Texas House busy as end of special session looms

June 27, 2011 5:54:49 AM PDT
The Texas House still has a lot of work to do with just three days to go in the Legislature's special session.

Hanging in the balance are key budget and hurricane insurance coverage bills, as well as Gov. Rick Perry's pet projects on expanded immigration enforcement and criminalizing airport security pat-downs some consider intrusive. There's also a stalled health care reform measure that got held up last week, after Republican representatives fought among themselves over the wording of a clause restricting state funding for abortions.

The House went home Friday morning when it became clear from a spate of empty seats on the chamber floor that fewer than 100 of its 150 members were present. That adjournment came four days after the June 20 session ended in less than two hours, when a record vote determined that just 99 lawmakers were present -- one short of quorum.

"There's definitely stuff on the table that we're not dealing with," said Rep. Jessica Farrar, leader of the House Democratic Caucus, which is outnumbered by Republicans 101-49.

Perry, who is still mulling a run for president, sets the to-do list for special sessions of the Legislature. But, by law, the extra period expires at midnight Wednesday, 30 days after the governor called lawmakers back immediately after the regular session ended May 30.

That means the House has only three days left. Up for consideration Monday are education bills, including a measure that would eliminate the state minimum salary schedule, allowing districts to set employee salaries as low as they want.

The House could also take up a bill that would make traveler pat-downs deemed excessive punishable by up to a year in prison, and a $4,000 fine, for the airport security officials performing them. That measure's future is in doubt, however, after the creation of a non-binding resolution that denounces intrusive pat-downs but doesn't ban them.

An earlier version of the pat-down law sailed through the House but died in the Senate during the regular legislative session, after federal authorities threatened to cancel flights in Texas if they weren't allowed to ensure passenger security.

The resolution would allow lawmakers to voice their objections to pat-downs without running afoul of federal law. Still, the law itself may resurface in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says he has been working with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office to ensure its constitutionality.

"I believe this is an important issue that deserves consideration by both the House and the Senate before we adjourn," Dewhurst said in a statement.

Other pieces of unfinished business are efforts at reforming all-important hurricane insurance in Texas, as well as legislation that requires local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Perry has championed the immigration enforcement bill and it passed following late-night debate June 15 in the Senate. But it remains frozen in the House, yet to even reach the floor.

Then there's a health care overhaul bill designed to save Texas $467 million, almost two-thirds of that coming from Medicaid.

It also bans state funding for hospital districts that finance abortions except in cases where the life of the mother is at risk, and where a fetus has a severe abnormality, however. That provision delayed it last week, when a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, complained that the language on fetal abnormalities was too broad.

But Hughes has said that modified language produced by a conference committee, and defining a fetus abnormality as "incompatible with life outside the womb," was now narrow enough to break the impasse -- and that the bill will pass if put to a House vote.

Should lawmakers not get to the rest of their work, Perry could call them back for a second special session -- but has so far not said if he would do so.

"There's still time to get the work done in this session," said Mark Miner, a spokesman for the governor.

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