illegal in other endeavors.” —Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) in a statement.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The clock. All substantive bills must pass by midnight. Day 140 is usually reserved for resolutions and correcting amendments fixing non-substantive mistakes. It requires super-majorities to do any legislating tomorrow. It’s possible, but not easy. So, today’s the day to get things done.

2. The budget. The Senate passed the budget yesterday. The House must pass SB 1, HB 1025 and SJR 1 or a special session is guaranteed.

2. A 30-day special may well happen anyway. Redistricting, the Railroad Commission sunset bill, tax cuts, and any number of other issues could lead the governor to call a special session. We’ve learned never to predict special sessions one way or the other. Gov. Perry has the sole authority to decide when and why to call the Lege into special session. That’s comforting, ain’t it?

1 3 4 5 6 7 31