Texas GOP pushes through ‘campus carry’ as Legislature ends

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Legislature wound down Sunday by lifting a ban on firearms on college campuses after years of thwarted attempts, putting a final conservative stamp on new Republican Gov. Greg Abbott‘s debut that included tax cuts and a dramatic rise in border security spending.

The official last day for the Legislature is Monday. But that day is mostly ceremonial, and unlike the previous 14 years under Rick Perry, lawmakers are going home instead of being marched into a special session, where contentious issues such as abortion and immigration often reignited.

On Monday, Abbott will wrap up the session by publicly signing a bill that legalizes cannabis oil for epilepsy patients, which marijuana supporters consider a milestone in a state that has long rebuffed even the slightest relaxing of pot laws.

But the last major bill sent to Abbott was both a symbol of the Republican dominance flaunted over the last 140 days of the session and the most emotionally-charged issue when he took office — expanding gun rights.

Allowing concealed handguns in college classrooms, known as “campus carry,” had repeatedly stalled under Republican majorities in Texas since a student killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. But last-minute concessions that give skittish university leaders leeway to carve out “gun-free zones” finally won the support to push the bill through.

Guns brought into college classrooms must remain out of sight. But most everywhere else in Texas, openly carrying a holstered gun in public will become legal in September, another measure approved this session.

“The men and women of Texas who carry have been waiting to go to classrooms, but we have been asking them to put their weapons up,” said Republican state Rep. Allen Fletcher, a former Houston police officer who sponsored the bill.

The House passed the measure 98-47. Abbott is expected to sign the bill into law, which won’t take effect on campuses until fall 2016.

Loosening gun restrictions gives newcomers Abbott and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the powerful Senate leader who used big-money donors as a private sounding board for legislation, the bragging rights of succeeding where their predecessors failed. But it also provided extra cover with tea party voters who helped put them in office.

Republicans will leave Austin with a long list of conservative victories: the biggest Texas tax cuts in a decade, doubling spending on security at the border with Mexico and weakening the power of judges and public corruption prosecutors in liberal Travis County.

But other proposed crackdowns on immigration went nowhere, and efforts to defy the U.S. Supreme Court if gay marriage is legalized this summer fizzled. Both were craved by the most conservative bloc of Republican voters and lawmakers but drew defiance from outnumbered Democrats and business groups.

Watching those hot-button issues wither was of little consolation to Democrats, whose party was whipped on Election Day last November and then further pushed to the sidelines.

Health care was practically a nonissue, and public schools only received a small bump in funding despite billions of dollars in revenue that Republicans are leaving unspent. When Abbott made boosting pre-K his first education initiative and dangled an extra $130 million in front of schools — far less than what Texas cut from pre-K in 2011 while slashing the state budget to the bone — Democrats considered that figure as a starting point.

Instead, the bottom line never budged.

“Certainly the funds are there for a variety of those things. But the political will wasn’t there,” said Democratic state Rep. Chris Turner, who ran Wendy Davis‘ failed run for governor last year.

Abbott wields line-item veto power over the budget. The last time Texas had a new governor, Perry stunned lawmakers by vetoing dozens of bills in a show of power, though Abbott’s political style is more reserved than the bravado of his predecessor.

Gun advocates say there will likely be very few concealed weapons on campus because most students won’t qualify for one. Texas has about 850,000 concealed handgun license holders, all of whom must be 21 or older.