Photo: Stephen Spillman /For The San Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — Texas senators kept the pedal to the metal Monday, backing bills to put new restrictions on local property tax increases, fund private school tuition for special-needs students, target maternal mortality and strengthen reporting of abortion complications.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is driving the Senate to quickly approve the 20 special-session items laid out by Gov. Greg Abbott, aiming to send them all to the House this week.
Abbott’s agenda faces tougher sledding in the House, where Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has compared it to a pile of manure.
But the House also took action Monday, voting for the one item that all three leaders agree must pass — a so-called sunset measure that would keep open state agencies including the Texas Medical Board.
The action in the House and Senate was preliminary, meaning that each piece of legislation requires a second vote before heading to the opposite chamber for consideration. The Senate already has approved a sunset bill, so any differences between it and the bill ultimately approved by the House will have to be negotiated.
The sunset bill’s death in the regular session at Patrick’s behest forced Abbott to call the special session to keep the agencies alive. Abbott also added incendiary issues backed by Patrick including the voucher and tax measures, plus a bill to restrict the restrooms that transgender people can use in schools and government buildings.
Abbott was optimistic about both chambers’ work Monday, telling Chad Hasty of Lubbock radio station KFYO that “things are moving at a very brisk pace.” Both the House and Senate are dominated by the GOP, although the divide between the two on some high-profile issues shows that Republicans aren’t in lockstep.
Asked specifically about the speed of the House, Abbott said, “I am pleased. … They are coming with their game faces on, and they’re working diligently.”
Abbott also emphasized the positive when asked about the list he has promised to publish “on a daily basis” of lawmakers who support and oppose his agenda.
On the eve of the special session last week, Abbott said he would establish a list, and that others should do the same, in order to “call people out — who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a position. No one gets to hide.”
But in the Monday radio interview, he talked about highlighting his agenda’s supporters without emphasizing the threat of exposing opponents.
Abbott said he would list “all the senators who voted in favor of … all those 20 agenda items as people who support my agenda. And I will be in the coming week looking to add House members who support that agenda also.”
The property tax measure — Senate Bill 1 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston — has raised particular concern from local governments, including San Antonio and Bexar County. SB 1 would require them to get voters’ approval if they raise local property taxes by a certain amount.
Current law allows voters to petition for a rollback election if cities, counties or special districts increase collections by more than 8 percent. Bettencourt’s bill would change the rollback rate to 4 percent and make the election automatic. The bill would exclude entities from the lower rollback rate if they collect less than $20 million, although those cities could have an election to opt in to the lower rate, under amendments added by senators.
Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, pointed up the worries raised by Alamo City officials about their ability to fund public safety services if their revenue is restricted. They’re particularly concerned about police and fire response times keeping pace in the fast-growing city, he said.
Bettencourt said he believed if officials made a good case to voters, they would approve the increase. But the bill is necessary, he said, because, “property taxpayers are crying out for relief all over the state of Texas.”
The Senate approved an automatic rollback measure in the regular session, but the idea didn’t get a vote in the House.
On Monday, senators voted 19-12 for SB 1. Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, joined Democrats in voting against it.
Under the school measure, about 6,000 students with special needs could get up to $10,000 apiece in state-supported funds to help pay for private-school tuition.
A school voucher bill was approved by the Texas Senate in the regular session but died in the House, which has voted against such ideas in principle.
Public education groups oppose vouchers because they say the initiative would drain resources needed by already struggling public schools, which would continue to educate nearly all the state’s 5 million-plus students.
Backers say parents should have a choice of where to send their children.
Besides providing scholarships for students who leave private schools, Senate Bill 2 by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, would allow for $500 grants for special-needs students who remain in public schools. That money could go to pay for such things as transportation, after-school care and tutoring.
The program would cost $75 million, including $60 million for the scholarships.
The program would be funded through a system of corporate contributions that would yield state tax credits. Insurance companies that donate to an education service organization for the vouchers would have the contribution deducted from their premium tax payments.
It was given preliminary approval with a 19-12 vote. The vote on the voucher bill wasn’t strictly along party lines. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, broke ranks with other Democrats to vote for the measures. Republican Sens. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville and Charles Perry of Lubbock voted against it.
Regarding abortion, senators voted for legislation to require more reporting, including Senate Bill 10 by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. Her bill would put teeth in requirements to report abortion complications. Physicians eventually could face a license suspension if they didn’t make required reports. The vote was 22-9, with Democratic Sens. Lucio and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo joining Republicans in voting for it.
The proposal to address Texas’ high rate of deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth got unanimous backing in the Senate. It would expand the work of a task force on maternal mortality and direct work on state strategies to improve maternal health.