Abortion, juvenile crime added to Texas session

Gov. Rick Perry Photo courtesy of CNN

WILL WEISSERT,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday added new abortion regulations to the Legislature’s special session workload, measures long pushed by conservatives that could signal two weeks of fierce ideological debate after an unusually harmonious regular session.

The governor’s office asked lawmakers to consider imposing more controls on abortion, abortion providers and facilities, as well as proposed mandatory life in prison sentences with the possibility of parole for a capital felony committed by 17-year-olds.

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Eating lunch at a San Antonio restaurant, House Speaker Joe Straus told The Associated Press he had no immediate comment.

The Legislature completed its 140-day regular session on May 27, but Perry called members back to work almost immediately to approve new voting maps based on 2010 census data. That process has moved extremely slowly, however, and on Monday, Perry further tasked the Legislature with providing new funding for major transportation projects statewide.

The governor previously called on lawmakers to take $3.7 billion from the state’s cash reserves, or Rainy Day Fund, for infrastructure. The Legislature passed measures asking voters to approve spending $2 billion from the fund for water projects, but didn’t pass a bill for highways.

The special session is only 30 days long, and only about half of that time remains. Legislators may now have to scramble if they want approve the voting maps, tackle transportation funding and broach politically contentious items like abortion and life sentences for 17 year-olds convicted of murder.

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Currently, Texas law has only two options for juries dolling out punishment in capital murder cases, the death penalty or life in prison without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has said both are unconstitutional for offenders under 18.

Republicans control both chambers, but their Democratic colleagues are likely to oppose Perry’s latest additions and could resort to stall tactics to keep bills from moving.

Until now, the session had been characterized by cooperation, as both parties worked together to approve a state budget and largely avoided ideological hot-potatoes.

But Perry made it clear Tuesday he hasn’t forgotten the issues close to the hearts of his conservative base, saying in statement: “The horrors of the national late-term abortion industry are continuing to come to light, one atrocity at a time. Sadly, some of those same atrocities happen in our own state.”

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“In Texas, we value all life, and we’ve worked to cultivate a culture that supports the birth of every child,” Perry said. “We have an obligation to protect unborn children, and to hold those who peddle these abortions to standards that would minimize the death, disease and pain they cause.”

During a special session, lawmakers can only consider topics Perry directs them to work on. Still, in hopes the governor might add abortion to the call, Republican Sen. Bob Deuell, a physician from Greenville, already filed a bill requiring abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

If approved, it would mean that 90 percent of abortion clinics statewide would either have to spend millions to upgrade their facilities or shut down.

San Antonio Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte bristled at the addition, saying, “If the governor is going to keep legislators in Austin, let’s make that time productive and work on issues that will take all Texans into the future, rather than pushing women’s reproductive rights back to the past.”

Still, many Republican lawmakers had pressured Perry to add abortion to the special session call, as had Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who oversees the flow of legislation in the Senate.

“Texas is already one of America’s strongest pro-life states, but we can do more to protect the preborn,” Dewhurst said in a statement.

Dewhurst has even said he’ll suspend procedural rules that had allowed Democrats to block particularly contentious bills from getting a vote in the Senate during the regular session.

Rep. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who chairs the House Republican Caucus, issued his own statement Tuesday saying, “We are a conservative majority and we were elected to support conservative pro-life, pro-family legislation.”

Sen. Kirk Watson, head of the Senate Democrats, said “There’s a reason that bills undermining Texas women’s right to choice didn’t pass this session — they were bad proposals.”

“They would have perpetuated a political war from which Texas women suffer the damage,” Watson said in a statement. He added that now that they are on the agenda, “I hope those in control will listen to the experts about the true effects of these pieces of legislation, not just the tastemakers who dictate the terms of Republican primaries.”