Deeply divided Legislature opens special session

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AUSTIN — Hundreds of immigration activists, transgender rights groups and other protesters jammed the Texas Capitol inside and out Tuesday, while Democrats grasped at any procedural straws they could to disrupt a mostly conservative agenda and leaders of the House and Senate remained mired in a deep divide.

In short, the Texas Legislature started its highly controversial special session on Tuesday just like it ended the last session 50 days ago.


It didn’t take long for a sense of deja vu to kick in. The House, where Speaker Joe Straus has shown little interest in taking up Gov. Greg Abbott‘s dictated agenda, the day’s business was shut down in less than an hour. After just about 50 minutes, the San Antonio Republican adjourned the House for the day with little action to show for it.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick fought Democrats to fast track the bill that ultimately forced the special session in the first place and is considered must-pass. Patrick and Senate Republican leaders tried to bend Senate rules to take up a pair of bills re-authorizing the Texas Medical Board and four other state boards quicker than normally allowable. Under the usual rules, the bills would not have been allowed to be heard in committee until Thursday. Instead Republicans wanted to suspend those rules to let them be heard on Tuesday with a chance to hit the floor Thursday.

But Democrats, though vastly outnumbered, showed immediately they were ready to use any political and procedural tool to slow Patrick and Senate Republicans, even if just for one day.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, and other Democrats immediately called points of order to try to block the attempt to sidestep traditional Senate rules. Specifically, Rodriguez said Patrick was trying to allow the bill to be assigned to a committee before members and the public had the 48 hours they should have to prepare for the legislation. For nearly an hour, Democrats succeeded in gumming up Patrick’s plans by debating the rules and raising questions. Ultimately the Houston-area Republican denied their objections to block the vote and let the straight party line vote happen to fast track the bills.

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“Today is a sad day for the democratic process in the Texas Senate,” Rodriguez said after the votes. “The leadership ignored long-standing Senate rules that are intended to protect members and the public to have enough time to study bills and have input in those bills.”

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said the goal of keeping the Texas Medical Board functioning merited changing the rules and fast tracking the bills. He said there is no threat to democracy, just a realization that doctors would face a crisis come September if the medical board is not re-authorized as soon as possible.

Still, Rodriguez said the show of force from Democrats made clear to GOP leaders that Democrats would not allow an even faster vote to happen on Tuesday — a move that would have required five Democrats to break ranks.

While the bill re-authorizing the Texas Medical Board isn’t overly controversial, what comes next is anything but. Once Patrick has cleared the deck of that issue, Rodriguez said it will open the flood waters for the other 19 bills — almost all opposed by Democrats in the House and Senate.

It’s those bills that had the south steps of the state Capitol filled with a wide-ranging contingent of protesters who declared they are ready to fight the agenda. Among the proposals drawing the most ire was the nationally watched bathroom bill, a bill to cut funding to abortion providers and another to enact a limited school voucher program.

“Trans lives do matter,” Carmarion Anderson, the leader of a Dallas based group called Black Transwomen Inc., told the hundreds who gathered in up 90s temperature to demand their voices be heard by state legislators. “We’re talking about ridiculous bill for me to have privacy to relieve myself.”

And there were celebrities too.

Inside, former Sen. Wendy Davis, who ran against Abbott in 2014, was among those to fill the Capitol rotunda to help lead chants against much of the rest of the agenda in a coordinated protests that more than two dozens groups called the One Texas Resistance Rally and Day of Action.

On the south steps, Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, whipped up the crowd by urging them to keep fighting and that national Democrats were watching.

“We stand with each and every one of you,” Perez said to an ovation.

In the House, Democrats also pushed back at the agenda. Members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Black Caucus vowed to fight proposals that allow discrimination, such as the bathroom bill.

“We are going to use every conceivable tool that we have at our disposal to stop discriminatory bills. The stakes are too high in the state of Texas,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democrat from Dallas and chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in a press conference moments after the House adjourned.

He joined a chorus of business leaders who said have stumped at the Capitol for days saying Texas is losing $66 million in convention cancellations over the prospect of the bathroom bill. Several business leaders said Tuesday they would support a repeal of SB4, legislation passed during the regular legislative session allowing law enforcement officers to look into someone’s citizenship status during routine stops and require local law enforcement to acquiesce to federal immigration detainer requests.

The Democrats said they plan to use the legislative session as an opportunity to point out how SB4 hurts people, pointing to the July 1 shooting of Jose Ontiveros, a 58-year-old Fort Worth taco vendor who was shot and later died trying to stop a robbery. One of the suspects, who was among a group of teenagers who reportedly committed about a dozen other robberies, said they targeted Hispanics “because they’ve got money and they don’t call the police.”

Rep. Ramon Romero, a Fort Worth Democrat, is sponsoring legislation to repeal SB4. The law, which is now under challenge in the courts, endangers people who live in Latino communities, he said, and the governor should support its repeal.

“You signed SB4 very proudly,” said Romero. “Is the blood not on your hands?”

Some business leaders and city governments have also ramped up their opposition to the special session issues. Business leaders from around the state, including IBM, have publicly fought the bathroom bill.

Despite the protests, Democratic opposition and Straus’ unenthusiastic approach to the special session, Patrick has celebrated the agenda Abbott has lined up and vowed to support all 20 items. He shows no signs of relenting.

“Greg Abbott’s 20 priorities are my priorities, are the Senate’s priorities, are the people’s priorities,” Patrick told the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation on Monday.


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