East Texas lawmakers backing a conservative agenda - an agenda largely blocked by House Speaker Joe Straus in the regular session last spring - say they’re ready for the special session, with renewed energy and a new strategy.
In calling the special session, which begins Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott listed 20 items he wants lawmakers to pass. The first is a sunset bill, which will enable state agencies to continue to operate. Once that business is taken care of, lawmakers will then tackle the other 19 items, which comprise much of the conservative agenda state Sen. Bryan Hughes and state Rep. Matt Schaefer fought for in the regular session.
Hughes has met with Gov. Abbott and says the governor will be fully engaged during the 30-day special session, a departure from the hands-off approach Abbott took in the regular session.
“As you know, in the regular session, thousands of bills are filed and it’s easy for bills go get lost,” said Hughes. “But with only 20 topics, there will be a lot of focus, and a lot of people back home are going to be watching what’s happening in Austin. That’s going to have an effect. And the governor told us ... he will be personally engaged. He will be encouraging members to pass these bills.”
That’s part of the new strategy for getting bills such as the Privacy Act - commonly referred to as the bathroom bill - through the House, Schaefer said.
“This session, it’s pretty clear there’s tension at the top,” said Schaefer, who was in Hawaii last week for U.S. Navy Reserve duties. “Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick seem to be singing off the same song sheet, and Speaker Straus seems to be in a defensive posture. The items on the agenda are very good from a conservative perspective. The question remains will there be enough cooperation from House leadership to get anything done.”
And that’s where Abbott could be key, he said.
“When Gov. Abbott speaks, people listen,” Schaefer said. “So increased engagement from Gov. Abbott is priceless.”
Some of the items on the special session agenda involve another kind of tension. Conservatives have traditionally lauded local control. But with a Republican-led Legislature and a number of cities led by Democrats, lawmakers are rethinking that stance.
On issues ranging from municipal tree ordinances to revenue and spending caps for cities and counties, the Legislature will consider bills that Hughes and Schaefer say protect the taxpayers.
“What a lot of these bills have to do with is government accountability,” said Hughes. “For example, there’s going to be a bill to limit the spending of not just the county and city governments, but also state government. That’s reasonable. Families have to adjust their spending when times get tight, government should too. We’ll also look at regulatory processes. We’ll be looking to streamline regulations to make them more friendly to the taxpayer.”
Kevin Roberts is executive vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin. His group is working with lawmakers to help frame those issues.
“Conservatives have done such a good job talking about local control that it has become ingrained,” said Roberts. “But what we’re seeing now is that word and that principle have been hijacked.”
Cities and counties are using the local control argument to defend such things as plastic bag bans and ordinances preventing people from cutting down trees on their own property, he explained.
“What (lawmakers) have to do is explain, clearly, that sovereignty doesn’t originate with the city,” Roberts said. “That’s a gross mischaracterization of how this county and this state work. Sovereignty originates with the state, and the state absolutely does have the authority to step in on behalf of its citizens when cities and counties are out of control.”
Hughes has been tapped by Gov. Abbott to carry one of those 20 items, a bill having to do with union dues. Under current state law, the state collects dues on behalf of public sector unions, through payroll deduction.
“That’s anyone who works for a state subdivision, from teachers to doctors to lawyers to even senators,” said Hughes. “It’s well over 1 million public employees in Texas.”
The bill would end the practice of collecting dues through payroll deduction. The only exceptions will be first responders, Hughes noted.
“We’re thankful for our public employees and they’re free to join whatever organization they choose, but the government shouldn’t be responsible for collecting the dues and remitting them to the unions,” said Hughes.
Here are the 20 items on the special session call:
- Sunset legislation, which would keep several crucial state agencies alive
- A teacher pay raise of $1,000
- Giving school administrators flexibility in teacher hiring and retention
- School finance reform
- School choice for special needs students
- Rollback elections for property tax increases
- Caps on state and local spending
- Preventing cities from regulating what property owners do with trees on private land
- Preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects
- Speeding up local government permitting processes
- Municipal annexation reform
- Preventing local entities from passing their own texting-while-driving bans
- Restrictions on school bathroom use for transgender students
- Prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars to collect union dues
- Prohibiting the use of taxpayer funding to subsidize health providers that also perform abortion
- Requiring women to get separate insurance policies to cover non-emergency abortions
- Increasing existing reporting requirements when complications arise during abortions
- Strengthening patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders
- Cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud
- Extending the state's maternal mortality task force
(Source: Texas Tribune)