With a midnight Wednesday deadline looming for the special session, the Legislature worked into the night Saturday, debating and voting on bills related to a half-dozen of Gov. Greg Abbott’s conservative priorities.
The House gave final approval Saturday to a bill limiting cities’ annexation powers, while the Senate gave preliminary approval — voting 20-10, mostly along party lines — to a House version of a bill to ban most insurance plans from covering abortion. The Senate had already passed a similar measure earlier in the 30-day session.
Some of the evening’s sharpest exchanges occurred during the House debate over Abbott’s top special session priority — limits to local government property tax authority, which won initial House approval late Saturday, 98-43.
Senate Bill 1, as changed by the House in committee, would require voter approval for large cities and counties that try to raise property taxes by 6 percent or more. The House sponsor made it clear that the goal was to increase taxpayer input, not lower property taxes.
“It does not provide one ounce of property tax relief. It’s not intended to. Anybody who suggests that is giving you bad information,” said Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. “This does absolutely nothing to lower anyone’s tax payments.”
The only way the Legislature could lower local property taxes, Bonnen added, would be for the state to pay “a greater share of the cost of education” because the majority of property taxes in Texas go toward public schools. That, however, is a debate for another day, he said.
The House turned aside an amendment by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, to force a rollback election for property tax increases of 4 percent or more — an attempt to return SB 1 to the original threshold adopted last month by the Senate. The defeat sets up a showdown with Senate Republicans who have insisted on a 4 percent trigger rate.
The House also rejected an amendment by Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, to raise the election trigger to increases of 8 percent or more.
Current law allows local taxpayers to petition for a rollback election if property tax increases top 8 percent.
Also Saturday, the House gave final approval to SB 6, requiring cities in counties with populations above 500,000 to get voter approval before annexing areas where more than 200 people live. In areas with fewer than 200 people, cities would have to get more than half of the affected property owners to sign a petition in favor of annexation.
The bill returns to the Senate, which can agree to House changes or seek a conference committee to negotiate over the changes.
Late Saturday, the House was expected to vote on placing limits on local regulations over trees, capping the growth of state spending except for increases due to inflation and population growth, and requiring specific patient approval for hospital do-not-resuscitate orders.
Also on the Senate’s agenda was a bill prohibiting insurance coverage for abortions in private plans, insurance offered to state workers and coverage purchased under the Affordable Care Act. Women who want abortion medical coverage would have to buy a supplemental plan, if offered by their insurer, although abortions needed to save a woman’s life would be exempt.
“Half of the nation have adopted some measures and policies similar to this. Texas needs to be next,” said Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who presented House Bill 214.
Supporters said HB 214 was needed to prevent abortion opponents from having to subsidize coverage for a procedure they disagree with, while opponents said it was another attack on abortion access, and Democrats criticized Republicans for opposing efforts to exempt pregnancies that result from rape or incest.
“No woman plans to have an abortion … certainly in these two instances, which are the most horrific incidents that a woman has to go through,” said Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston.
The prospects of teachers getting a boost in pay in the near future became dimmer Saturday. The House Appropriations Committee gutted SB 19, which would give one-time $600 bonuses to teachers who have six to 10 years of experience and $1,000 bonus to teachers with at least 11 years of experience in September 2018.
The bill would be paid for by delaying payments to Medicaid managed care organizations in the upcoming two-year budget cycle to the 2020-21 biennium.
A provision to lower retired teachers’ health insurance costs remains in SB 19 but the House would pay for it by tapping the rainy day fund, which the Senate opposes doing.
“This is an effort for us to keep moving the ball forward,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond.
Also Saturday, the House Public Health Committee approved SB 17, a widely supported bill that would study the state’s high rate of pregnancy-related deaths and recommend improvements.
Abbott signed the first special session bills into law Friday, setting stiffer penalties for mail-in ballot fraud and keeping five state agencies from having to shut down over the coming year.
Lawmakers also gave final approval to a bill requiring stricter reporting of abortion complications, but Abbott’s office said the governor wasn’t expected to sign HB 13 into law until Monday.