In Texas House, Both Sides Claim Some Wins

by | May 27, 2015

By Alexa Ura, Edgar Walters, Jay Root and Morgan Smith

As the clock struck midnight, the failure of an anti-abortion initiative — dear to the hearts of the far right — marked the end of a tumultuous day on the floor of the Texas House that saw the passage of sweeping ethics reform and a version of legislation allowing concealed carrying of handguns on college campuses.

On the last day that it could approve major legislation that began in the Senate, the lower chamber embarked on an all-day procedural waltz, with Democrats attempting to kill bills by delaying them past midnight, and Republicans looking for openings to move their legislation.

Early in the day, Democrats narrowly shot down an attempt to essentially change the order of the calendar, moving big-ticket items up for faster consideration. They then used every parliamentary trick in the book to slow the pace, delaying consideration of mostly uncontroversial bills.

But after huddling in a secret meeting in a room adjacent to the House floor, Democrats let the action get moving again.

For hours, the House debated an ethics reform bill, dissolving into angry tirades and raunchy debate about the reach of a drug-testing provision for lawmakers.

The passionate debate pitted Republicans against each other — over lifting the veil on "dark money" and restricting people from recording or videotaping politicians without their permission.

With the clock ticking, a few Republicans at one point even sought to postpone debate over ethics legislation — deemed a priority by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — so the House could take up campus carry and an abortion bill that would have prohibited coverage of the procedure on certain health insurance plans.

Republican state Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler asked state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the House sponsor of the ethics legislation, to temporarily pull down the measure so that it did not chew up the time left on the clock.

After Cook declined, Democrats took to the mic to reiterate that ethics reform was declared an emergency item by the governor and was supposed to be prioritized over the rest of the calendar.

The House eventually passed the ethics bill, including the dark money provision, then went back to an innocuous agency-review bill, also known as a Sunset bill, to reform the Department of Family and Protective Services.

House Democrats were on alert for a proposed amendment by state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, that would have shielded religious organizations from being sued if they prohibited gay and lesbian couples from adopting children or becoming foster parents.

Though the Sanford amendment was eventually withdrawn and the bill passed in the House, a similar amendment was briefly revived in the Texas Senate, which also worked late into the night.

State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, sought to add the amendment to a House bill sponsored by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, that would direct the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to study “kinship care” programs.

But Campbell quickly pulled the proposal down after state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, sought to kill the provision on a technicality. The Senate unanimously passed the bill, HB 2655, once the amendments were withdrawn.

In the House, it was 9:30 p.m. by the time state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Houston, introduced Senate Bill 11, which would require public universities and colleges to allow concealed handgun license holders to carry their guns on campus. That left only two and a half hours for lawmakers to consider the more than 100 amendments that had been filed to the legislation.

Higher Education Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, successfully attached an amendment that was a significant departure from the Senate’s version of the bill giving universities the freedom to ban handguns in certain areas of campuses — like laboratories or hospitals — as long as they were not prohibited outright.

With Democrats continuing to eat up time with a series of procedural challenges, a point of order from state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, ultimately ended debate on the bill.

After spending 30 minutes discussing the matter, Martinez Fischer withdrew his challenge, and the chamber moved to rapidly adopt two final amendments relating to private institutions and hospitals, and took a quick vote on the bill.

After the bill’s passage, Martinez Fischer painted the vote as a Democratic win.

“You can take half the day and give that to Republicans for setting a calendar at a very late date on a bill that I might add that we’re not going to get to tonight,” Martinez Fischer told reporters. “And so we spent the other 12 hours fighting for what we believe in, ending on campus carry.”

The biggest victim of the midnight deadline was Senate Bill 575 by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor, which would have banned abortion coverage on plans sold on the federal Affordable Care Act’s marketplace.

Originally, SB 575 would have banned abortion coverage on both ACA plans and private health insurance plans. But the House State Affairs Committee amended the bill to mirror a measure filed in the House by state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, and approved by the committee this month before dying on a House bill deadline.

Republicans had said they intended to amend it on the floor to bring back the private insurance ban.

The bill — passed in the Senate earlier this month — died in the House after a turbulent ride in the lower chamber.

It was cleared by the State Affairs Committee on Saturday in a last-minute vote on the last day the committee could clear Senate proposals.

It initially failed to get out of the Calendars Committee, which sets the schedule for when bills are considered on the House floor. But it was reconsidered and added to the calendar during a late-night committee meeting called after a dramatic night, including a confrontation over the bill between two Republicans.

Taylor, the bill’s author, said he was disappointed about the bill’s demise in the House, citing the hours of work that had gone into moving it forward.

“Anytime you have a bill die due to the timer, you’re disappointed,” Taylor said. But he added that the proposal was bound to crop up during the next legislative session.

Alana Rocha contributed to this report.

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