By Richard Lee
Lawmakers will find themselves back in Austin this summer after Governor Greg Abbott announced a blockbuster 20-item special session on Tuesday. An extra session was all but guaranteed by the failure of a critical piece of legislation extending the agency that regulates the practice of medicine in Texas, but the agenda announced by Abbott far exceeds what most expected for the special. “If I’m going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count,” he said.
First, the Senate has to pass the Texas Medical Board Sunset bill. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said in a late May press conference that he expects that should only take the body a few days. After that, the call will be opened wide, with topics ranging from maternal mortality and school finance to city regulations. Both of the issues Patrick said he wants on the call will be there: legislation to regulate who can use what bathrooms in public buildings, commonly called “the bathroom bill” and legislation to deal with property tax growth.
A chunk of the eligible topics deal with reining in the power of cities. Legislation that would prevent cities from regulating what people do with trees growing on private property, bills to prevent cities from changing rules in the middle of construction projects, and measures to speed up city permitting are all on the slate. Also back is a bill that would require that voters have a say before the area in which they live gets annexed by a municipality; that bill died to a filibuster on the second-to-last day of the 85th Regular Session. Abbott announced that though he had signed the texting-and-driving ban bill into law on Tuesday, he also wants a law to preempt all additional city regulations relating to mobile device use while driving.
Other issues include a number of education bills that didn’t make it through the regular session. Abbott wants a bill to raise teacher pay by $1000 across the board. He said that tweaks to the existing school finance structure can accomplish that without additional revenue. He also wants a bill to let the parents of disabled children apply for public funds to pay for private school tuition. Rounding out the education topics is a call for a bill to create an interim commission on school finance, a bill that passed the Senate but died in the House.
Abbott also added a miscellany of his priorities to the call as well, like further measures to regulate abortion in the state, a panel to study the problem of maternal mortality in Texas, bills to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud, stronger caps on state and local government spending and a prohibition on public sector unions automatically deducting dues from member paychecks.
The first called session is scheduled to open on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. It can last a maximum of 30 days, but the Governor has the discretion to call as many sessions as he wants. Though the issues on the table for the July session are extensive, Abbott indicated that he thinks one session is more than enough time to deal with them. “Legislators have six weeks to prepare for the special session, and then another thirty days to pass these proposals,” he said. “If they fail, it’s not for lack of time, it would be because of a lack of will.”