AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Senate adopted temporary political maps drawn by a three-judge federal court panel in San Antonio as permanent on Friday following a fierce partisan debate intended to set the stage for continued lawsuits over the voting power of minorities.
The Senate adopted its own district map unanimously after both sides in the lawsuit settled that case. But Democrats adamantly opposed adopting the maps used in 2012 because they said the maps dilute the votes of Hispanics and African-Americans.
The vote was the latest drama in a battle that began when the Legislature adopted new maps in 2011 to account for new census data. Democrats and minority groups opposed those maps, sparking two complimentary federal court cases. Three judges in San Antonio, who said the preliminary evidence showed substantial problems with the maps, drew interim maps for use in the 2012 election.
Since then, another federal panel in Washington found overwhelming evidence that the Republican-controlled Legislature intentionally drew maps to marginalize minorities and threw them out. Gov. Rick Perry called the Legislature into special session to make the interim voting plans permanent before the San Antonio court has a chance to draw completely new maps based on the Washington court decision.
Sen. Kel Seliger, the Republican chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, called the court-drawn maps "fair and legal" and rejected Democratic proposals to change them. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, citing the San Antonio court's order creating the maps, said they were only intended as a stop-gap measure and that further analysis would be required after the Washington court made its findings. The bills now head to the House for consideration.
Perry has also called on lawmakers to use the special session to pass tougher abortion measures, a new sentencing law for 17-year-olds who commit capital crimes and a new funding mechanism for state highways and bridges. The redistricting maps and the abortion measures have made Democrats angry because they successfully blocked those measures during the regular session and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst suspended the normal rules in order to get them passed.
"If it were not for a suspension of the rules, we would not be having a special session," Democrat John Whitmire, the longest-serving senator, said in defending the tradition of requiring two-thirds of the Senate to vote yes to consider a bill. "The two-thirds rule builds consensus on behalf of the people of Texas."
After the redistricting vote, the Senate unanimously passed a law creating a mandatory life sentence with possibility for parole in 40 years for 17-year-olds who commit murder while carrying out another felony, such as rape or kidnapping. The law is necessary because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas' mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole is unconstitutional for minors.
After the Senate recessed, committees met to pass the rest of Perry's agenda setting the stage for a full Senate vote next week.
The Health and Services Committee approved measures that would ban abortions after 20 weeks unless the mother's life was in immediate danger, impose stringent conditions on taking abortion-inducing pills and require all abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers.
Republican Sens. Glen Hegar, Dan Patrick and Bob Deuell said their legislation would provide better protection for women seeking an abortion, but Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, called the measures an attempt to strip women of their right to make their own health decisions.
Currently, only five out of 42 clinics that offer abortions qualify as surgical centers. Houston has two such centers, while Dallas, Austin and San Antonio each have one. Upgrading clinics to surgical centers can cost millions of dollars, abortion rights groups said.
In a less controversial move in the Senate, the Finance Committee endorsed a plan Friday that would send a portion of oil and gas severance taxes into a new road-building fund. The plan sent to the full Senate would divert the money from the rainy day fund only after it hits $6 billion or more. Lawmakers say estimates show the fund will have more than $6 billion for at least several years because of an oil and gas boom.
That measure is expected to pass the Senate but could run into trouble in the House, where conservative lawmakers have complained about government spending.
The special session ends June 25.