Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas legislature.
Come this time next week, I’m hoping I won’t be writing, and y’all won’t be reading, another Losing My Lege column.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a great, weird, sad, infuriating time covering the 84th Legislative Session this year. But sine die—the official end of the regular legislative session—here in Texas is set for Monday, and if the fates are willing, we won’t be facing a special legislative session. That would mean another cruel start to the summer for Texans who believe in freedom and progress and justice and really anything besides carrying guns every flipping place and outlawing abortion and delaying same-sex marriage and making sure poor, sick Texans stay poor and sick.
If Texas lawmakers in the house and the senate don’t come to an agreement on a contentious new plan for gun deregulation, it’s possible that Gov. Greg Abbott—who, in his first months in office, has shown a disturbing tendency to be swayed by the most extreme-right factions in Texas politics—could drag everybody back to the capitol just as we’re packed up to head home. And a special session could give his party the opportunity to revisit some of the significant hits it has taken on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Special sessions, where the governor directs lawmakers to work through the summer to iron out high priority—or perhaps “high priority,” depending on how you look at it—legislation that they failed to agree on during the regular term, are mini-sessions that provide far fewer opportunities for bills’ opponents to delay or stop them. The governor can keep calling them until he gets what he wants. In 2013, the lege couldn’t agree on a budget plan, so then-Gov. Perry brought everybody back for a summer sit-down. During that time, lawmakers figured, hey, why the hell not, let’s decimate Texans’ access to legal abortion care while we’re at it! That’s how we ended up with Wendy Davis’ 13-hour filibuster of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, as well as a subsequent special session that Perry called to finally force the damn thing through.
This year’s 84th lege has been marked by conflicts within the Republican Party. Tea Party lawmakers feel like their legislation didn’t get its proper due from mainstream GOP leadership, who are so fed up with the Tea Partiers’ come-and-take-it style shenanigans that they’ve been prompted to say unthinkable things like how maybe, just maaaaaaybe, when it comes to new abortion regulations, lady lawmakers “probably weren’t comfortable with us men telling them what to do.”
That quote isn’t from just any Republican. It’s from state Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), the same guy who, two years ago, ushered Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion bill through his State Affairs Committee and told pro-choice Texans who came to testify against the bill that their abortion stories were repetitive.
I bring that up to illustrate just how serious the conflict between the mainstream right and the Tea Party is right now. It’s so bad that Tea Party lawmakers literally advocated for killing puppies earlier this week, apparently to show some muscle after the clock ran out on the abortion insurance coverage ban they’d hoped for.
The budget has been a source of inter-chamber conflict over the past few years, but legislators skated it through this session. Although it’s a ridiculous farce of a plan that provides no meaningful tax relief to average Texans while pandering to the demands of big businesses and failing to adequately fund public education and health care in the state, it just got a thumbs-up from both chambers.
However, the far right wants the state to allow the open carrying of handguns everywhere in Texas, and the concealed carry of handguns on public and private college campuses. Furthermore, they might see any compromise on this matter as a loss, no matter how hard their colleagues work to drum up consensus. That’s been the tenor of the entire session: Tea Partiers throwing tantrums left and right (well, mostly right-and-right, like really far right) when they don’t get their every demand met.
So they could lose, or believe they’ve lost, a couple of ways: They could deeply dislike the ultimate compromises reached by the bicameral conference committees and shout down the legislation in a fit of gun-righteousness as a result, or they could dither so long on bringing the compromises up for a vote that Democrats are able to filibuster. But—it feels strange to say “happily” here, but it might be the best deal that reasonable Texans get—lawmakers have already reached an agreement on open-carry in conference committee, making the prospect of a gun-focused special session less probable than it seemed a few days ago.
What’s most likely is that the gun fiends will put aside their differences and pass deregulation in time to outrun a Democratic filibuster, and we can all look forward to hauling ass out of Freebirds every time a dude wearing a tinfoil hat and a Glock on his hip gets a hankering for a burrito. Still, the house and the senate could ultimately fail to vote to agree on how much deregulation to allow, prompting a special session—and more opportunities for chaos.
And to be sure, Texas Republicans have done a great deal of damage during this session already, particularly when it comes to reproductive rights and health: They’ve ousted Planned Parenthood from a program that provides breast and cervical cancer screenings and treatment to low-income Texans, even though the provider saw thousands of patients under the program.
They’ve passed a TRAP bill, HB 416, that forces abortion providers, and anyone who works or volunteers with them and has contact with patients, to take state-mandated human trafficking training. These “pro-life” lawmakers could have widened the scope of the plan to include, say, emergency room doctors, general practitioners and dentists. Of course, doing so might have actually ensured that trafficking survivors find the resources they need to escape their situations instead of just putting more onerous restrictions on abortion providers, but it’s clear that the latter, rather than the former, was the point with HB 416.
And there’s HB 3994, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that requires abortion providers to demand government ID from their patients to prove that they’re above the age of 18, and which would make it more difficult—in some cases maybe impossible—for abused and neglected minors to get abortion care in Texas. That bill got final approval Friday afternoon from the house, and it’s on its way to the governor’s desk for his inevitable signature.
With these troubling legislative decisions already in mind, I shudder to think what the legislature might get up to in a special session.
I’m simply not ready to exhale just yet. On Wednesday, while I watched Tea Party state representatives Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington), Molly White (R-Belton) and others follow Jonathan “Former Fetus” Stickland (R-Bedford) into a vengeful parade of awfulness that involved invoking a little-used procedural maneuver to temporarily block a non-controversial bill that would have allowed for better protection of special-needs kids, I lost what little inclination I ever had to assume that cooler, more rational heads will prevail this year. The Tea Partiers eventually rescinded their opposition to that bill, but their willingness to hold the welfare of Texas’ most vulnerable kids hostage in order to score political points is more than troubling—in my opinion, it’s morally indefensible, especially from people who call themselves “pro-life.”
Plus, Gov. Abbott promised to sign any gun deregulation bill that comes across his desk, and if he can’t pull it off in the regular session, his failure to call a special session to appease the gun crowd could very well come back to haunt him in the 2018 election, especially if he faces a primary challenge for his seat from now-Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the mindless Moses of the Texas Tea Party.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that come sine die on Monday, I’ll have a pitcher of Lone Star at the ready, poised to drink to the blessed fact that our lawmakers only convene every other year. But just in case, I’m prepared to ensure that I start any special session coverage in the best possible shape: hungover and mad as hell.