Texas lawmakers take on transportation, abortion

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Gov. Rick Perry showed again Monday that he’s willing to push for better transportation in Texas, adding transportation infrastructure projects to the list of items lawmakers can consider in their current special session.

That could lead to solutions for one of the state’s most serious problems.

On Tuesday, he showed again that he wants to be in front of the crowd demanding more abortion restrictions, placing that issue on the special session agenda.

That’s likely to bring a battle to the legislative floor that will spill over into the courts.

The governor also added a third issue: changing the state law that allows life-without-parole sentences for 17-year-old capital offenders. The change would allow for the possibility of parole.

That’s to comply with a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that said the no-parole provision for youthful offenders is unconstitutional.

Perry has been clear about his legislative priorities. When lawmakers began their regular session in January, he said he wanted more tax relief; better water and transportation infrastructure; and more access and choice in public and higher education.

The Legislature adopted a strategy for improving water infrastructure. Lawmakers also passed some tax breaks, although not as much as Perry wanted.

They approved major changes for public education and OK’d a plan for a new University of Texas campus and medical school in south Texas.

Transportation infrastructure and ways to fund more construction at university campuses are the two key problems yet to be resolved.

The special session, which began when the regular session ended May 27 and lasts 30 days, so far has focused on political redistricting.

In an April 12 speech to the Texas Lyceum Association’s Public Conference in Austin, Perry gave lawmakers a credible plan for transportation funding.

He proposed dedicating future growth in motor vehicle sales tax revenue to transportation projects. That and other suggestions from the governor could provide more than $41 billion in transportation projects over the next 20 years, he said.

He also recommended using part of the state’s rainy-day fund, which the comptroller projected to reach $12 billion by the end of the 2015 fiscal year, for one-time infrastructure investments.

And he said the state should issue bonds at current low interest rates to set up a revolving transportation infrastructure loan fund.

Some lawmakers have balked at taking on more debt, even at low interest rates.

Legislators earmarked $2 billion from the rainy-day fund for water infrastructure, pending voter approval of a constitutional amendment in November. They also carved out $1.75 billion from that fund to correct an accounting change that enabled them to balance the budget two years ago.

How much appetite there will be for taking more money from the rainy-day fund is an open question.

No one should doubt that opening the special session to abortion regulations will cause dissension in the legislative ranks.

Perry’s stand has been consistent: He wants to outlaw abortion. Failing that, he wants to make the process of getting an abortion as difficult as possible.

That’s a defensible moral stand for the governor and many other Texans. But the means to that end — current discussions include enhanced medical facilities for abortion providers, required admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — are almost guaranteed to bring long legal battles.

The standard under U.S. Supreme Court precedent has been that states may regulate the mode and manner of abortion, but they can’t impose an undue burden on a woman’s ability to have an abortion.

Federal precedent also recognizes a constitutional right to abortion up to the point at which a fetus is viable outside the womb, generally seen as after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Arizona abortion ban that began at 20 weeks.

Legislators already have queued up bills addressing the governor’s additional items for the special session. It would take an optimist to say they’ll be finished within the 30-day limit.

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