Statesman.com, Ricardo B. Brazziell, AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas — State lawmakers on Sunday approved new voting maps for the Legislature ahead of next year's elections and began debating a sweeping proposal to further tighten restrictions on abortions, despite more than 800 protesters packing the Capitol and Democrats trying desperately to delay the process.
Gov. Rick Perry called the Legislature back to work for 30 more days immediately after the regular session ended May 27, and asked lawmakers to make permanent the voting maps drawn by three federal judges in San Antonio. Attorney General Greg Abbott says the move will stop a lawsuit to completely overhaul the state's political districts.
The special session ends at midnight Tuesday.
The Senate passed voting maps already approved by the House, then adjourned to wait for the lower chamber to tackle other items Perry put on lawmakers' special session to-do list: boosting funding for transportation projects, new sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder and more limits on abortion statewide, including after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The proposed changes on abortion also would force many clinics that perform the procedure to upgrade their facilities to be classified as ambulatory surgical centers. Doctors would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.
Abortion rights groups complain the upgrades are expensive and unnecessary and say many religious hospitals deny admitting rights to doctors who perform abortions.
They also warn the practical effect of the bill would be to shut down most abortion providers statewide, making it very difficult for Texas women to have the procedure. Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has said the goal is to close down abortion providers.
The omnibus abortion measure drew hundreds of protesters in orange T-shirts who jammed the rotunda and filled the House gallery to demand that lawmakers defeat it. They vastly outnumbered a group of anti-abortion activists, and loudly applauded Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston Democrat and outspoken critic of efforts to limit abortion, when she entered the chamber Sunday.
But before debate could even begin on that white-hot issue, Houston Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner used a parliamentary tactic that forced the chamber to adjourn for more than two hours.
House Democrats don't want to pass any abortion measures until after midnight because the Senate hopes to consider them Monday. Doing so reduces the likelihood of a filibuster by Democrats in the upper chamber who may try to talk any proposals to death without a vote before the special session ends.
Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said time was on his colleagues' side.
"The abortions bills are the target of all of this," Deshotel said, adding that Democrats continue scheming to find other ways that "will still kill those bills on technicalities, pushing the calendar back, things of that nature."
But Rep. Bryan Hughes, a tea party Republican from Mineola, predicted the stall tactics ultimately won't succeed: "We can go as long as we want to."
Still, the delay was enough to irk Dewhurst, who oversees the flow of legislation in the Senate. He said Perry could convene a second special session if certain bills fail to pass, but refused to elaborate on which ones.
After the extended recess, House Republicans responded by postponing all other bills — transportation, juvenile justice and a couple of smaller abortion measures — to ensure debate moved forward on the omnibus abortion restrictions.
Farrar claimed Republicans, who control both chambers, were ramming the bill down Texans' throats.
"This isn't about what the state wants," she said, "it's about what Republican voters want."
That prompted the gallery full of protesters to rise and cheer as House Speaker Joe Straus banged the gavel in vain and implored the crowd to follow House rules. When things finally got quiet Straus said: "I understand this is an emotional issue that brought you all here, but I will ask you again to refrain from any demonstrations."
As the abortion debate stretched into the night, the other key bills were left pending.
The transportation measure seeks to divert nearly $1 billion annually from the state's reserve fund toward building and maintaining roads. State transportation officials have warned lawmakers that Texas needs to spend $4 billion more per year just to keep up with its rapidly expanding population.
The road fund would require amending the state constitution. It has passed the Senate but still needs a vote in the House. If approved, it would go before voters statewide in November.
On the juvenile justice measure, Texas is trying to conform with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned sentences of life in prison without parole for offenders younger than 18. Current state law only allows a life sentence without parole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.
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