Texas legislature ends in frustration, call for special session
June 7th, 2017 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
AUSTIN—The 85th session of the Texas Legislature gaveled to an end May 29 only to have Gov. Greg Abbott call the lawmakers back for a special session to address unfinished business. The Legislature will reconvene for 30 days beginning July 18 with no less than 20 bills on the call, including SBTC-supported legislation.
The regular session ended as tempers flared and civil decorum, by some, died along with several prominent pieces of legislation championed by Christian and conservative legislators. Frustration came to a head on the final day as a Republican member of the conservative Texas Freedom Caucus announced on the House floor he had called the Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) tip line to report self-proclaimed illegal immigrants protesting in the House gallery. That prompted threats of violence from a Democrat lawmaker. The dustup served to illustrate the fractures between the two parties and draw attention to the growing fissure between conservative and moderate Republicans.
In announcing the special session, Abbott scolded the legislators.
“A special session was entirely avoidable, and there was plenty of time for the legislature to forge compromises to avoid the time and taxpayer expense of a special session,” he said.
Among the bills left languishing in the regulation session that Abbot wants reintroduced are the Women’s Privacy Act, abortion regulation, school choice for special needs children, an extension of the maternal mortality task force and property tax reform.
But not all bipartisanship was lost as legislators agreed on a long-overdue overhaul of the Department of Family Protective Services, which is facing a lawsuit for its fractured system in which more than 100 children died in 2015 while under its observation or care. And some children removed from their homes under the shadow of abuse or neglect have had to sleep in the offices of Child Protective Services caseworkers due to an inadequate pool of foster families to take them in.
Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, who authored most of the child welfare reform legislation (See Article), said it is imperative that churches get involved with the foster and adoption care services. Not everyone can foster or adopt, but all Christians are mandated to care for the widowed and orphaned Frank said.
Legislators moved the Department of Family Protective Services out from under the Health and Human Services Department making it a stand-alone agency directly accountable to the governor. Another law begins the process of decentralizing the DFPS by creating community-based foster care, where regions across the state will be responsible for recruiting and training prospective foster and adoptive parents.
Key reform legislation included passage of a law protecting faith-based foster and adoption care agencies from legal challenges to their convictions, prohibiting them from partnering with gay couples or providing abortions and contraceptives to children in their care.
Abbott also called for and received a ban on sanctuary cities. The legislation does not change federal immigration law but prohibits governmental entities from creating policies or practices that flout those laws.
The bill’s author, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, a member of an SBTC-affiliated church, said the law does not target illegal immigrants but stops “officials who have sworn to enforce the law from helping people who commit terrible crimes evade immigration detainers.”
Passage of the sanctuary cities prohibition demonstrated the Republican divide in the Texas House. Once the contentious bill passed the Senate along party lines, House State Affairs committee “basically took the meat out of the sandwich” according to Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, a member of the Texas Freedom Caucus. Using procedural maneuvers on par with House leadership, the caucus “put the teeth back in the bill.”
Schaeffer called that a tipping point in the session. The caucus—a thorn in the side of Democrats and moderate Republicans—realized it could “do an end run around leadership obstruction.”
Cindy Asmussen, advisor to the SBTC Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, said the caucus provided effective, yet limited, pushback to attempts to water down legislation generated in the Senate.
“They were extremely productive, and had it not been for them we would not have had a lot of conservative legislation added as amendments, [such as] the dismemberment abortion ban and church security added back in,” Asmussen said.
But efforts by the caucus, Texas Pastors Council and conservatives across the state could not get the Women’s Privacy Act passed. The bill would have regulated the use of public restrooms and single-sex changing rooms, an effort led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that passed handily in the Senate only to die in the House.
It passed swiftly along party lines in the Senate only to arrive in the House where Speaker of the House Joe Straus refused to send the bill to a committee. Without a committee hearing a bill dies. Straus, R-San Antonio, claimed the bill would harm the Texas economy.
“One state representative out of 150 … decided it would not be passed,” Dave Welch, director of the Texas Pastors Council, told the TEXAN.
Social conservatives within the Republican-controlled legislature have, for the past two sessions, criticized the control Straus holds over all legislation making its way through the chamber. Every bill must be appointed to a committee for review and public debate, and only the Speaker has the authority to assign bills to committees. He also appoints the committee chairman who then control what bills pass out of committee to the House floor for debate.