Donna Howard

Photo Credit: Becca Gamache | Daily Texan Staff

A Republican-sponsored bill restricting insurance coverage for abortions goes into effect in Texas today.  

House Bill 214, passed during the state’s summer special legislative session, requires women to pay a separate insurance premium for non-emergency abortions. Authored by Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, the bill does not include exceptions for rape, incest or fetal abnormalities.

The bill was one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda items for the special session, which he called shortly after the end of the regular session in May.

“This bill prohibits insurance providers from forcing Texas policy holders to subsidize elective abortions,” Gov. Abbott said in a press release after signing the bill.  “I am grateful to the Texas legislature for … working to protect innocent life this special session.”

Smithee was unavailable for comment prior to publication of this article.

Critics of HB 214 dubbed it the “rape insurance” bill because of the lack of exceptions for rape or incest. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, was a staunch opponent of the bill during the
special session.

Now that the bill is being implemented, Howard said the bill, in practice, will not likely have any major ramifications because many insurance plans already do not cover abortion. The bigger issue is the “chilling effect” it has on women seeking an abortion or doctors who might carry out the procedure, Howard said.

“Part of it is just an ongoing effort to just continue … to make it more and more difficult (to get an abortion) regardless of how pervasive the effects might be,” Howard said. “The fact that this is continuously being at the top of our agenda I think presents some dissuasion in and of itself.”

Howard said one effect the bill could have is reducing the ability of lower-income women from getting an abortion. Some women might not have the money to buy health insurance in the first place, and adding this requirement puts an abortion even further out of reach.

Jensen Soderlund, president of abortion rights advocacy group Texas Rising, said the fact that the bill lacks exceptions for incidences of rape or incest gives credibility to the belief that women need to be prepared for rape, which contributes to rape culture. 

“It’s upsetting for a lot of reasons,” government sophomore Soderlund said. “I love Texas …. It hurts that sometimes it feels like the Texas government doesn’t care about women as much as (it) should.”

Alicia Torres, president of pro-life group Texas Students for Life, said she has mixed feelings on the bill. While she said she always supports legislation discouraging women from getting an abortion, she doesn’t like the possible implication that only wealthy individuals can afford one.

“It’s sort of coming at the whole issue sideways,” said Torres, human dimensions of organization junior. “I prefer policies that are both stopping abortion because abortion is wrong and always ends a human life, and … address the root problems that cause women to get an abortion in the first place.”

In cases of rape or incest, Torres said she is glad there is not an exception within the bill. Having the option to get an abortion only adds to the stress and trauma of that experience, Torres said.

“I think especially in those cases, restricting abortion access is a great idea,” Torres said. “It does remove that tiny problem, which is that temptation (for a mother) to hurt her child and herself longterm.”

A mix of old and new faces will fill the House Higher Education Committee, which was announced Thursday.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus renamed state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the committee. State Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, will succeed former state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, as vice chair. Castro was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

In addition to Branch and Patrick, returning members include state Reps. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas; Donna Howard, D-Austin; and John Raney, R-College Station. New members are state Reps. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo; Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco; Jim Murphy, R-Houston; and freshman Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

In a statement following the committee announcement, Howard said she looks forward to working with Branch as the committee addresses the state’s higher education needs.

“Our state’s position as an economic leader depends on a well-educated workforce,” Howard said. “We must ensure that our diverse population is prepared to meet tomorrow’s challenges.”

The new committee includes six Republicans and three Democrats, differing from the makeup of the previous membership, which included five Republicans and four Democrats.

Sherri Greenberg, former member of the Texas House of Representatives and director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said she does not think this slight shift in partisan alignment will significantly affect the committee’s decision-making process. 

“At this point, I don’t think it will be a big difference,” Greenberg said. “I think we will see a very reasoned debate.”

Some committee members have filed bills that would freeze tuition for undergraduates, tie more university formula funding to student success and establish a law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

Branch filed a bill that would require universities to offer students the option of paying fixed-rate tuition if they graduate within the time allotted by their degree plan. Branch also authored a bill that would tie 25 percent of university formula funding to student outcomes such as graduation rates. Gov. Rick Perry expressed support for both initiatives during his State of the State address Tuesday.

Martinez filed a bill that would allow the board of regents of a university system to establish a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties near the Texas-Mexico border.

Texas Speaker of the House names House Higher Education Committee

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus named committees of the Texas House of Representatives Thursday, including the nine members of the House Higher Education Committee.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, will remain chairman of the committee and Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, will succeed former state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, as vice chair. Castro was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

In addition to Branch and Patrick, returning members include state Reps. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, Donna Howard, D-Austin, and John Raney, R-College Station.

New members are Reps. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, and Jim Murphy, R-Houston, and freshman Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

In a statement accompanying the appointments, Straus said he considered members’ expertise and representative districts when making his decisions.

“All of the committee appointments highlight the House’s strong mix of experienced leaders and newer members who are ready to take on greater responsibility,” Straus said. “After traveling around the state to visit with Members before the session and talking to them over the last few weeks, I am very encouraged that the House is ready to tackle the serious challenges our state faces.”

In a statement following the committee announcement, Howard said she looks forward to working with Branch as the committee addresses the state’s higher education needs.

"Our state's position as an economic leader depends on a well-educated workforce," Howard said. "We must ensure that our diverse population is prepared to meet tomorrow's challenges."

The Texas House of Representatives gained seven Democrats, increasing the number of Democratic seats to 55. Republicans will continue to make up the majority of the House with 95 seats.

Democrats won seven districts previously held by Republicans representatives. Going into the election, Republicans held an overwhelming majority in the House with 102 representatives, while Democrats held 48 seats.

Higher education is expected to play a large part in upcoming legislation as changes to state allocations of university budgets and cuts to financial aid programs have been much discussed during the interim session.

The House Higher Education Committee will not face a member shake-up as all eight of its nine members who were up for re-election will return to the House in January. Committee chairman Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, was re-elected to his fifth term as representative for District 108 with 81.1 percent of the vote.

Branch continually pushes for higher education reform. He authored House Bill 51 in 2009, creating the Tier One Initiative to promote Tier One universities in Texas. While the term has no concrete definition, Tier One identifies significant research institutions.

Branch also helped pass legislation, capping UT’s admission under the Top 10 Percent rule to 75 percent of in-state students for each incoming class. Branch serves as co-chairman of the Joint Oversight Committee of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency.

The makeup of the higher education committee is more balanced and was previously made up of five Republicans and four Democrats.

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, beat Republican candidate Robert Thomas for House District 48 with 59 percent despite recent redistricting that changed the district’s makeup.

In 2010, Howard won re-election by just four votes. She was first elected to the House in 2006.

Howard is a friend of higher education and supports restoring funds to financial assistance programs such as TEXAS Grants, the state’s primary need-based financial aid program for in-state college students.

Last week, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended cuts to individual TEXAS Grants to increase the total number of students who receive the award.

Reps. John Raney, R-Huntsville; and Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, defeated their opponents and were re-elected with 61.4 percent and 83.6 percent of the vote, respectively.

Reps. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas; Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas; Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa; and Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, ran unopposed.

The committee could see one new face during the upcoming legislative session with the retirement of Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for District 20. Castro, a champion of affordability and access to higher education, served as a state representative for five terms.

Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, will have to appoint a new member to the Higher Education Committee. Straus announced appointments in February 2011 after the last election in 2010.

News Briefly

Republican Dan Neil announced Tuesday that he would request a recount of the ballots of the race against incumbent state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat. The Neil campaign, which expects the recount to begin next week, does not think it will take too long, said Zach Vaughn, a campaign manager for Dan Neil. “It’s a close race,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure that every vote is counted.” Late calls to the Texas Democratic Party, Travis County Democratic Party and the Donna Howard campaign were not returned by press time. If the recount comes up with enough votes for Neil to overcome Howard’s lead, Republicans would gain a super majority in the Texas House of Representatives, rendering Democrats powerless.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, increased her lead over Republican challenger Dan Neil by one vote — to a lead of 16 votes — after Travis County officials finished counting about 100 absentee ballots on Monday.

The final and unofficial results show that Howard was barely able to survive a Republican tidal wave that defeated 22 of her Democratic colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives.

“We want to make sure that every legal vote was counted,” said Zach Vaughn, a spokesman for the Neil campaign. “We’re going to sit down tomorrow to consider [a recount].”

Attempts to contact the Howard campaign were unsuccessful as of press time.

The win gives Democrats 51 seats in the House, preventing Republicans from obtaining a two-thirds majority that would have rendered Democrats powerless and unable to mount procedural opposition to bills.