State Politics

Voter ID ‘fix’ heads to governor as talk of a special session heats up

The Texas House and Senate blame each other over problems with a bill to keep the doors open at the Texas Medical Board. The impasse could prompt Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session.
The Texas House and Senate blame each other over problems with a bill to keep the doors open at the Texas Medical Board. The impasse could prompt Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session. atinsley@star-telegram.com

With the clock ticking down on the legislative session Sunday, Texas lawmakers signed off on loosening what some call the nation’s toughest voter ID requirements, sending the controversial and priority measure to the governor’s desk.

The voter ID overhaul was approved along party lines in the Senate on Saturday and by a 92-56 vote Sunday in the House, with all Tarrant County Democrats in opposition.

As this key legislation moved forward, however, leaders in the House and Senate continued to draw battle lines — both blaming the opposite chamber — over the possibility of a special session.

House members made the first move, holding a press conference to call on the upper chamber to pass Senate Bill 1929, which they said was needed to keep the doors of the Texas Medical Board open.

“The House has done its job for the people of Texas” on work needed to keep state agencies open, said state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock. “It is the purposeful inaction of the Texas Senate which puts us where we are today.”

An hour later, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who has threatened to hold this bill hostage if the House doesn’t pass a bathroom bill and property tax reform — announced that the bill wouldn’t fix the problem after all and a solution could only be found in a special session. Texas senators, he said, “did their work. The House did not.”

Only Texas Gov. Greg Abbott can call a special session. Special sessions can last as long as 30 days and cost the state as much as $800,000.

And while many members said privately Sunday that they feel they are headed to a special session, they’ve been given no warnings or signals from Abbott that he plans to call one.

During a special session, the governor picks the topics to be addressed — and he can call lawmakers back as many times, for as many special sessions as he would like, until the Legislature produces what he wants.

The 85th legislative session ends Memorial Day.

The 85th legislative session ends Memorial Day.

Voter ID and other bills

As dueling press conferences were being held in the House and Senate on Sunday, lawmakers continued approving bills.

Voter ID, also known as Senate Bill 5, was a last-minute addition to the Legislature’s list of emergency items.

“I think we’ve made some reasonable concessions on voter ID,” said state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth.

The Legislature acted after a court ruling said lawmakers in 2011 discriminated against minorities when passing the voter ID law. The goal of the 2017 bill was to soften requirements in Texas and avoid further court action.

SB 5 still requires Texas voters to show photo ID when voting. It still allows voters without IDs to fill out forms stating if and why they couldn’t obtain the ID, but anyone caught lying on the forms would face a state jail felony.

Election officers won’t be able to refuse to accept an ID just because the address on it doesn’t match the one in the list of registered voters. And voters with expired IDs will still be able to use them to vote, as long as they aren’t more than four years expired.

By late Sunday, SB 1929 — the most talked about bill of the day — still had not come up in the Senate.

House members said this bill would fix the sunset issues, despite Patrick’s earlier claims that an amendment on the bill wasn’t germane and wouldn’t fix the problem.

“Our parliamentarian thinks it’s fine,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “We seem to care a hell of a lot more about germaneness than the Senate ever has.”

Patrick and more than a dozen senators disagreed during a separate press conference.

“The gap between what the real truth is and what was said is about as wide as the Grand Canyon,” Patrick said, adding that the House “under the Speaker’s leadership” has been slower than the upper chamber to pass legislation.

But the Senate slowed down Sunday night, when state Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, began a filibuster over Senate Bill 715, an annexation bill by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.

He spoke around two hours, until midnight, to kill the controversial bill, which was passed late Sunday night by the Texas House.

Campbell, prepared to stand and defend her bill, wore pink tennis shoes to the Senate floor Sunday night, prompting state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, to recall the 2013 filibuster by former state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

Davis wore rouge red Mizuno Wave Rider 16 running shoes for her filibuster against abortion regulations.

“It kind of makes me break out in a rash when I see some pink tennis shoes on one of my colleagues,” Whitmire said.

Going into overtime?

Speculation about a special session has been strong, particularly since Patrick on Friday said he’d ask Abbott for one after House Speaker Joe Straus said the lower chamber would go no further on the bathroom bill than the compromise it already passed.

The House passed a measure requiring Texas schools to provide alternate restrooms and locker rooms for youth who don’t want to use facilities that match their “biological sex.”

Patrick wants the House to OK the Senate’s version, which essentially requires people using restrooms in publicly owned buildings, not just schools, to go to the one that matches their “biological sex.” This would overrule any local ordinances already in place.

The Associated Press reported that in a new letter, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook and other tech industry leaders have urged officials to abandon the bathroom bill.

Such a bill, officials with NBA and NFL have suggested, could prevent premiere sporting events from coming to Texas in the future. Others have suggested such a bill could also prevent businesses from locating in Texas and even musical groups from having concerts and events here.

Abbott, who took office in 2015, did not call a special session in his first legislative session. His office did not respond Sunday to a request for information about a potential special session.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back to work several times in different ways.

In 2013, he called a special session about one hour after the regular session ended, asking legislators to address redistricting for Congress and the Texas Legislature. That year, lawmakers had three special sessions.

He also called lawmakers back to work once in 2011, once in 2009, three times in 2005 and four times in 2003.

Former President George W. Bush called no special sessions during his tenure as Texas governor from 1995 to 2000. Former Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, called four special sessions — two in 1991 and two in 1992.

A special session could begin as soon as the regular session ends — or at any time. Many speculate a special session could come after the June 18 bill signing deadline, so lawmakers won’t be in position to override any vetoes the governor might use.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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