In a sign of their priorities on a day that spelled deadline doom for many bills that failed to make it to the floor of the Texas House for a vote, lawmakers spent valuable hours Thursday debating and passing a bill designed to stiffen regulations on abortion.
As many bills — including ones that would decriminalize marijuana possession, improve farmworker housing conditions and allow handguns to be carried concealed or openly without a state-issued license — withered on the vine as the midnight deadline loomed, lawmakers revisited the sorts of abortion battles that have embroiled Texas in recent legislative sessions.
At times the debate got testy.
During a back-and-forth on House Bill 2962, which requires facilities providing abortions to assemble quarterly reports on complications related to the procedure, Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, told Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, that she was suspicious when men were trying to make decisions about women’s health.
Schaefer proposed an amendment — adopted by lawmakers — that required women to report the first day of their last menstrual period before an abortion that involved a complication, as well as their year of birth, race, marital status and county of residence, to be included in the database.
“Y’all seem to be so obsessed with women’s health. I wish you were as equally obsessed with men’s health,” Alvarado said.
When she said that abortion is among the safest medical procedures, he responded, “Abortion is not safe for the baby.”
When Schaefer said an abortion-related database was necessary for the state to come into the 21st century, Alvarado responded, “I think you need to come into the 21st century.”
Echoes of 2013
Bill opponents said the proposal is meant to make it harder for women to get abortions.
After Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, charged that abortion is safer than a vasectomy, bill author Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said the bill is about transparency and accuracy in reporting.
Complication rates related to abortions became one of the issues in the challenge to regulations passed in 2013 that would have closed most abortion clinics in the state. Lawyers for Texas argued that the rules were needed to protect the health and safety of women seeking an abortion, while opponents said the regulations imposed an unconstitutional burden on access to abortion, a relatively safe procedure, arguing the complication rate is 0.2 percent or lower.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the regulations – which required hospital-like settings for all abortions and for doctors to gain admitting privileges in nearby hospitals – last summer.
“This is something we deal with session after session,” said state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio. “You didn’t like the answer the Supreme Court gave you.”
The bill passed 94-52.
Lurking behind the abortion debate was the ticking legislative clock.
At one point, Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, hoping to draw an end to debate on the abortion bill, walked up to the dais and tapped an index finger to his wrist, signaling to the speaker that time was up.
As the most prominent member of a small group of tea party-aligned Republicans, however, Stickland has played a key role in delaying House proceedings throughout this legislative session, stalling debate to make points about routine bills that the group doesn’t like.
Democrats also had an interest in slowing down the process: to prevent as many bills as possible from becoming law in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
As a result, the House has moved at a glacier-like pace as key deadlines loom. Thursday was the last day for bills originating in the House to be voted on by the full chamber. House bills that weren’t approved by midnight were effectively dead, unless a companion bill is approved by the Senate or a bill’s author finds a way to attach it to another bill through an amendment.
The deadline likely killed the House version of the so-called bathroom bill on transgender restroom access, which never got placed on the House agenda for a vote. A Senate-passed bill cracking down on transgender-friendly bathroom policies is still available, but House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has yet to refer that Senate Bill 6 to a House committee, likely dooming its prospects.
Legislation to give single teen mothers access to birth control without parental consent received late committee approval after overcoming Republican reluctance, but it failed to be scheduled for a floor vote. It appears Texas and Utah will remain the only states that limit access to birth control for unmarried mothers under age 18.
A proposal from Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin — to bar a city from enforcing any ordinance that prevents a property owner from removing a tree that the owner believes poses a fire risk — was so far down the list of bills to be considered Thursday that he had given up hope on it by midday.
“They set these calendars and get behind. We get bogged down,” said Workman, who vowed to bring back the proposal in two years. “It’s part of the process to have these debates. It’s healthy.”
Staff writers Chuck Lindell, Bob Sechler and Jeremy Schwartz contributed to this report.