Abbott Sets A Red-Meat Menu For Special Legislature Session Starting Thursday

Gov. Greg Abbott gave Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan his special session marching orders Wednesday.
Gov. Greg Abbott gave Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan his special session marching orders Wednesday. Screenshot
Ending weeks of speculation, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday morning finally unveiled the full list of items Texas lawmakers will be allowed to focus on during the upcoming special legislative session set to begin Thursday morning.

“The 87th Legislative Session was a monumental success for the people of Texas, but we have unfinished business to ensure that Texas remains the most exceptional state in America,” Abbott said in a statement Wednesday accompanying his list of priorities.

Included in Abbott’s to-do list are passing the “election integrity” and bail reform bills he was furious that Democrats blocked in the previous session’s waning moments. He also threw in a few favors to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick by including his pet topics of forcing transgender Texan kids to only play for the school sports teams that match their biological sex at birth and stopping the alleged scourge of social media censorship of conservatives, two measures that failed to pass in the regular session.

There’s nary a mention of the coronavirus pandemic in any of Abbott’s priority items. There’s also not a word about the state’s electric grid even though it ran the risk of buckling all over again two weeks ago when an unexplained series of power generator failures led the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to ask Texans to crank up their thermostats into the upper 70's lest their air conditioners lose power altogether in the June heat.

While Republicans were mostly mum about Abbott’s agenda Wednesday morning, Texas House Democratic Caucus chair state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie quickly blasted Abbott’s list of priorities.

“The governor’s agenda for the special session shows he is more concerned with pandering to die-hard Trump supporters and right-wing extremists than he is with serving everyday Texans,” Turner wrote in a statement. “Abbott’s agenda proves one thing: he is clearly panicked about his upcoming primary election.”

“Abbott’s agenda proves one thing: he is clearly panicked about his upcoming primary election.”

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"We have real crises in this state — hundreds of Texans died because the governor couldn’t keep the heat on last February, millions of Texans are still unable to access basic medical care and our COVID-19 vaccination rates have plummeted,” Turner continued. “That’s what a real leader would focus on.”

Abbott declared he would call the Texas Legislature back into town to work overtime as soon as the regular session concluded at the end of May with a dramatic late-night walkout from Texas House Democrats that killed the Republican-back slate of election reforms critics have called unjust voting restrictions, but which conservatives swore were all necessary reforms to prevent voter fraud.

He waited until June 22 to let lawmakers know they’d need to report to Austin’s pink granite Capitol building on July 8 to get back to work, and Wednesday's agenda announcement came just over 24 hours before the session is set to begin at 10 a.m. sharp Thursday.

After facing criticism from both parties for vetoing all the Legislature’s funding starting September 1, an unprecedented move Abbott made in a fit of rage after Democrats killed the Republican election bill, Abbott included re-funding the Texas Legislature as one of his special session agenda items.

While lawmakers’ salaries were never actually in jeopardy (their $600 a month paychecks are enshrined in the state constitution), they’ll now have the opportunity to make sure the hundreds of staffers who work within the Legislature will be paid after all, as long as lawmakers make progress on Abbott’s other priorities first, that is.

Some viewed Abbott’s Legislature funding veto as a bit of blackmail to convince state Democrats to show up for the special session in the first place, and to prevent a situation like during the 2003 redistricting saga when state Democrats fled to Oklahoma for weeks on end to try and delay the Legislature's Republican majority from drawing new political maps to their party’s benefit.

Bail reform got top-billing in Abbott’s agenda announcement, referencing the failed bill that would have made it harder for those accused of violent crimes to get released on cash bail ahead of trial. Next was “election integrity” legislation, the last version of which included provisions like banning Harris County innovations like 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting designed to make casting a ballot easier during the pandemic.

The controversial Republican bill also would have lowered the threshold for Texas judges to throw out election results in the future by allowing them to base the decision on simply the total number of votes suspected to be fraudulent with no requirement that the votes actually be counted to figure out which were cast for each candidate.

Abbott made sure to throw in an item on border security, requesting that legislators work on “providing funding to support law-enforcement agencies, counties, and other strategies as part of Texas’ comprehensive border security plan.” The charge to fork over more cash for protecting the border coincides with Abbott’s recent declaration that Texas will begin to build its own border wall, as long as the state can get enough funding from the legislature and from concerned residents from whom Abbott’s begged for donations.

In addition to Patrick’s “social media censorship” bill and his legislation targeting transgender youth sports participants all in the supposed name of “protecting girls sports," Abbott included a vague agenda item calling for more laws to ban so-called “critical race theory” from Texas schools, an academic philosophy conservatives are fearful is infiltrating classrooms across the state and is leading teachers to talk about things like systemic racism and the idea that some level of white supremacy is ingrained in certain United States institutions. Even though Abbott acknowledged the Legislature already passed a law targeting critical race theory in the classroom, clearly he thinks more needs to be done on the topic.

Speaking of the classroom, Abbott responded to backlash over his veto of a bill that would have required Texas kids to be taught about dating violence by including it in his list of special session topics to focus on, explaining that he’d support a new bill on the topic as long as the new law “recognizes the right of parents to opt their children out of the instruction.”

Rounding out the special session agenda are calls to put more limits in place for so-called “abortion-inducing drugs” to get into the hands of Texans, a request that legislators continue to tweak the Teacher Retirement System of Texas payout process by including supplemental one-time benefit checks to affected teachers, and a line-item about appropriating more state dollars to property-tax relief, the state foster-care system and state cybersecurity.

Abbott clearly doesn’t want the Legislature spending any more time on addressing issues with Texas’ power grid despite its deadly failures during February’s winter storm and the recent worries that early-June heat would be enough to cause power outages.

While he didn’t include anything about the grid in the special session agenda, Abbott did sent a letter to the Public Utility Commission on Tuesday ordering the advisory group to “take immediate action to improve electric reliability across the state” to “build upon the reforms passed” in the last Lege session that Abbott swore at the time fixed everything wrong with the grid.

In his Tuesday letter, Abbott asked the PUC to in turn ask ERCOT “to establish a maintenance schedule” for power generators, and requested that the PUC give added financial incentives to developing natural gas, coal and nuclear power while at the same time adding more financial penalties for renewable energy sources wind and solar power if they have trouble pumping out electricity during a crisis.

Past special sessions haven’t ended up addressing every single item the governor has laid out, so it’s likely not every one of Abbott’s priorities will be addressed during the 30-day session beginning Thursday. That said, there’s going to be at least one additional special session in the fall to start the redistricting process once the pandemic-delayed U.S. Census data gets delivered.

Along with redistricting, Abbott could always use the upcoming fall session as another opportunity to force state lawmakers to legislate on his demands, so he’ll have plenty more chances to twist the arms of legislators to get what he wants even if this soon-to-begin session doesn’t go according to plan.

Patrick, leader of the Texas Senate, didn’t immediately chime-in about Abbott’s agenda Wednesday. But Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan took to social media Wednesday morning to tell his colleagues they better be ready to get to work.

Abbott's full special session agenda proclamation is embedded below:

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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards