Here are 5 takeaways from the first half of the special session

By Patrick Svitek, Morgan Smith and Brandon  Formby

Gov. Greg Abbott kicked off his first special session two weeks ago. That puts the Legislature at the halfway point if they choose to take the maximum 30 days they are permitted to meet — and given Abbott's ambitious agenda, it's looking like they may need all the time they can get.

So far, the special session hasn't been too different from the 140-day regular session that ended in May. The Senate has rushed to pass nearly all of Abbott's priorities. The lower chamber has taken its time and even taken some pride in its slower approach.

And the governor has maintained an optimistic tone through it all, even as significant hurdles for his agenda have only become clearer.

Both chambers have addressed the first order of business: passing "sunset" bills that would prevent some state agencies from closing, including the Texas Medical Board. Their failure to agree on such legislation during the regular session was one of the reasons that Abbott called the special session in the first place, and he had specifically asked the Senate to approve the measures before officially expanding his call to include 19 other items.

Here are five things to know about how the first half of the special session has developed:

1. The two chambers are operating at different speeds.

By the eighth day of the special session, the Senate had passed legislation related to all but two of the 20 items on Abbott's call — a milestone Patrick hailed as unprecedented.

"No one in the Capitol can find anywhere in history that the Senate or the House" has moved that quickly, Patrick said. "It's quite extraordinary, and I give credit to our Texas senators."

The House, by contrast, has been taking a much slower approach. While the Senate was celebrating its workload last week, the lower chamber was still working through its first order of business: the "sunset" legislation.

"This is not a race," Straus has told multiple media outlets, promising the lower chamber would be deliberate in its consideration of each item on the call.

As of Monday evening, the Senate had passed 20 pieces of legislation related to 18 items on Abbott's call. The House had approved eight bills related to four items.

The Senate still has work to do if it wants to go "20 for 20," a slogan promoted by Abbott's office that Patrick and his senators have embraced. The upper chamber has not yet passed legislation to cap local spending or to prevent local governments from changing rules in the middle of construction projects. The bill to address the former, Senate Bill 18, was set to come up on the Senate floor Monday but did not, while the legislation dealing with the latter, Senate Bill 12, remains in the Senate Business & Commerce Committee.

2. The House is charting its own course.

Chafing at the governor’s narrowly proscribed special session agenda on the west side of the Capitol goes beyond House leadership’s vocal opposition to the high-profile “bathroom bill.” Lawmakers there have held hearings on topics not included on the governor’s call, stretched the boundaries of those that are and, in at least one case, directly flouted the governor’s wishes.

During a hearing last week, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, put her reasons for pushing for a bill that would reverse millions of dollars in therapy cuts for children with disabilities this way: "If the governor is going to bring us back here to talk about what bathrooms people can use or what we can do with our trees, then surely the disabled kids should take priority, and hopefully we add this to the call.”

Though the proposal is not on the governor’s list of priorities, lawmakers on the appropriations committee approved it 21-0. Since then, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has officially asked Abbott to include restoring the funding on the special session call.

Davis, who leads the House committee responsible for investigating wrongdoing in state government, also said last week that she would formally request that Abbott put ethics reform on the special session agenda. She said she plans to hold hearings and vote on all of the ethics bills referred to her committee.

Over at the House Natural Resources Committee, Chairman Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican, heard eight bills on water regulation last week, despite Abbott’s veto of five bills containing similar provisions during the regular session.

When they have considered Abbott’s priorities, House lawmakers have tended to put their own stamp on them. On Monday, the chamber approved House Bill 9, the Abbott-endorsed measure continuing the state’s maternal mortality task force — along with three other items giving the task force more guidance on what to study, including the rates of pregnancy-related deaths and postpartum depression among women of varying socioeconomic status, and adding a labor and delivery nurse to the task force's membership.

Abbott is also unlikely to welcome a bill the chamber passed regulating city ordinances on tree removal last week, which while technically within the bounds of his special session agenda, replicates legislation he vetoed in June for not going far enough. The version of the legislation championed by Abbott, authored by state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, is stuck in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

The House’s unhurried approach has been met with near daily grumbling on the floor from the 12 lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus, whose conservative members say Straus is deliberately impeding legislation.

"Straus needs to learn you can't govern by just saying ‘no’ all the time,” said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R- Irving. “I'm frustrated that the speaker has chosen to be the sole obstruction to a number of positive reforms supported by our governor and a clear majority of our legislators.”


3. All signs point to another standoff on "bathroom" legislation.

When it comes to divisive legislation regulating the bathroom use of transgender Texans, the House and Senate are veering close to the same spot they were in at the end of the regular legislative session.

The two chambers ended their 140 days at the Capitol at loggerheads over the issue, with House leaders unwilling to back legislation they said would hurt the state economically and target vulnerable children. After unsuccessfully trying to break the stalemate by taking hostage bills needed to prevent the shutdown of a handful of state agencies, Patrick forced the special session.

Halfway toward the deadline to make an agreement on the bill, the differences between the chambers only appear more prominent.

After plowing through an 11-hour committee hearing and an eight hour-floor debate, the Senate gave final approval to its "bathroom" measure just after midnight last Wednesday. The bill would require transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate or state IDs in schools and buildings overseen by local governments. It would also nix parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances meant to allow transgender residents to use public bathrooms of their choice.

Meanwhile, the House has yet to schedule a committee hearing for similar legislation, and Straus has also held off on referring the Senate’s proposal to a committee for consideration.

State Rep. Byron Cook, the chairman of the committee that the bill must clear to get to the floor, has said he’s disappointed the debate over the bill has wasted so much time — and that it is “smoke-screening” more important issues. But Cook did say the bill will receive a hearing. State Rep. Ron Simmons, the Carrolton Republican carrying the bill, said he believes it will pass the full House if allowed to the floor for a vote. But neither of those statements necessarily adds up to a favorable outcome for the measure in the lower chamber.

Ahead of the special session, Straus said he was "disgusted by all of this" and expressed anxiety about the negative impact such a law could have on transgender children, including possibly an increase in suicides among an already vulnerable population.

Since then, opposition to the bathroom bill has only grown louder in echoing Straus’ concerns. After months of acting through business coalitions, CEOs and top executives for major businesses are attaching their own names to letters expressing hostility toward the legislation, including, on Monday, energy titans Shell and Exxon. Individual school districts have also begun voicing their disapproval of the proposals. Police chiefs from major cities have come out against it and warned they say won’t keep the public safe. And the National Episcopal Church re-emerged in the debate, asking Straus to remain “steadfast” in his opposition to any bathroom bill.

4. Property taxes are at the center of a debate over local control.

In interview after interview, Abbott has made clear he views property tax legislation one of the most important issues — if not the most important issue — lawmakers are taking up during the special session. It may be the only item where Abbott is willing to call lawmakers back to Austin again if they do not show progress on it.

The House and Senate are already closer than they were in the regular session when it comes to coming to an agreement on a proposal to require local governments get voter approval for some increased property tax collections.

But that doesn’t mean the two chambers are completely on the same page. And legislation in the House suggests that its members could be open to giving local officials more breathing room when it comes to how much money they can raise – and how much the state requires them to spend.

Senate Bill 1, which the Senate has already approved, could require cities, counties and some special taxing districts to get voter approval if they want to increase tax collections on existing land and buildings 4 percent compared to the previous year.

House Bill 4 sets the required election threshold at 6 percent. If the full House passes the current version of HB 4, that threshold would be one of many differences the two chambers will have to work out in a conference committee.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee has already sent 17 other bills related to property taxes on to the full chamber. The committee has considered 18 others, which are still pending.

Many of those bills show the lower chamber’s members are trying different ways to cut property tax payments for specific groups of property owners including the elderly, Purple Heart recipients, partially disabled military veterans, Texans serving in the armed forces and disabled first responders.

And while many of Abbott’s agenda items for the special session are aimed at limiting local governments’ powers on everything from spending to regulating trees on private property, one House resolution aims to make the state constitutionally responsible for covering a local government’s cost to comply with new laws.

“If the state requires you to provide some service, then the state needs to have the ability to send the resources to accomplish that goal,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican who co-authored House Joint Resolution 31. “The same way the state complains of the federal government requiring unfunded mandates, I think the same principle should apply to the state also.”

The House passed a similar resolution during the regular session, but it went nowhere in the Senate. Still, Rick Thompson with the Texas Association of Counties is hopeful that the measure could end up on a ballot in November.

Thompson is that group’s legislative liaison. He said HJR 31 is a welcome contradiction to other legislation being discussed this summer since many of the bills collectively tell cities and counties what they can and can’t do while they also limit how much money they can raise and spend without voter approval.

“It’s a tough bill to pass because the state obviously counts on being able to balance their budgets on the backs of unfunded mandates,” Thompson said.

5. The governor isn't sweating his agenda's fate — yet.

While Abbott started the special session vowing to publish daily lists of lawmakers who oppose his agenda, he has since dialed back the tough talk and sought to play nice with lawmakers, particularly in the House. He finally released his first batch of lists Friday — but only those of legislators who are supporting bills related to each item on the call.

Abbott also has not expressed any concern about the House's sluggish pace compared to that of the Senate, saying he is pleased with the lower chamber's speed and believes its members are taking his agenda seriously. In multiple media appearances, Abbott has voiced confidence in his agenda's chances in the House, predicting the lower chamber will "outperform."

At the same time, though, Abbott has resisted calls by House members to expand the call.

“The most important thing is we pass the 20 items that I put on the special session agenda," Abbott told an Austin TV station Wednesday. "Once we get that done, we can consider other matters."

"We must go 20 for 20 before we address anything else," he added.

Abbott has also waved off questions about whether he is willing to call a second special session under any circumstances, saying it is too early to speculate. That could change soon, though, as lawmakers have about two weeks left to send measures to Abbott's desk.

Alexa Ura, Kirby Wilson and Andy Duehren contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

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