Hundreds of bills appear doomed in Texas House

Posted Friday, May. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Amid growing talk of a summertime special session, hundreds of bills — ranging from statewide issues to individual lawmakers’ pet priorities — were in jeopardy late Thursday with the approach of a critical midnight deadline.

House members worked through a backlog of legislation on the final day for first-time consideration of House bills. Those that didn’t get considered by the deadline were doomed, as were hundreds of others languishing in committee. Sponsors could still try to attach them to other bills as amendments.

Gov. Rick Perry has signaled that he will call lawmakers back for a special session if they don’t enact a $2 billion water infrastructure plan and respond to his call for $1.8 billion in tax relief.

The top-priority water bill was declared dead on a point of order in late April, but key lawmakers have been frantically looking for options to bring it back to life and head off a special session.

One high-profile initiative — a proposed Texas alternative to Medicaid expansion — was already declared a lost cause with the approach of deadline day. Other measures are certain to fall into the legislative trash bin before the May 27 adjournment.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, acknowledged that a measure to rename part of Interstate 35W in Fort Worth the Cesar Chavez Memorial Freeway appears dead in the Senate.

And Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, also conceded defeat on her bill calling for a statewide smoking ban in public places, a measure she has championed in several sessions.

“We have not pushed it in the House because we couldn’t get it out of the Senate,” she said.

In a debate that raised questions about the impact of advancing technology on the right to privacy, House members gave preliminary approval to legislation that prohibits using unmanned drones to capture images of private property and people on the property.

The authors of HB912 included Burnam and Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.

The chief author, Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, told lawmakers that drones, unlike helicopters and airplanes, “could hover over your property seven days a week” without being detected.

Gooden credited Stickland and Burnam with playing key roles in helping boost support for the bill.

“You know it’s a good bill when someone from the far right and the far left are on the same side of the issue,” Gooden said.

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said lawmakers were entering “a kind of brave new world” in balancing the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures against the legitimate needs of law officers to conduct surveillance.

Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, called the measure “extremely broad” and said it could interfere with many law enforcement activities.

Violations would be a Class C misdemeanor. The bill would grant an exemption for surveillance with a valid search warrant, but House members rejected an amendment backed by law enforcement organizations to grant a blanket exemption for “a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”

Other exceptions include public safety emergencies, fires, hazardous spills and the rescue of a person in danger.

House members debated a Perry-opposed bill to boost auto registration fees to raise billions of dollars for road maintenance until Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, pulled the measure, conceding the likelihood of a special session.

The West Texas lawmaker postponed debate on the bill until May 28, a day after adjournment and the likely start date for a special session that would last up to 30 days.

“Forces are working outside this chamber,” Darby said. “I feel like we’re all going to be back here.”

Darby accepted an amendment reducing the proposed increase in vehicle registrations from $30 to $15.

Even with the reduction, the measure would likely face a veto. Perry said Wednesday that he would not accept a transportation fee increase.

The fee has not been raised since 1985. Darby said that he felt a “little bit like a skunk at a garden party” in asking for a higher fee but that it is vital to boost revenue and improve the deteriorating road system.

House members also approved a proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. If approved by voters, it would exempt the spouses of soldiers killed in combat from paying school property taxes.

Turner cited the story of Marine Sgt. John D. Fry of Lorena, who was killed trying to disarm an explosive device, leaving behind his wife and three children.

“In addition to the Fry family, there are thousands of other families across our state whose lives have been shattered by the loss of a husband, a wife, a mother or a father who is killed defending our nation,” Turner said.

House members voted 73-62 to reject a revamped bill by Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, that would have set up a system of voluntary registration for residential foundation contractors.

Orr originally proposed a tougher bill that would have established a state commission to oversee and license the contractors to protect consumers against potential abuses. Opponents criticized the creation of additional state regulation.

Although Orr told lawmakers that the reworked version is “completely voluntary,” Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said it could lead to “full-blown licensing.”

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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