During the 2023 legislative session, which begins in January, we’ll be taking a close look at the notable bills—as well as the silly ones—that come under the consideration of the august bodies that make up our state government to help you understand what your lawmakers are spending their time on. 

The bill: House Joint Resolution 56

Filed by: James Talarico, Democrat, District 52 (Round Rock)

What it would do: The succinct resolution would add 31 words to the Texas constitution, under Section 68, Article III: “The legislature shall not pass a law that abridges an individual’s access to abortion care if the individual’s decision to access abortion care is made in consultation with a licensed physician.” Texas law requires that all constitutional amendments be approved directly by voters, so the resolution further specifies that the election to vote on the proposed amendment would occur on November 7, 2023, and offers specific language for how the amendment would appear on the ballot. 

If his bill is passed and the amendment is then approved by voters, another bill that Talarico has proposed, House Bill 819, would repeal both the “trigger” ban on abortion that went into effect when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Senate Bill 8, the so-called “bounty” law that allows a private individual to sue anyone who helps another get an abortion.

This year, direct-to-voters ballot referenda affirmed public support for abortion rights everywhere across the country that they appeared on the ballot, even as candidates who support abortion rights had mixed results during the midterms (in Texas, those statewide candidates fared particularly dismally). Abortion rights referenda passed not just in generally progressive places, such as California and Vermont, but also in deeply conservative states such as Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana, where initiatives to grant state legislatures the ability to further restrict abortion all failed. Polling results released in September suggest that Texans support legal abortion in “all or most cases” by a twenty-point margin. 

With that in mind, Texans who want to see abortion rights expanded in the state but who’ve failed to get pro–abortion rights candidates elected are looking longingly at the idea of a direct ballot referendum. Putting abortion on the ballot, however, is difficult in Texas. While other states allow for citizen-led initiatives, the only entity with the ability to put an issue directly before the voters in our state is the Legislature—and the only mechanism it has to do so is through a constitutional amendment. HJR 56 is the first step toward allowing that to happen. 

Does the bill have a chance of passing? Nope. No. Nada. Zilch.

For this resolution to advance to the ballot, it would require the support of the GOP-controlled Legislature, which has been quite keen during the last decade to exercise its discretion to abridge abortion access, and which may well pursue additional avenues of doing so during the 2023 session. There’s no reason the lawmakers who worked to pass laws restricting abortion would want to put that work to a popular vote. 

This is what’s known as a messaging bill: Talarico can use it to demonstrate to his pro–abortion rights constituents that he is filing legislation they agree with, Democrats can point to it to argue that Republicans are scared of putting their policies directly in front of voters, and Republicans can happily ignore it and pursue the policy agenda on which they campaigned and which led their voters to return them to power. If Texans want to expand access to abortion in the state, they’ll need to do so by electing leaders who will do so. The constitutional amendment process is a dead end, as long as the GOP controls the Lege.