Posted on June 12, 2013 at 5:32 PM
Wednesday, Jun 12 at 5:41 PM
AUSTIN -- Controversial electoral maps began as the sole focus of the special session on redistricting.
Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) called the first special session of the 83rd Texas Legislature to ask lawmakers to permanently approve interim maps drawn by federal judges for use in the 2012 election after maps drawn by the Texas Legislature in 2011 were ruled discriminatory.
As soon as the special session began, it became quickly apparent that state Republicans and Democrats were divided over whether the interim court drawn maps should be adopted or new maps should be drawn through the legislative process.
As party differences over redistricting reached a simmer this week, Perry announced the addition of legislation concerning transportation funding, juvenile justice and the hot-button issue of abortion to the special session call.
"There were a number of pro-life bills that were bottled up during the session," state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) said Wednesday. Among the abortion related bills during the special session is SB 18 by Patrick, which would increase restrictions on how the abortion pill regimen RU-486 is prescribed and administered.
"We believe based on testimony that we've had in the past that these pills are given out indiscriminately without the instruction," explained Patrick, who says his bill would require Texas doctors to adhere to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines concerning the drug. "We've had testimony from women who became very ill, in terrible pain."
That bill, along with other abortion related bills including "fetal pain" legislation that would restrict abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy, failed the two-thirds vote needed to clear the Senate during the regular session. They'll now get another shot in the special session under new rules allowing bills to advance with a simple majority.
"There is a reason that those bills failed during the regular session," countered state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin). "They're misguided and they put a woman's right to choose and women's health in jeopardy."
Watson argues the Republican majority is using the altered rules to reduce Democrats' influence on special session issues, including redistricting. An alternative plan for U.S. Congressional districts offered by Watson to address discrimination and return at least one congressional seat centered in Austin was rebuffed by members of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting Wednesday morning.
"Why not fix it?" Watson told media afterward. "We've never heard a good counter argument to that."
There may be at least one special session item on which many can agree in principle -- Texas' aging roads need more reliable long-term funding. A solution offered by state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) would divert a portion of oil and gas revenues used to fill the rainy day fund to build and fix highways.
Nichols' SJR 2 would only apply when the net revenue received by the rainy day fund exceeds the net revenue received the preceding fiscal year. Of the difference, 25 percent would be directed to general revenue. The remaining 75 percent would be distributed evenly between the rainy day fund and the state highway fund.
"Once there's a certain amount of money in there, then the spigot that fills it up, you don't have to put it in quite as fast," explained Nichols. "So what we're talking about doing is capturing part of what's being poured in there."
Separate Senate committees met Wednesday afternoon to consider transportation funding proposals, as well as the governor's request for legislation "relating to establishing a mandatory sentence of life with parole for a capital felony committed by a 17-year-old offender." A committee will hear public testimony on abortion related legislation Thursday evening.
After nearly two weeks of public hearings, the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting voted along party lines Wednesday to send the court drawn interim maps for state House, state Senate and U.S. Congressional district to the full Senate for debate. Speaking on the Senate floor, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Texas) announced plans to approve the maps when the Senate returns Friday morning.