Special session revives racial tensions, 'bathroom bill'
By WILL WEISSERT
Jul. 15, 2017
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — When we last saw the Texas Legislature, raucous protesters opposing the new "sanctuary city" ban prompted officials to clear the House gallery and sparked a floor scuffle that ended with one lawmaker threatening to shoot another.
Gunplay shouldn't be a part of the 30-day special session that Gov. Greg Abbott has convened starting Tuesday at 10 am. But many of the same divisive issues that saw the regular session conclude with embarrassing national headlines will be.
Abbott has packed the overtime session with 20 things he wants passed and could call another if he doesn't get his way. Since much of what the governor is pushing already stalled during the regular session, though, it's hard to imagine different outcomes going forward. Here are some key issues to watch:
RACIAL TENSIONS STILL RISING?
As the regular session wrapped up on Memorial Day, Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi called federal immigration agents on demonstrators decrying a sanctuary city law that lets police inquire about immigration status during routine interactions like traffic stops.
Rinaldi said he was "physically assaulted" by Democrat Ramon Romero after boasting about the call, and added that he told Democratic state Rep. Pancho Nevarez he would defend himself with a gun when Nevarez allegedly threatened him.
The start of the special session will bring Rinaldi, Romero and Nevarez all back together for the first time since that confrontation — and things should stay civil. But underlying racial tensions persist.
Opponents say the sanctuary city law targets Hispanics, empowering police to force people who look like they might be in the country illegally to "show your papers."
Immigrant rights groups have asked a federal court to block the law as discriminatory before it takes effect Sept. 1. Conservatives counter that it will make Texas safer and have asked a separate federal judge to declare it constitutional pre-emptively.
BATHROOM BILL REDUX
Among his parade of special session priorities, Abbott has revived the regular session's hottest-button bill. But its chances of passing appear no better.
As it did in the regular session, the Senate is again expected to approve a proposal requiring transgender Texans to use public restrooms corresponding to their birth-certificate gender. Some of the nation's most-powerful and profitable entities, from Apple to the NFL, have opposed that and Republican House Speaker Joe Straus says it's bad for business.
Instead, Straus' chamber, which like the Senate is GOP-controlled, used the regular session to pass a softened version that only applies to public schools. The Senate rejected that as too weak.
Neither chamber has seemingly budged much since, with Straus even likening to horse manure the bathroom bill and other defeated issues that Abbott has brought back for the special session.
VOUCHERS VEXED AGAIN?
The Senate has long advanced voucher plans offering public money to students attending private schools, only to have them repeatedly defeated in the House, where Democrats and rural Republicans unite in opposition.
During the regular session, the Senate attached a voucher plan for some special-education students to a House bill providing $1.6 billion extra for classrooms to begin overhauling how Texas pays for public education. Though modest, that proposal torpedoed the sweeping, bipartisan school finance.
Abbott has revived the special education voucher plan for the special session, even though it's still a House non-starter. Texas likely won't get a school finance fix, either, since the governor only directed lawmakers to study ways to make improvements rather than backing a full overhaul.
TIGHTER ABORTION RESTRICTIONS
Abbott wants lawmakers to use the special session to prohibit taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortions and to bar some insurance plans from covering the procedure. He also has backed strengthening regulations mandating that health facilities report to the state complications arising from abortions, which are rare.
But that wish list is tame compared to an omnibus anti-abortion bill approved during the regular session that bans a commonly used second-trimester abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation — despite similar prohibitions in other states already being voided by federal courts.
'LOCAL CONTROL' LIMITS
Republicans spent decades defending "local control," preaching that communities across Texas could govern themselves better than overzealous state lawmakers. Today, Abbott and top conservatives still believe in the concept — unless municipalities do something they don't like.
Abbott wants passed during the special session reductions in local property taxes, and backs mandating that local governments clear steep tax increases with voters via election referendums.
The governor has also directed lawmakers to cap local spending, prevent cities from adopting ordinances restricting tree-cutting on private land and bar local governments from modifying rules on already begun construction projects. And, he wants to speed up local governmental permitting processes and limit cities' ability to annex surrounding territory.