February 13, 2013 (AUSTIN) -- Although regular sessions of the Texas Legislature are scheduled to meet every odd-numbered year, for only 20 weeks, from time to time the Governor will call legislators back to Austin to fulfill additional needs in a special session. While in special session, the Legislature may only take up issues designated by the Governor in the "call" of the session.
This summer, after the Legislature had fulfilled its many obligations to the citizens of Texas by passing: a balanced two-year budget (Sept 2013 - Aug 2015) with no new taxes or fees; sending Texas voters a plan for approval of funding critical water supply and conservation projects; overhaul of public school accountability and college & career prep; stabilizing the Teacher Retirement System while granting a small retirement increase; disaster funding for West; and funding to keep the Waco Center for Youth open, Governor Rick Perry called the Legislature into session to address the following issues: adopting updated maps of congressional and legislative districts; increased regulation of legal abortion facilities; codifying a change in law relating to capital murder charges against juvenile offenders in accordance with US Supreme Court guidelines; and funding for transportation projects to address our increasing challenges of increased capacity and relief of congestion.
Since special sessions can last a maximum of 30 days, it took two full special sessions, and part of a third, to fully discuss, take input from interested parties, and deliberate these issues over a ten-week period. Now that all of the items on the Governor's call have been concluded, here is a recap of the Legislature's work:
Congressional & Legislative Redistricting
In 2011, the 82nd Legislature redrew state legislative and congressional district lines for representation in Austin and Washington. This is a normal and required process following the US Census, and is done every ten years, just like the census.
Another normal occurrence in this process is a years-long lawsuit battle, challenging the lines adopted by the Legislature. In this process, federal courts usually take a hand in redrawing lines to reflect some of the more salient arguments presented in the trial related to overall shifts in demographics, and at least attempting to keep communities of interest together.
This was the case in the litigation of 2011 and 2012, which affected the 2012 elections. The maps by which members of Congress and the Texas Legislature were elected contained some court-drawn tweaks to what was adopted by the Legislature.
The purpose for the call in special session was for the Legislature to formally adopt the court-drawn maps used in the 2012 elections. This would provide a base from which the lawsuits, still ongoing, could proceed, rather than start from scratch. These maps were adopted in the first special session.
Regulation of Abortion Facilities
Following the horrific revelations of botched abortions, murdered post-birth babies, and neglected patients who have died post-abortion, Governor Perry added the regulation of abortion facilities in Texas to the call of the special session. I was proud to co-sponsor this legislation.
While I can appreciate the strong feelings related to this emotional issue, it can be difficult to sort through the hyperbole and misinformation which has been generated, and discern the facts of the changes adopted by the Legislature.
House Bill 2 changes the Texas ban on abortions from a viable, third trimester fetus to a fetus at 5 months post-fertilization. Additionally, it requires all abortions to be performed in facilities which can at least match the same standard of care as an ambulatory surgical center. Currently, only abortions performed after 16 weeks of pregnancy are done at ambulatory surgical centers.
HB 2 also requires that physicians performing abortions have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion facility, stay in contact with the patient throughout a drug-induced abortion, and be available to the patient in case of complications brought about by the procedure of administering of the drugs.
The change in law moves up the period of the current ban in Texas by about 4 to 6 weeks; most states which have abortion restrictions and regulations have bans in place from 20 to 28 weeks. Texas is the 12th state to adopt a 20-week standard. Additionally, 29 states, including Texas have at least some standard of care requirement to match those of ambulatory surgical centers.
After all the hyperbole and, frankly, the theatrics employed by outside groups, HB 2 passed in each chamber of the Legislature by about the same margin, nearly 2 to 1, as most polls in Texas related to these same concepts within the abortion issue.
Last year the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama, that juveniles could not be sentenced to mandatory life without parole for capital felony offences. This left Texas in a dilemma without sentencing options for 17 year olds who commit capital felony offences. It was essential that the State of Texas pass legislation to address this issue to keep in line with the Supreme Court ruling. After the passage of SB 2 in the Second Special Session, Texas law will now state that Juveniles (17) convicted of capital felony offences will now have a mandatory sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
While the Oil and Natural Gas industry along with conservative policies in Austin has launched our great state out of recession and into the forefront of economy and job growth in the nation, it has also wreaked havoc on our roads. That coupled with a booming population growth has put a strain on our transportation network.
So, how do we fund to maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure without raising taxes, and while preserving the balance of the Rainy Day Fund? This was the question that has plagued lawmakers for the past two months. After countless hours of meetings, hearings, and floor debates we finally came to a compromise that all sides would agree on. SJR 1 would restructure the Rainy Day Fund by sending half of the revenue from oil and gas production to the State Highway Fund. (This will not have an effect on the 25% of revenue that is automatically dedicated to the Foundation School Fund). Current projections indicate the first transfer would mean at least an additional $878 million available for transportation in FY 2015. In addition the legislature would be able to enact general law regarding the protection of the balance in the Rainy Day Fund.
Mark Your Calendars: The constitutional amendment will be submitted to voters on November 4, 2014. Once approved, it will go into effect immediately.
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