Abbott wields heavy veto pen; Public Information Act bill among those rejected

By Mike Ward and Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published June 15, 2017

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto total for the year hit 50 on Thursday as his staff announced a final round of vetoes of bills approved during the recently completed legislative session, including five bills by state Rep. Lyle Larson.

The governor even vetoed a bill that Larson had amended.

“I think it’s a lack of maturity. They can’t separate policy and politics,” Larson, R-San Antonio, said Thursday.

Larson said he believed the vetoes were retribution because he had pushed a measure that would have prevented a governor from appointing someone to a board or commission if that person had given the governor a campaign donation of more than $2,500 the previous year. The bill passed the House 91-48 but didn’t even get scheduled for a committee hearing in the Senate.

Abbott’s spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Many of Larson’s measures involved water issues. The bills vetoed Thursday included one related to the development of brackish water; another on the use of a state fund for developing desalination and aquifer storage and recovery facilities; one on the extension of groundwater export permits; and one on the promotion of conservation easements, agreements that limit development for water conservation.

The fifth Larson bill vetoed would have ensured a parent has the right to view the body of a deceased child before an autopsy. It was rejected because, Abbott said in his veto message, he had signed a bill with identical language by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.

Abbott also vetoed a bill by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, that included a provision that Larson had added to provide for studies of aquifer storage and recovery projects.

Among other bills stamped with a veto Thursday was Senate Bill 790, reauthorizing the Texas Women’s Health Advisory Committee. As a result, the committee will expire in September.

SB 790 would have kept the advisory committee running until fall 2019, when legislators would again have considered whether to continue it. The committee was first formed in 2015 to provide recommendations on women’s health to state officials, and it has since overseen the consolidation of state programs into what is now called Healthy Texas Women.

“At no point during the past six months had the governor’s office expressed any concerns to me over the legislation,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who sponsored the bill in the House. “This absentee style is disgraceful, and it is now jeopardizing the health and safety of women across the state.”

For his part, Abbott said there was “no need” for continuing legislation that has fulfilled its legislative mandate, which was the formation of Healthy Texas Women, he said.

“Rather than prolong government committees beyond their expiration date, the state should focus on programs that address more clearly identifiable needs, like my call for action to address the maternal mortality rate during the special session,” he said in the veto message.

Other vetoes included Senate Bill 1912, which would have established mental-health public defenders to ensure that defendants facing court action had proper representation. Abbott said current law already mandates appointed counsel, and he called the expanded bureaucracy “unnecessary.”

Abbott also killed House Bill 2783, which would have allowed judges the option to award attorneys’ fees to someone who requested public information that was initially denied by a governmental agency, forcing the requester to file a lawsuit.

“It’s so unfortunate that an anti-transparency attitude took hold at the Texas Capitol this year, resulting in the death of multiple open government bills,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “This attorneys’ fee legislation is but one example. The people of Texas are the losers in all this.”

The vetoes are the most since 2007.

Abbott didn’t reject everything Thursday; he also signed numerous bills, including House Bill 22, which will revamp the public school accountability system, reducing it to three categories and delaying campus A-F grades until 2019. He also signed Senate Bill 1553, requiring schools to verbally warn visitors before issuing criminal trespass warnings. It also would establish an appeals process for such warnings.

He signed other bills that some Bexar County school districts supported, adding dual credit performance to the school accountability system, providing incentives for partnerships between traditional and charter school districts, and increasing per-student funding for new campuses.

Abbott also signed into law bills that could fine law enforcement agencies that don’t promptly report police shootings to the state, will license specialists who treat children with autism, allow providers of state child-welfare services to reject placements based on religious preferences, allow “autonomous” or driverless vehicles and make changes to laws governing craft-beer breweries.

He also signed a measure that will set a grace period for unpaid school-lunch accounts — the so-called “lunch shaming” bill.

Staff Writers Alia Malik and Forrest Milburn contributed to this report.