Bills move ahead as second special session nears end

By Karen Brooks Harper, Capitol Correspondent

Texas lawmakers sent some of the strongest abortion restrictions in the nation to Gov. Rick Perry's desk July 15, ending weeks of emotional protest and national debate over the issue.

Abortion rights claimed the spotlight as lawmakers spent the first month of their summer in Austin in two special sessions called to deal with transportation funding, abortion, redistricting and closing a loophole in the juvenile justice system.

In the first special session, called May 27, lawmakers managed to approve the state's interim redistricting maps before the session came to a standstill in its final hours over an anti-abortion bill that eventually failed.

In the second session, which began July 1, lawmakers have made significant progress on all of Perry's agenda items and are poised to pass most of those before the session must end July 30.

Abortion restrictions

The presence of thousands of demonstrators on both sides of the abortion debate did little to slow movement on the abortion bill during the second session.

After hours of testimony from thousands of witnesses in the House and Senate, both chambers passed legislation that bans abortions after 20 weeks and requires all abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgery centers.

Opponents say the measure risks the closure of nearly all the state's abortion clinics and erodes a woman's constitutional right to govern her own body.

But supporters say it increases safety standards and protects unborn children.

Transportation funding

The House and Senate still have not come to an agreement on how to fund Texas roads in the future, grappling over what transportation officials have called a funding crisis and how to find $4 billion per year in additional funding just to maintain current roadways.

Lawmakers could not come to a deal in the regular session and missed their chance in the first session when the abortion debate killed all other proposals.

With a week to go before deadline, the House and Senate were moving forward on separate plans.

The Senate has passed a measure to amend the state's constitution and ask voters to approve the diversion of some oil and gas money, on an ongoing basis, from the rainy day fund to pay for roads.

The House is poised to pass a bill that would divert 5 cents from the 20 cent gas tax, which Texans pay at the gas pump, to roads.

Money from the gas tax currently goes to fund public education, and critics say that could hold up the legislation when it hits the House floor July 18.

Perry has not said whether he will call a third special session to deal with the issue if lawmakers cannot come to an agreement, though some lawmakers said they hope to have it resolved before the deadline.

"These are challenges that need to be addressed," said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation. "And I'm thankful that Gov. Perry has asked us to address this now instead of two years from now, when it will be too late."

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