State Politics

Here’s where the Texas Legislature is on Abbott’s special session issues

Visitors move though the rotunda at the Texas Capitol on June 15.
Visitors move though the rotunda at the Texas Capitol on June 15. AP archives

Gov. Greg Abbott called the 85th Texas Legislature back for a special session beginning July 18, initially to pass legislation needed to keep five state agencies in operation, and then to address a longer list of proposals for everything from restroom regulations to local tree ordinances. The governor opened a total of 20 for consideration; this is the Trib’s regularly updated look at the Legislature’s progress during the 30-day special session.

Sunset legislation

During this year’s regular session, lawmakers failed to pass “sunset” legislation needed to prevent some state agencies from closing. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick held key sunset legislation hostage in a successful effort to force a special session on other issues. In announcing the special session, Abbott said he would only add an additional 19 issues to the agenda after the Senate passed sunset legislation. On the third day of the special session, the Senate did just that, and Abbott significantly expanded the session’s agenda. The House has since passed its own sunset bills, but neither chamber has yet agreed to the other’s version.

Teacher pay and retirement benefits

Abbott asked the Legislature to put more money into the Teacher Retirement System amid concerns that retired teachers would no longer be able to afford their medication amid rising health insurance premiums and health care costs. Both chambers have passed measures that would inject $212 million into the system — but the bills would draw funding from different sources. Abbott also wants school districts to rearrange their budgets to increase teacher salaries by an average of $1,000, a measure educators vehemently oppose and have criticized as an “unfunded mandate.” Neither chamber has passed such a measure yet.

School finance reform

At first, Abbott said he would task legislators with creating a commission to study the school finance system. But in July, he added immediate school funding reform to the session’s agenda amid complaints from Democrats and moderate Republicans in the House that the state’s beleaguered system for funding public schools deserved more concrete action. The governor also tasked legislators with helping small, rural districts struggling after the expiration of a $400 million state aid program. Both the House and Senate have passed school finance measures, but no bill has passed both chambers yet.

School choice for kids with disabilities

During the regular session, the Senate passed a measure to subsidize private school tuition using state funding. But school choice proposals have long faced significant opposition in the House, particularly from Democrats and rural Republicans. Abbott has narrowed the issue for the special session by calling for “private school choice” specifically for students with disabilities. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Property taxes

There’s a constitutional prohibition on the state levying a property tax, but that’s a major source of revenue that keeps cities, counties and special-purpose districts operating. Amid Texans’ complaints about rising property tax bills — often driven by rising property values — Abbott called on the Legislature to tackle measures aimed at reining in increases in local property taxes. Local government officials argue the bills would hamstring their ability to deliver services their residents expect. The Senate passed a bill requiring property tax rate elections if a local entity’s revenues would exceed 4 percent from the year before. A House committee raised that trigger to 6 percent, but the full House has yet to vote on the bill. The lower chamber is also considering more than a dozen other property tax proposals, including one that would abolish school property taxes altogether.

Caps on state government spending

Under the Texas Constitution, state spending cannot grow faster than the state’s economy. Ahead of each legislative session, state leaders set a growth rate for state spending based on the estimated rate of growth in Texans’ personal income over the next two years. Abbott has asked lawmakers to require future legislatures to limit how much state spending can grow to the estimated combined growth in population and inflation, a figure that is often lower than the one lawmakers currently use. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Caps on local government spending

Abbott asked lawmakers to cap how much additional money local governments could spend each year without an election, drawing immediate criticism from city and county officials. They say such a limit would make it difficult to develop long-term financial plans and fund maintenance and services that residents want from their local governments. Neither chamber has passed a bill directly related to this issue yet.

Limits on local tree regulations

Dozens of cities and towns across Texas have ordinances protecting trees on private property; in many cases, property owners either have to pay a fee or plant new trees if they cut down larger trees on their land. Lawmakers are looking at measures that would weaken those local ordinances or make them illegal. Both chambers have passed bills related to this issue, but neither chamber has agreed to the other’s version yet.

Speeding local government permitting

Lawmakers want to make it easier for developers to get approval for projects in cities. Abbott wants state law changed so that permits would be approved automatically if cities don’t respond to them fast enough. Lawmakers are also looking at outlawing construction permitting rules currently in place in Austin that expedite permitting for projects that include certain worker protections. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue. The House has passed three bills related to permitting from groundwater conservation districts.

Preventing local rule changes on already acquired properties

This measure would prohibit cities and towns from enforcing any local regulation on a property that was not in place when that property was purchased. Critics have expressed concern that the measure could have far-reaching consequences on environmental, health and other local ordinances in place in communities across the state. Neither chamber has passed a bill directly related to this issue yet.

Texting while driving

Texas will be under a statewide texting-while-driving ban starting Sept. 1. But Abbott has complained that this measure leaves in place a “patchwork quilt” of driving safety regulations that differ across cities and counties. He has called on lawmakers to effectively pre-empt local ordinances in more than 40 Texas cities that are stricter than the statewide ban. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Bathrooms, showers, locker and changing rooms

Among the most contentious issues during the regular session, proposals to bar transgender men, women and children from restrooms that do not match their biological sex are back under consideration in legislative overtime. Efforts to pass such restrictions fizzled out in May as part of an ongoing fight that’s pitted Republicans against businesses and Republicans against Republicans. Lawmakers are now considering proposals that would affect bathrooms overseen by both school districts and local governments like cities and counties. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Union dues deduction

State lawmakers are considering for the second time this year a measure that would end the practice of collecting membership dues automatically from the paychecks of certain public employees who are in labor unions or other associations. The proposal would apply to public school teachers, corrections officers and other government employees but would exempt firefighters, police officers, emergency first responders and charitable organizations — a carve-out that’s received a lot of pushback, even from some of the law enforcement groups that would benefit from the exemption. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Taxpayer funding for abortion

State and federal law already prohibit using tax dollars to pay for abortions, but Abbott wants the Legislature to broaden that ban to block local and state government agencies from entering into any financial contracts — including lease agreements — with clinics that are affiliated with abortion providers, even if those clinics don’t perform abortions. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Abortion insurance

Lawmakers are considering measures that would require women to pay additional premiums if they want their health plans to cover abortions performed outside of medical emergencies. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Abortion reporting

Both chambers have passed similar bills that would require physicians and facilities to report more details about abortions — and fine those who do not comply. Both the House and Senate have also passed similar measures that would require reporting on whether minors seeking abortions did so because of a medical emergency and whether they obtained parental consent or a judicial bypass. Neither chamber has yet agreed to the other’s version of any abortion bill yet.

Do-not-resuscitate protections

The governor has asked lawmakers to ensure that patients or their legal guardians have consented to a do-not-resuscitate orders before doctor can issue them. Proponents say it codifies practices already in place at many hospitals, while some opponents say that it could needlessly complicate the process of issuing a do-not-resuscitate order. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Mail-in ballot fraud

Amid an investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities affecting city council races in Dallas, Texas lawmakers this year put a newfound focus on mail-in ballot fraud, a documented vulnerability in elections. During the 2017 regular session, Abbott signed into law a bill that overhauls absentee balloting at nursing homes, in an attempt to shore up that process. During the special session, Lawmakers are considering bills to increase criminal penalties for those found to have committed mail-in ballot fraud. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Maternal mortality

In 2013, lawmakers created a task force on maternal mortality and morbidity to examine why so many Texas mothers die within a year after their pregnancies end. A study last year in the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that Texas’ maternal mortality rates had nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014. While public health experts and legislators have not been able to pinpoint reasons for the spike in deaths and pregnancy complications, there’s bipartisan support behind extending the task force until 2023 to continue its work. Both chambers have passed bills on this issue, but no bill has yet passed both chambers.

Municipal annexation

A bill that would have allowed homeowners targeted by a city for annexation to vote on the proposal died during the regular session when state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, successfully filibustered it, claiming it offered inadequate protections to military bases from encroaching development. Now that Abbott has included annexation reform on the special session agenda, lawmakers are looking to resurrect the issue. The Senate has passed a bill on this issue.

Marissa Evans, Brandon Formby, Jim Malewitz, Cassandra Pollock, Morgan Smith, Patrick Svitek, Aliyya Swaby, Emma Platoff, Andy Duehren, Kirby Wilson, Ross Ramsey and Alexa Ura contributed to this report. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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