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Tensions Flare As Texas Legislature Adjourns — At Least For Now

Protesters flooded the state capitol to register their opposition to a bill banning so-called sanctuary cities.

In Austin Monday, both the Texas Senate and the House adjourned, bringing the 85th legislative session to a close. That was expected since the state constitution gives the Legislature exactly 140 days to run a regular session. What wasn’t totally expected was the drama that ramped up as the session was winding down.

Over the last few days, lawmakers in the two chambers volleyed accusations and aspersions between the two chambers, engaging in a tit-for-tat killing of bills the other side wanted passed. And amid those rising tensions, right before the chambers adjourned, a scuffle broke out on the House floor.

KERA’s Justin Martin talked with politics reporter Christopher Connelly about the last day of the legislative session, the kerfuffle, and the specter of a special session.

What was the scuffle about?

As the House was nearing adjournment, dozens of immigrant rights advocates who had gathered by the hundreds in the Capitol rotunda spilled into the gallery of the lower chamber. They were there to register their opposition one last time to the anti-sanctuary cities bill was passed this session and has already been signed by the governor. The bill requires local public officials to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and makes it a crime if they don’t. It lets police officers ask for the immigration status of people they’ve stopped, which is why opponents call it a “show me your papers” bill.

Protesters in red shirts chanted, cheered and unfurled big banners from the House gallery promising legal action to block the legislation and consequences at the polls. Work in the House came to a standstill for about a half an hour while DPS officers removed the protesters from the chamber.

Who was scuffling?

The fight itself was between lawmakers. There was jostling and shoving and threats were made, but nobody threw any punches.

It seems to have started after Irving Republican Matt Rinaldi told a couple of Latino House Democrats that he’d called federal immigration authorities on the protestors.

“They said some things to me, I said some things back, both designed to incite each other as sometimes happens in these passionate issues,” Rinaldi told Texas Public Radio.

Rinaldi says he was threatened with violence by one lawmaker, Eagle Pass Democrat Rep. Poncho  Nevárez. Rinaldi then threatened to shoot Nevárez in self defense.

Rep. Ramon Romero, Fort Worth Democrat, said that by calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement on protesters, Rinaldi made the point that many critics of SB4 have: that it is a bill based on prejudice, and would lead to racial profiling.

“He looked into the crowd and he saw illegals,” Romero said of Rinaldi. “He saw people that, whether he wants to accept it or not, in his heart he has hate for those people and he wants to see them gone. Wants to see them gone so much so that he called ICE.”

It’s not clear if anyone is planning to take legal action after that fight, nor is it clear if ICE agents were dispatched to the protest after Rinaldi’s call.

Will there be a special session?

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been calling for a special session as the regular session began to wind down. Patrick was upset the legislature failed to pass two of his key priorities: a bill limiting which bathrooms transgender people can use, and another that would make it harder for local governments to raise property taxes.

The House did pass a more limited bathroom bill, but wasn’t interested in the more stringent measures that the Senate passed. On Friday, House Speaker Joe Straus said the time for debating the bathroom bill was over.

A handful of totally unrelated state regulatory commissions seem to have become collateral in that fight. Five professional licensing boards are now slated to shut down next year because the legislature failed to pass legislation to re-authorize them. One of them is the Texas Medical Commission, which disciplines bad physicians and decides things like who can call themselves a doctor. Other boards that are now slated to shut down regulate social workers, psychologists and other therapists.  

On Sunday, House members held a news conference saying they’d passed legislation to keep the agencies open.

Patrick held his own news conference, saying that’s not true.

How does a special session get called?

Only the governor has the authority to call a special session, and it’s up to him to limit the scope of what legislators must focus on during that special session.

At a bill signing ceremony on Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was frustrated that the legislature didn’t re-authorize those licensing boards, and he said he’ll make an announcement later in the week when he’s decided wither or not to call a special session.

He made it clear that if it does happen, it’ll be his terms, not the lieutenant governor’s.

“The time and the topics are solely up to the governor of the state of Texas,” Abbott said. “If we have a special session, convening only on the topics that I choose at the time of my choosing.”

The governor generally doesn’t seem to like special sessions, in part because of the price tag attached to them. In 2013, Politifact estimated that a 30-day special session would cost around $800,000 dollars in lawmaker and staff costs alone. That doesn’t include the costs of keeping the capitol building open and working.

Texas Public Radio's Ryan Poppe contributed reporting to this story.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.
Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.