Senate puts pedal to metal with midnight vote, fast hearings

by Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman—

Moving with haste that Democrats called unseemly, Republicans in the Texas Senate set an aggressive pace, giving initial approval to two key bills Wednesday before returning to the Capitol shortly after midnight to finish work on the legislation.

The unusual schedule was designed to set the Senate on a path toward approving all 20 of Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda items by next Wednesday — Thursday at the latest — putting additional pressure on the House, where Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and other Republican leaders have been reluctant to embrace all of Abbott’s priorities.

Republicans also announced that Senate committee hearings will be held on all legislation by the end of Sunday — starting at 8 a.m. Friday on additional abortion regulations before the Health and Human Services Committee, followed by a 9 a.m. hearing before the State Affairs Committee on Senate Bill 3 to limit which bathrooms and locker rooms can be used by transgender people.

SB 3 was filed late Wednesday evening by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.

Sen. José Rodríguez, head of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Republicans were emphasizing speed over good governance.

“This signals that the leadership is willing to suspend all rules, regardless, so (they) can get things done, even if it means shortchanging senators on more time to consider bills that are significant, and even if it means cutting out the public’s right to participate,” Rodriguez said.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, head of the Senate Republican Caucus, said the post-midnight vote and rapid round of committee hearings will help his colleagues deal with significant issues in a tight time frame.

“There are lots of moving parts in the legislative process. At this point, anything can happen, and getting our work done early is the best way to be prepared for anything that can happen,” Bettencourt told the American-Statesman.

“We want to come in, go to work and vote,” he said of Republicans, adding that many of the special session bills had been considered during the regular session that ended in May.

“It’s not like these are foreign subjects that we’ve never seen before,” Bettencourt said.

But Democrats said the majority party appeared eager to stifle public input, with many Republican committee leaders announcing that they would limit registration for public hearings on bills to one hour before a hearing and three hours after it begins.

Patrick, Rodriguez said, “wants to get all of these bills out of the Senate and over to the House so the House … has enough time to act and no excuses (not to act).”

The post-midnight vote was held to meet conditions set by Abbott, who wants the Senate to approve two “sunset” bills, which will rescue five state agencies from shutting down, before he opens the special session to his 19 other priorities, including transgender bathroom policies, changes to the property tax system and limits on the regulatory authority of cities.

The Senate voted 31-0 to give initial approval to the sunset bills Wednesday, but Democrats refused to waive a rule requiring legislation to receive two votes on separate days.

Shortly after voting on the sunset bills early Thursday, Abbott expanded the special session agenda, allowing legislation to be referred to committees — allowing Friday’s hearings to be scheduled with the required notice of at least 24 hours.

Democrats had moved to delay Friday’s hearings on about a dozen bills by “tagging” them — a procedure that halts committee action for 48 hours.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, moved to void the tags, raising objections from several Democrats.

“Is this to prevent us from having sufficient time to study these bills?” asked Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. “Some of them were filed just a few minutes ago. I haven’t seen them, the public hasn’t seen them.”

Senators, however, voted along party lines to cancel the tags — the same result as Tuesday, when Senate Republicans voted to suspend the tagging rule for the first time in more than 30 years.

Meantime, the House began action on its version of sunset legislation Wednesday when the State Affairs Committee approved a bill to keep the Texas Medical Board and four other state agencies operating until 2019.

Rep. Larry Gonzales, a Round Rock Republican who wrote House Bill 1, said it was a simpler version than the Senate bill and that it was written in consultation with Abbott’s office to ensure that it meets the governor’s proclamation setting the special session.

Without action, the agencies regulating doctors, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, professional counselors and social workers would begin shutting down in September.

American-Statesman staff writer Johnathan Silver contributed to this report.

« »