Patrick shifting special legislative session into high gear

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AUSTIN – Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick kicked the special session of the Texas Legislature into overdrive Wednesday, rolling out a breakneck schedule that could have the so-called bathroom bill, new abortion restrictions, and restraints on city and county governments all on the floor for a vote as early as Sunday night.

To accomplish that, Patrick, a Houston area Republican, was forcing senators back to the Capitol for a little midnight madness Thursday to pass a bill to reauthorize the Texas Medical Board and keep the regulatory agency in business. By passing that bill after 12:01 a.m. Thursday, it sets the Senate up for a series of marathon committee meetings all weekend long to debate more controversial measures like transgender bathroom policies, abortion restrictions, union dues and local tree ordinances Gov. Greg Abbott finds intrusive.

Patrick said if everything goes as planned he will have all 20 ultra-conservative priorities outlined by Abbott for the special session through the Senate by the end of next week.

“It’s a hurry because we have 30 days and 20 bills,” Patrick told reporters. “You know, I like to work fast.”

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That was in stark contrast to the Texas House, which met for just 19 minutes Wednesday and won’t bring its first bill for discussion on the floor until Monday at the earliest. Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has already declared most of the governor’s agenda “manure” and has made no promises to pass any of the measures, like the bathroom bill.

Since the gathering of lawmakers started Tuesday, the House has spent less than 2 hours in session, much of it on procedural matters or spent discussing parliamentary inquires like whether the House could lock members in the chamber should they try to gum up the works by trying to break quorum.

‘These are people’s priorities’

It has been a vastly different story in the Senate, where Patrick said the goal was to move the one bill that was considered must-pass as fast as possible. That bill is one that reauthorizes five different state boards, including the Texas Medical Board. Once that is done in the Senate, Patrick said that it would trigger the governor to issue his proclamation for the rest of the agenda that is championed by conservative groups.

“These are people’s priorities,” Patrick said.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said Democrats will challenge moves to fast-track bills, ask questions and file amendments to try to slow the agenda, but acknowledged their options are limited because they just number 11 in the 31-member Senate.

“He’s made no secret about it, he wants to get all of these bills out of the Senate, over to the House so the House has, according to his thinking, enough time to act on all of these,” Rodriguez said of Patrick’s supercharged schedule.

The bill reauthorizing the medical board and the others stalled at the end of the regular session that ended in May. But without it passing in the special session, those boards and commissions would cease to exist, affecting 200,000 Texas jobs said Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano.

After overcoming Democratic objections to speeding up that bill on Tuesday, the Senate voted Wednesday to set up a final vote on reauthorizing those boards just passed midnight. Because of Senate rules, Republicans could not set the final passage of that bill for Wednesday without Democrats agreeing to waive rules that they have already said they would not agree to. Patrick said that necessitated pushing the vote to the earliest point possible on Thursday. That keeps the Senate on track to have hearings as early as Friday on the most controversial items that have drawn national attention.

SB4 protesters converge

Already, Senate Republicans are set to hold a hearing on the bathroom bill on Friday morning at a committee room that has not yet been set. A new bathroom bill had not been filed as of Wednesday night, but when it does get filed it is expect to be similar to a North Carolina law that place restrictions on what bathroom people who are transgender can use.

The North Carolina law brought national scorn from transgender rights groups and boycotts from businesses and groups like the NCAA. Some Texas employers have called on state lawmakers to give up the bathroom proposals fearing similar reactions and difficulty recruiting workers to the state if it passes.

Protesters are not waiting for the weekend to show their displeasure with the Legislature.

On Tuesday, the Capitol was filled with protesters objecting to much of the upcoming agenda and controversial bills that have already been passed into law, like SB 4, the legislation aimed at ending so-called sanctuary cities. That topic brought more protesters to the Capitol on Wednesday. A group of young women dressed quinceañera-style in colorful, fancy dresses danced and gave impassioned speeches against SB4, even though it is not on the agenda in the special session.

“SB4 makes simply being brown a crime,” said Magdalena Juarez, a 17-year-old protesting. “We will resist by celebrating our families and our culture. We will resist by standing in unity.”

Property tax reform bill

The Senate is still filing bills that will be taken up over the next several days. For instance, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed new property tax reform legislation on Tuesday that is nearly identical to a measure he promoted during the spring session. His new bill would block cities and counties from raising the effective tax rates above 4 percent in any given year unless voters agree in a referendum – a move Senate leaders are convinced will slow the pace of Texas’ skyrocketing property taxes.

In the previous bill, Bettencourt proposed capping local governments at 5 percent. Currently, counties and cities can raise their effective tax rate 8 percent, if it goes higher, taxpayers can petition for an election to rollback the rate – something that rarely happens in Texas. Bettencourt said a key to his plan is to make it easier for voters to have a say when local governments raise taxes.

But that measure has received a cool reception in the Texas House, where Ways and Means chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, has said he does not have the votes to get the measure passed. Bonnen said he supports the cap on local governments but has questioned its effectiveness in really giving taxpayers much relief.

In most of the state’s largest counties, only a handful raised their effective tax rates by more than 4 percent, yet tax bills still went up.

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