Senate clears most Abbott priorities, shifting attention to House

8:11 p.m Wednesday, July 26, 2017 Local
Tamir Kalifa
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick uses the gavel Wednesday in the Senate during during the 85th Legislature’s special session on Thursday. TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After deliberating until almost 2 a.m. Wednesday, then returning to work eight hours later, the Texas Senate cleared most of its calendar, sending 18 bills to the House that are favored by Gov. Greg Abbott, including legislation on transgender bathroom useabortion regulations and limits on the authority of cities.

Events may have moved slower than expected, requiring 16 hours of nonstop work starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday and a session last week that began minutes after midnight, but the Senate was able to largely meet Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s goal of passing Abbott’s priorities by midweek.

Senate Republicans took a quick victory lap, celebrating a list of conservative priorities that they had laid upon the House’s doorstep.

“I know not everybody agreed on every bill, but no Senate in history has ever passed 18 bills in seven days — with weekend-long hearings, hundreds of witnesses, hours of debate on the floor,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate. “You couldn’t have worked any harder or any longer.”

Patrick gave senators Thursday off, saying: “We have three weeks to go in the special session, but we’ve accomplished a tremendous amount of work.”

The House, meanwhile, continued moving at a slower pace, voting on no legislation during a 17-minute Wednesday session before breaking for committee hearings on bills, including several on issues that Abbott has not included on the special session agenda and therefore cannot be voted on.

On Thursday, the 10th day of the 30-day special session, the House is scheduled to vote on bills to limit city tree ordinances, require more extensive reporting of abortion-related complications and fund five state regulatory agencies for another two years — all Abbott priorities.

The big question, however, will be how House leaders handle the stack of Senate-approved bills now awaiting their attention.

Patrick, who declared himself Abbott’s “wingman” in the fight to advance the governor’s priorities, pressed hard for rapid action, not only as proof of commitment but to give more time for pressure to build on House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican who has embraced the special session with far less enthusiasm.

Activists, lobbyists, state GOP leaders, senators and Abbott will be watching closely to see which Senate bills receive action — or get ignored — in the coming days.

The Senate, meantime, still has two of Abbott’s 20 priorities to address.

Consideration of Senate Bill 18, to limit spending by local governments, was delayed until Monday to allow more time to work on changes. In addition, a bill to bar cities and counties from changing land-use regulations after a property is acquired is still awaiting a committee vote.

The rest of Abbott’s legislative package was approved — with 11 measures given final passage while Tuesday turned into Wednesday, followed by another seven bills in the late afternoon.

In addition to five new abortion-related regulations — including a ban on abortion coverage in standard insurance policies — and a bill cracking down on transgender-friendly bathroom policies in schools and local governments, the Senate approved several bills that would limit the authority of cities and counties.

Senate Bill 14 would overturn ordinances in at least 90 Texas counties and cities, including Austin, that protect trees on residential properties.

“Nothing is more local than the property owners themselves deciding how their property should be used,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood.

Senators also approved a bill requiring cities in counties with populations above 125,000 to get voter approval before annexing areas where more than 200 people live. For areas with fewer than 200 residents, cities would need to get petition signatures from more than half of the property owners.

“This is taxation without representation,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. “We fought a war over that.”

Opponents argued that people who live in unincorporated areas often benefit from city services, schools and businesses without having to pay property taxes that support the infrastructure.

Laws limiting cellphone use while driving in about 40 cities, including Austin, would become void under Senate Bill 15.

Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said his bill was necessary to give drivers a “clear, concise and consistent understanding” of phone-use laws that would replace a patchwork system that changes at city limits.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said the bill would be “a giant step backward” for safety in Texas and predicted that “we will see more crashes, more deaths and more injuries caused by distracted driving.”

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