AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – The Texas Legislature convened Tuesday in a special session called by Governor Greg Abbott to address 20 of his priorities, including clamping down on abortions and restricting transgender people’s use of bathrooms.
Lawmakers have 30 days to tackle Abbott’s agenda, but first must pass a sunset bill to keep some state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, from closing.
During the 140-day regular session, which ended in May, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick prevented a vote on the sunset bill to try to force the House to pass a property tax bill and the controversial “bathroom bill,” requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their “biological sex.”
Both items made it onto Abbott’s special session agenda, which features a wide range of right-wing measures, including some of his own personal priorities, such as a bill that would prevent cities from regulating what property owners may do with trees on their private land. Abbott called such policies “socialistic” and “California-like.”
The regular session ended with a scuffle on the House floor — one representative even threatened to shoot a colleague.
The tension between Republicans and Democrats was still palpable Tuesday.
During the invocation in the Senate, Army Capt. Brett Anderson prayed that God would “save our leaders from themselves.” Then members began arguing whether to suspend the rules to fast-track the sunset legislation.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted to override a “tag” on the bills, made by Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, which would have required 48 hours public notice before a bill could be considered in a committee hearing.
The override was unusual, and decried by Democratic senators as undermining citizens’ right to participate in the lawmaking process.
“To vote to do the people’s business without the people’s input is wrong and unTexas,” Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said in a statement. “By not giving the general public time to study, comment and testify on legislation, we are saying that their opinions don’t matter. This is a bad harbinger of what is to come over the next 30 days.”
The bills were swiftly passed in committee, and the full Senate will vote on them Wednesday.
Rodríguez said in a statement that the tag rule had been in place and respected by the Senate since 1939.
“We’re going to rush through safety-net bills for an agency that issues thousands of licenses and oversees tens of thousands of doctors and other health professionals,” Rodríguez said. “We are pushing past that so that we can talk about what bathroom transgender people should use.”
The bathroom bills, referred to as privacy legislation on Abbott’s agenda, have the support of 44 percent of Texas voters, according to a recent Texas Tribune poll. Many business leaders, however, opposed the bills, for fear that discriminatory laws will scare off investment, tourists, and employees, as happened in North Carolina.
On Monday, IBM sent 20 employees to the state Capitol to lobby lawmakers against the bathroom bills. IBM is one of the largest technology employers in Texas, with more than 10,000 workers in the state.
During a Tuesday press conference called by House Democrats and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, business leaders said discriminatory bills could cost the state millions of dollars. The conference focused on the economic consequences of another bill, which bans sanctuary cities.
Senate Bill 4, approved during regular session to take effect Sept. 1, would allow city and county officers to question the immigration status of any “lawfully detained” person, including people stopped for minor offenses such as jaywalking or running a stop sign, and punish sheriffs and police with up to a year in jail and stiff fines if they respect “sanctuary city” ordinances.
Critics say SB4 encourages racial profiling. Bob Cartwright, treasurer of the Texas Association of Business, said that if Texas lost its unauthorized immigrants, the state would lose $69.3 billion in economic activity and $30.8 billion in gross state product annually.
“We cannot ignore the fact that there are many undocumented people who are here working in jobs that would be unfilled otherwise,” Cartwright said.
The association typically aligns itself with right-wing interests, but Cartwright said it believes SB4 casts too of a net, and could drastically reduce the labor supply for construction, hospitality and agriculture, as immigrants flee the state and deportations increase.
State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, filed a bill to repeal SB4 during the special session, but it’s unlikely his measure, HB 53, will make it through a special session committee, if it even gets a hearing.
While Democratic lawmakers made it clear they will fight Abbott’s agenda with procedural maneuvers, hundreds of progressive activists and Democratic Party leaders rallied outside the Capitol to condemn the items they say threaten the rights and lives of vulnerable Texans.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, who spoke at the “One Texas Resistance” rally, applauded the diversity of the crowd, which included people fighting for immigrants rights, transgender rights, abortion rights, and quite a few people wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Tree Lives Matter.”
“I don’t understand your state,” Perez said. “Children in Texas have a damn hard time getting access to health care. That’s a tragedy. Access to education for all too many students is not there; that’s a tragedy. You have too many people working a full-time job and living in poverty. We have too many adults without health care. … That’s what you should be talking about; instead you’re trying to divide communities.”
Latino activists at the rally said they’d show Abbott and other Republican lawmakers “their papers” at the ballot box.
“You know, I heard a couple of Republican colleagues earlier talking about how hot it was today in Austin,” Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said at the rally. “Well, they may think it’s hot today, but it is nothing compared to the heat we’re going to turn up on them in November 2018.”
Abbott won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2014, but according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted in June this year, 54 percent of Texas Latinos disapprove of the governor today.
Abbott, who announced Friday that he’ll seek re-election in 2018, has nearly $41 million of cash on hand to spend on his campaign, and no announced opponent yet.
(CNS photos by Kelsey Jukam. Top, a protester dressed as Miss Liberty demonstrates outside the Texas Capitol building Tuesday. Left, women dress as handmaidens, from the best-selling book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to protest Texas laws and proposed laws on women’s rights.)