Special session kicks off in Austin as hundreds rally outside the Capitol


Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith (David Taffet/ Dallas Voice)


DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

The special session of the Texas Legislature that convened this week in Austin offers some interesting parallels to what’s going on in Washington.

In D.C., Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House and still can’t pass much of anything. In Austin, Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and the executive mansion, and Gov. Greg Abbott had to call a special session to keep the Texas Medical Board, and four other commissions from sunsetting.

While lawmakers are in Austin again to pass legislation to enable doctors to continue practicing legally in the state beyond Sept. 1, Abbott thought it would be a good idea for them to pass bills to take away cities’ rights to regulate trees on property within the city limits, to propose more bathroom bills, to rein in unions further, to nibble away even more at a woman’s right to choose and a variety of other insidious new pieces of legislation.

But can any of it pass?

Many Democrats in the Texas House don’t think so. Versions of all of the proposed bills were introduced in the regular session of the Legislature and got nowhere.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, said all the special session does is give Republicans more time. But, he said, “Time doesn’t cure bad leadership.”

To ensure every piece of bad legislation passes, the Senate has chosen to suspend rules on posting info and on public hearings.

In the House, state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, tried to outmaneuver Speaker of the House Joe Straus, complaining from the House floor that some bills had been assigned to committees chaired by Democrats. He wanted to know if those bills could be brought to the floor even after they die in committee.

But Straus didn’t give Tinderholt a direct answer. He said that would be a question for the parliamentarian and explained that the bills in question were sent to committees chaired by Democrats because those were the appropriate committees for those bills. Straus didn’t change the rules for the lower house.

Among the bills Tinderholt was, no doubt, referring to were the various bathroom bills targeting transgender people.

“Appropriate” is exactly what Straus meant when he assigned those bills to committees where he assumes they will die. Last week, Straus said he didn’t want to be responsible for any suicides that resulted from passing anti-transgender legislation.

Johnson noted that other Republicans have also expressed opposition to the bathroom bills, using a business argument.

On Monday, Dallas City Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates held a press conference in Austin, with Visit Dallas CEO Phillip Jones, to warn about the amount of tourism and convention business the state will lose if any of these bills are passed.

But Straus, Johnson said, was the first Republican in Austin that he knew that used the moral argument that discrimination is simply wrong and could have dire consequences for transgender people.

About 1,000 attended a rally outside the Capitol on Tuesday where different speakers addressed different issues expected to come up during the special session.

The variety of issues represented was apparent from the variety of signs and T-shirts. Planned Parenthood was represented, while education was paramount to demonstrators holding “No vouchers” signs. A group called United We Dream represented undocumented Texans.

Local control was on the minds of many. A “Tree lives matter” sign referred to a bill to prevent cities from regulating trees on private property. The representative who filed the bill was fined when he cut down a large tree on his property without a city permit.

Union representatives protested a bill that would prevent the Texas State Comptroller from withholding money from public employees’ paychecks.

But the Rev. Carmarion Anderson, who is transgender, got the largest ovation from the diverse crowd when she denounced the bathroom bills and talked about hate crimes that target trans women of color.

“These bills are about using us,” she said. “Tokenizing us. Not protecting us. These bills give permission to commit a hate crime.”

By the end of her rousing speech, she had non-LGBT people chanting “Trans lives matter.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, concluded the rally, offering some statistics: “Texas’ economy dropped from number 3 to 21 since Abbott took office,” he told the crowd.

Turner also said that the mortality rate for mothers in childbirth in Texas is the worst in the developed world and Texas tuition rates have increased 147 percent in 15 years.

The special session lasts 30 days. Johnson said whether or not any of the right-wing agenda passes, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick “brilliantly figured out this no-lose political maneuver to create primary issues.”

Republicans not voting for these issues are already being threatened with primary challenges.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 21, 2017.