Texas House, Senate spat signals that special session is likely

8:28 p.m Sunday, May 28, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Ken Herman
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announces Sunday that the Senate will not consider a House attempt to salvage Texas Medical Board legislation. Patrick says it can be handled in a special legislative session. KEN HERMAN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

The long-simmering contest of wills between Republican leaders of the Texas House and Senate exploded Sunday as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick rejected a House fix designed to keep five state agencies functioning, including the board that licenses the state’s medical doctors.

Calling the House solution woefully inadequate, Patrick said the only recourse remaining is a special session to begin sometime after the regular session’s final day Monday.

Several House members disputed Patrick’s claims, pointing instead to the lieutenant governor’s previous call for a special session to support two of his priorities that were torpedoed in the House — prohibitions on transgender-friendly bathrooms and limits on how cities and counties can raise property taxes.

“I think the lieutenant governor wants to advance his agenda, and he believes utilizing the special session is the best way to achieve that goal,” said Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas. “But I think he’s the only one that is really pushing strongly for those two measures. I think everyone else has sort of gotten over it, and now it’s time to move forward.”

The president of the Texas Medical Association said he expected the state’s political leaders to find a way to keep the Texas Medical Board functioning.

“This is a fight that has nothing to do with the physicians or with the Texas Medical Board, and everyone at the Capitol knows that,” Dr. Carlos Cardenas said.

For the second time in the session’s closing days, leaders in the two legislative chambers spoke to each other through Capitol reporters.

Herman: Dan Patrick assigns blame, wins with likely special session

House members began the back and forth with a news conference urging Patrick, who presides over the Senate, to act on Senate Bill 1929, which the House recently amended to extend the life of the five regulatory agencies.

“The House has done its job,” said Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock. “It is the purposeful inaction by the Texas Senate that puts us where we are today.”

A short time later, Patrick faced reporters to point the finger of blame at his Republican counterpart in the House — Speaker Joe Straus.

“The House under the speaker’s leadership has been slow,” Patrick said. “Whether it was just not managing the calendar or whether it was purposely done to kill legislation, I’m not sure.”

Either way, Patrick said, the Senate will not act on SB 1929, which he derided as a Hail Mary pass that failed to accomplish what was needed because it did not include 28 chapters of state licensing law that also will expire in September.

Gonzales disagreed, pointing to language in the House amendment that also extends “the law governing each agency and the law administered by the agency.”

READ: Amid Capitol drama, Speaker Joe Straus says he’ll run for reelection

Without renewal, the Texas Medical Board would have one year to wind down operations beginning on Sept. 1, after which no new doctors could be licensed in Texas — although the law creating the agency also expires Sept. 1. Other endangered agencies regulate psychologists, marriage therapists, social workers and counselors.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who has the authority to call a special session and determine what issues can be considered, has made it clear that he wants bathroom and property tax bills on his desk, but he also has said the work should be done during the regular session.

A special session could cost about $1 million if it lasts the full 30 days and all legislators take the available $190 per diem — and that does not include overhead costs such as security, printing and utilities.

Conservative victories

Monday will bring the largely ceremonial end of the 140-day legislative session, noted for the passage of several priorities for conservative Republicans.

A defining moment came May 7 when Abbott signed a bill aimed at banning “sanctuary” policies in which cities and counties decline in some way to participate in federal immigration enforcement.

SB 4 imposes stiff financial penalties on jurisdictions that prohibit their officers from investigating immigration questions or don’t help federal authorities arrest county jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. The bill met fierce opposition from outnumbered Democrats, who argued that it will lead to increased racial profiling of Latinos.

READ: Reversals at Legislature have spelled an unhappy tale for Austin

Abbott also plans Monday to sign into law a bill that creates state regulations for ride-hailing companies, overturning Austin rules that led Uber and Lyft to stop operating in the city.

The session produced sweeping abortion regulations that require burial or cremation of fetal tissue, restrict the most common procedure for second-trimester abortions and prohibit the use of fetal tissue from abortions in medical research.

Abbott has signaled his support for the bill, which also creates state crimes for two practices already prohibited by federal law — selling fetal body parts and “partial-birth” abortions.

What didn’t happen

Notable legislation that did not pass includes:

• Bills legalizing for-profit fantasy sports leagues.

• A bid to allow legal gun owners to carry handguns without a state-issued license (though the cost of that license will fall from $140 to $40 starting Sept. 1).

• A school finance bill that would have injected $530 million extra into the public education system. The ultimate downfall of House Bill 21 was a school choice measure for special education students that the House ardently opposed but the Senate supported. Neither chamber was willing to compromise.

• A bill that would have ended the requirement that fifth- and eighth-grade students pass the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness to move on to the next grade. It also would have removed social studies standardized tests in eighth grade and high school.

• A measure that would have transferred ownership of Austin’s Lions Municipal Golf Course from the University of Texas to the state Parks and Wildlife Department.

• A crackdown on steroid use in high school sports. Democrats said the bill was meant to discriminate against transgender students who use prescribed steroids to make the transition to their male-identified gender, while Republicans said the bill was needed for safety and fairness.

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