Ab­bott will get par­tial ses­sion win

Gover­nor stands to get be­tween six and 12 of the pri­or­ity items he set out in agenda for Leg­is­la­ture.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Tilove jtilove@states­man.com

Sun­set leg­is­la­tion will reach Gov. Greg Ab­bott’s desk Friday in what, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, is the gath­er­ing dusk of a 30-day special ses­sion that con­cludes at the stroke of mid­night Wed­nes­day.

That the two sun­set bills — one to ex­tend the life of the Texas Med­i­cal Board and four other agen­cies for two years, and the other to fund them — will be the first to reach the fin­ish line says much about the dif­fi­cult slog it’s been to con­vert the gover­nor’s wide-rang­ing con­ser­va­tive agenda into law.

But as con­sen­sus is emerg­ing on at least some thorny is­sues, it would ap­pear Ab­bott will get be­tween a half-dozen and a dozen of his 20 pri­or­i­ties ad­dressed, not the 20-for-20 that he de­manded.

The Se­nate un­der Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick moved quickly to ap­prove 18 of Ab­bott’s 20 agenda items at the start of the ses­sion, and so most of the ac­tion now rests with the House.

The House will likely pass mu­nic­i­pal an­nex­a­tion re­form Friday, and on Satur­day it will take up the gover­nor’s top pri­or­ity of prop­erty tax re­form, and pos­si­bly House Bill 208, cap­ping state spend­ing in­creases to the per­cent of pop­u­la­tion growth plus in­fla­tion. It is the kind of cher­ished con­ser­va­tive ob­jec­tive that would give the gover­nor some­thing else to crow about as he at­tempts to es­tab­lish Texas as a kind of Shangri-La of con­ser­va­tive ideals and gov­er­nance.

On Thurs­day, the House gave fi­nal pas­sage to leg­is­la­tion boost­ing crim­i­nal penal­ties for ab­sen­tee bal­lot fraud. The Se­nate must

agree to changes or ne­go­ti­ate its dif­fer­ences with the House on the mea­sure. Also Thurs­day, the House State Af­fairs Com­mit­tee broke a net­tle­some im­passe and unan­i­mously ap­proved a re­vised ver­sion of Se­nate Bill 11, re­quir­ing ex­plicit pa­tient ap­proval for a do-not-re­sus­ci­tate or­der in a hos­pi­tal.

Early on, the House passed an Ab­bott pri­or­ity re­quir­ing med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties to re­port more de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on abor­tion com­pli­ca­tions in the state. This week its over­whelm­ing Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity passed a sec­ond abor­tion-re­lated bill, HB 214, which re­quires women to pay an added in­surance pre­mium if they want their health plan to cover abor­tions that aren’t med­i­cal emer­gen­cies, with no ex­cep­tions for fe­tal ab­nor­mal­i­ties, rape or in­cest. The Se­nate has also passed ver­sions of those bills.

No bath­room bill

But it has been tough go­ing for Ab­bott’s ini­tia­tives to pre-empt lo­cal au­thor­ity on is­sues from cell­phone use to tree or­di­nances.

Stick­ing its thumb in the gover­nor’s eye, the House passed the same tree bill that Ab­bott had ve­toed af­ter the reg­u­lar ses­sion as in­ad­e­quate. But it now ap­pears that House and Se­nate ne­go­tia­tors have mod­i­fied the bill in ways they can live with and the gover­nor can sign, though it falls short of Ab­bott’s goal of pro­hibit­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ments from re­strict­ing tree re­moval on pri­vate prop­erty.

With fi­nal pas­sage of the sun­set bills Friday, the Leg­is­la­ture will have com­pleted its one must-pass task and re­moved any pos­si­bil­ity that this seem­ingly in­nocu­ous leg­is­la­tion could be held hostage by ei­ther the House or the Se­nate for ne­go­ti­at­ing pur­poses on other leg­is­la­tion, or be used to force an­other special ses­sion.

Pa­trick was able to do just that dur­ing the wan­ing days of this year’s reg­u­lar ses­sion, forc­ing the gover­nor to call the special ses­sion at which Pa­trick hoped the Leg­is­la­ture would ad­dress “pri­vacy leg­is­la­tion,” reg­u­lat­ing bath­room use by trans­gen­der in­di­vid­u­als, and prop­erty tax leg­is­la­tion, which are pri­or­i­ties for him.

“That’s why we’re here right now, be­cause the sun­set bill was meant to bring us back to ses­sion so they could put a bath­room bill on there,” said Rep. Jason Vil­lalba, R-Dal­las.

But House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San An­to­nio, said he didn’t want any part of leg­is­lat­ing bath­room pol­icy and hoped it wouldn’t reach the floor, and House State Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man By­ron Cook, R-Cor­si­cana, wouldn’t give it a hear­ing, doom­ing its prospects.

The gover­nor said he wanted to sign some kind of leg­is­la­tion pre-empt­ing lo­cal pol­i­cy­mak­ing on the mat­ter, but there is no in­di­ca­tion that he would seek an­other special ses­sion to force the issue.

Rum­blings on right

On this and other is­sues, Vil­lalba said, “The gover­nor met his mark and checked his box. He made his ask. And dog­gone if it didn’t get through the State Af­fairs Com­mit­tee or what­ever.”

What­ever doesn’t get done gives Pa­trick what he needs to press his cru­sade against Straus. Ab­bott has given Pa­trick no space to out­flank him on the right, and the gover­nor can get credit for fight­ing the good fight and can blame the House for fall­ing short.

And Vil­lalba said, “Straus is a hero to ev­ery­body else — the squishy cen­ter.”

But for Rep. Matt Ri­naldi, R-Irv­ing, a mem­ber of the House Free­dom Cau­cus, the special ses­sion has ad­vanced the pol­icy in­ter­ests of so­cial con­ser­va­tives on a cou­ple of key is­sues . The ses­sion also gives his cau­cus am­mu­ni­tion to ad­vance its po­lit­i­cal agenda of dis­plac­ing Straus as speaker in the next ses­sion by show­cas­ing how Straus kept the gover­nor from go­ing 20-for-20 through ob­struc­tion tech­niques.

“Be­fore this week, the House had been in ses­sion about six hours and passed three of the bills the gover­nor put on his call. The Se­nate had ap­proved 18 out of the 20 and worked for 36 hours,” Ri­naldi said.

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