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[Updated] Sonogram’s 24-Hr Provision to Exempt Rural Counties

The deal between House members and one Senate Democrat has paved the way for the controversial legislation
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Update, April 12, 2011, 12:20 p.m.: The State Affairs Committee voted the new sonogram bill out of committee with a vote of six to two. The committee’s two Democrats, Sens. Rodney Ellis and Leticia Van de Putte, were the only two “no” votes. Expect to see the bill headed to the floor soon.

Last week, the Observer reported that lawmakers struck a deal to move stalled sonogram legislation forward. Monday, that deal came out into some bright sunlight.

At the Senate State Affairs Committee, Sen. Dan Patrick laid out House Bill 15—a bill very similar to the one the Senate passed weeks ago. Both the House and Senate bills required women seeking abortions to have a sonogram and hear a verbal description of the fetus, as well as the fetal heartbeat. But while both chambers passed a sonogram bill, one chamber was going to have to pick up the other’s version. The House refused to pass the Senate’s version and the Senate was dragging its feet in picking up the House bill. For weeks, things appeared at a standstill on the measure that Gov. Rick Perry had deemed an “emergency item.”

At issue was a provision in the House bill that required women to get the sonogram 24 hours in advance of the abortion. The House wouldn’t part with the measure because this was unacceptable to Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio. He argued that the 24-hour provision was too burdensome, particularly for women in his large rural district. And without Uresti, the bill didn’t have enough support in the Senate.

Well, now everything is hunky-dory—for supporters of the sonogram bill, that is. The Senate has picked up the House bill, and according to Patrick, it’s to Uresti’s satisfaction. It leaves in the 24-hour provision for everyone who lives in a county with more than 60,000 residents and less than 100 miles from an abortion provider. Read another way: Uresti got an exemption for the women of his district and a few others in rural parts of the state. The rest will have to abide by the stringent 24-hour provision.

“I’m trying to get to the policy rationale behind the less than 60,000 in a county,” Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, told Patrick at the State Affairs hearing. “How did you get to the 60,000? Just to get the votes? What’s this line?”

Patrick was blunt. “Uresti had a concern on the floor, for his counties,” the hardline social conservative explained. “His largest county is 56,000 people, so 60,000 addresses his counties and his issues.” Patrick went on to say that fewer than 5 percent of all abortions actually occur in such rural counties. In fact, while 200 of the state’s 254 counties have less than 60,000 residents, those 200 counties only account for 3 million people—less then 14 percent of the state’s population.

For everyone else seeking an abortion, the 24-hour provision will be one of the most significant parts of the bill. While Texas already requires a 24-hour waiting period, that period is pretty unstructured. This bill delays getting an abortion by requiring women to make an appointment for a sonogram and then wait.

But now that things are rolling again, the bill will very likely pass—thanks to the senator who got his own district exempted.