In the end, after months of fighting and arguing, Texas lawmakers on Monday ended their 140 day Legislative Session with handshakes, hugs and smiles.
And a few tears.
Many were proud of what was accomplished this session. Many walked away with regrets.
But after five months of working on often controversial issues that tended to sharply divide the them, Monday likely was the happiest day since lawmakers began this session on Jan. 13.
“There are no Democrats or Republicans in here today,” said state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, who was named the Democratic Party’s freshman of the year in the House. “It’s all equal.
“All the disagreements are lost today.”
After lawmakers made a few technical corrections, passed some resolutions and thanked those who worked for and with them, they gaveled out of the session in a matter of hours.
This session held many new challenges for lawmakers.
There was the first new governor in more than 14 years, the first new lieutenant governor in 12 years and a number of new lawmakers, including, for Tarrant County, Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and Reps. Romero and Tony Tindertholt, R-Arlington.
“Given the new leadership, and the time it took to get everybody on the same page, I think the session went incredibly well,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “There were the usual squabbles between R’s and D’s and R’s and R’s.
“But they mostly all got worked out,” he said. “There were some things that didn’t happen that I wish had, and some things happened that I wish hadn’t. Overall, it was a good session.”
During this session, conservative lawmakers won big gun battles, sending measures to let licensed Texans openly carry holstered handguns across the state and concealed handguns on college campuses to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has said he will sign both into law.
Despite often contentious partisan battles, lawmakers accomplished their No. 1 goal of passing a $209.4 billion budget that includes $3.8 billion in franchise tax cuts and property tax relief as well as $800 million for border security.
Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, is among those who wish more could have been accomplished.
“There were some positive things done, … but it was a session of missed opportunities,” he said. “We failed to address public school finance and to take any steps … to expand healthcare access.
“Meanwhile, the Legislature wasted a lot of time on partisan issues — campus carry, open carry, new abortion restrictions.”
Wins or losses?
Lawmakers saw successes and failures alike during the past 140 days.
A measure long coveted by some — limiting texting while driving — failed after a number of Senate Republicans, led by Burton, refused to let the issue reach the upper chamber’s floor.
So did proposals to end red light cameras statewide. Late efforts to revive the proposal failed partially because one lawmaker said Texans should make that decision themselves at the local level. Last month, Arlington voters supported a plan to turn the cameras off in their city.
Also joining the legislative graveyard were measures to raise the minimum wage, ban sanctuary cities, repeal the Texas Dream Act and prevent state officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples if the U.S. Supreme Court rules it legal.
Some Texans cheered the failure of some bills, particularly those against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“I hope that lawmakers who sponsored measures targeting [LGBT] Texans recognize that the discrimination playbook they used this legislative session is utterly inconsistent with Texas values,” said Terri Burke, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “Thousands contacted their representatives to say, ‘We don’t believe in mean-spirited laws that would allow people to use religion to discriminate or laws designed to harm LGBT people.’”
At the same time, millions of dollars were poured into border security and billions of dollars were earmarked for transportation projects.
“We passed a responsible budget that makes wise investments in transportation, education, and border security as well,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who heads the Finance Committee. “We provided much-needed tax relief to businesses and homeowners.
“We made our government more accountable and transparent, and we took significant steps to make our health and human services agencies more efficient,” she said. “This session we addressed our most pressing challenges and made decisions that will help Texas rise to greater economic heights.”
Lawmakers this year filed 11,332 bills and resolutions and passed 5,535. One, so far, has been vetoed, state records show.
That’s more bills filed, and fewer passed than in 2013, when 10,630 measures were filed and 5,909 were passed. There were 26 vetoes that year, records show.
Among the proposals that passed was a measure that has already been signed into law by Abbott reasserting the state’s control over oil and gas drilling by preventing cities from banning hydraulic fracturing. Denton voters last year approved such a ban.
They approved several of Abbott’s priorities, including a pre-kindergarten plan to give as much as $130 million in grants to school districts if they meet certain requirements such as using state-approved curriculum and having certified teachers.
And on Monday, after lawmakers wrapped up their session, Abbott signed into law the Texas Compassionate Use Act, a very, very limited form of medical marijuana that makes cannabidiol use legal for Texans with intractable epilepsy if federally approved medication hasn’t helped.
“We have seen promising results from CBD oil testing and with the passage of this legislation, there is now hope for thousands of families who deal with the effects of intractable epilepsy every day,” Abbott said.
This form of marijuana lets a patient get the benefits without the high. A different form, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive ingredient that produces a high.
“I can confidently report that this has been a solid, conservative session,” said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who heads the Texas Senate Republican Caucus. “We addressed critical issues like border security and transportation funding while still finding $3.8 billion in tax relief for Texas families and businesses.
“I would call that a big win for all Texans.”
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, an outspoken Bedford Tea Party Republican who served as the session’s firebrand, gave the session a C+.
But now that the session is over, attention no longer will be solidly focused on Austin.
“The pendulum is swinging from Austin back to the Republican primary and I’m excited to get to that,” Stickland said. “I’m ready to get more social conservatives here.”
If Abbott doesn’t call lawmakers back into a special session, legislators won’t reconvene until January 2017.
Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610
84th Legislature at a glance
Bills, resolutions proposed: 11,332
Bills, resolutions passed: 5,535
Vetoes so far: 1
Passed: Both “open carry” and “campus carry” gun bills await the governor’s signature; a $209.4 billion budget that includes $3.8 billion in business and property tax relief.
Failed: Texting while driving ban, red light camera ban and a proposed minimum wage increase.