In his special session, Abbott will fall short of 20, but how short?

Updated Aug 10, 2017
House Speaker Joe Straus gavels the close of an amendment vote to Senate Bill 5. SB5 aims to reduce mail-in ballot fraud with signature verification measures and tougher penalties for impersonating a voter.

Sunset legislation will reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk Friday in what, appropriately enough, is the gathering dusk of a 30-day special session that concludes at the stroke of midnight Wednesday.

That the two sunset bills — one to extend the life of the Texas Medical Board and four other agencies for two years, and the other to fund them — will be the first to reach the finish line says much about the difficult slog it’s been to convert the governor’s wide-ranging conservative agenda into law.

But as consensus is emerging on at least some thorny issues, it would appear Abbott will get between a half-dozen and a dozen of his 20 priorities addressed, not the 20-for-20 that he demanded.

The Senate under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick moved quickly to approve 18 of Abbott’s 20 agenda items at the start of the session, and so most of the action now rests with the House.

FIRST READING: This is the way the special session ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.

The House will likely pass municipal annexation reform Friday, and on Saturday it will take up the governor’s top priority of property tax reform, and possibly House Bill 208, capping state spending increases to the percent of population growth plus inflation. It is the kind of cherished conservative objective that would give the governor something else to crow about as he attempts to establish Texas as a kind of Shangri-La of conservative ideals and governance.

On Thursday, the House gave final passage to legislation boosting criminal penalties for absentee ballot fraud. The Senate must agree to changes or negotiate its differences with the House on the measure. Also Thursday, the House State Affairs Committee broke a nettlesome impasse and unanimously approved a revised version of Senate Bill 11, requiring explicit patient approval for a do-not-resuscitate order in a hospital.

Early on, the House passed an Abbott priority requiring medical facilities to report more detailed information on abortion complications in the state. This week its overwhelming Republican majority passed a second abortion-related bill, HB 214, which requires women to pay an added insurance premium if they want their health plan to cover abortions that aren’t medical emergencies, with no exceptions for fetal abnormalities, rape or incest. The Senate has also passed versions of those bills.

Local control

But it has been tough going for Abbott’s initiatives to pre-empt local authority on issues from cellphone use to tree ordinances.

Sticking its thumb in the governor’s eye, the House passed the same tree bill that Abbott had vetoed after the regular session as inadequate. But it now appears that House and Senate negotiators have modified the bill in ways they can live with and the governor can sign, though it falls short of Abbott’s goal of prohibiting local governments from restricting tree removal on private property.

With final passage of the sunset bills Friday, the Legislature will have completed its one must-pass task and removed any possibility that this seemingly innocuous legislation could be held hostage by either the House or the Senate for negotiating purposes on other legislation, or be used, in some end-of-session dramatics, to force another special session.

FIRST READING: With a shiv to the cities: Dan Patrick and the practice of `positive polarization.’

Patrick was able to do just that during the waning days of this year’s regular session, forcing the governor to call the special session at which Patrick hoped the Legislature would address “privacy legislation,” regulating bathroom use by transgender individuals, and property tax legislation, which are priorities for him.

“That’s why we’re here right now, because the sunset bill was meant to bring us back to session so they could put a bathroom bill on there,” said Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas.

But House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said he didn’t want any part of legislating bathroom policy and hoped it wouldn’t reach the floor, and House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, wouldn’t give it a hearing, dooming its prospects.

The governor said he wanted to sign some kind of legislation pre-empting local policymaking on the matter, but there is no indication that he would seek another special session — he can call as many as he likes — to force the issue.

Freedom Caucus

On this and other issues, Villalba said, “The governor met his mark and checked his box. He made his ask. And doggone if it didn’t get through the State Affairs Committee or whatever.”

Whatever doesn’t get done gives Patrick what he needs to press his crusade against Straus. Abbott has given Patrick no space to outflank him on the right, and the governor can get credit for fighting the good fight and can blame the House for falling short.

And Villalba said, “Straus is a hero to everybody else – the squishy center.”

But for Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the special session has advanced the policy interests of social conservatives on a couple of key issues — though not nearly as many or as conservatively as they would have liked. The session also gives his caucus ammunition to advance its political agenda of displacing Straus as speaker in the next session by showcasing how Straus kept the governor from going 20-for-20 through obstruction techniques both aggressive and passive.

“Before this week, the House had been in session about six hours and passed three of the bills the governor put on his call. The Senate had approved 18 out of the 20 and worked for 36 hours,” Rinaldi said.