But even though Abbott has plenty to celebrate about the election bill, several of his and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s other legislative priorities were still in limbo as of Wednesday afternoon due to stalling maneuvers in a key House committee, and thanks to a new legal challenge from two Democratic senators attempting to thwart Republicans’ plans to draw new legislative maps in a follow-up special session in the weeks ahead.
While the second special session will end on Sunday (unless lawmakers vote to go home sooner), many of the new laws from the Republican-dominated regular legislative session finally took effect Wednesday. Those include the controversial laws overturning all state permit requirements to carry handguns as well as the “heartbeat bill” abortion law that effectively bans the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected (typically at six weeks of pregnancy, long before many pregnant folks realize they’re with child).
Once the election bill received its final votes of approval Tuesday, Abbott thanked his Republican colleagues in the Legislature “for stepping up to ensure that this bill made it to the finish line” after two failed attempts earlier in the summer.
“Senate Bill 1 will solidify trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Abbott continued. “I look forward to signing Senate Bill 1 into law, ensuring election integrity in Texas.” Through coordinated walkouts and a multi-week trip to Washington, D.C., Texas House Democrats had blocked the bill’s passage for weeks, which they claim will make it harder for the disabled and voters of color to cast ballots due to provisions that ban drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting methods used in Harris County in 2020.
Grace Chimene, president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Texas, voiced her group's frustration about the election bill's passage in a statement Wednesday. "Despite COVID, Texas state and county election officials ran a smooth and secure 2020 election, yet Governor Abbott chose to act on false allegations to declare 'election integrity' a priority," Chimene wrote.
"He chose to ignore the very real priorities of a worsening pandemic in Texas in favor of further complicating our election process and limiting the freedom to vote for all Texans, especially voters with disabilities, older voters, urban voters and voters of color," she continued.
Earlier this week, rumors began swirling that Patrick wouldn’t allow his Senate to pass legislation to re-fund the legislative branch unless the House approved Senate-backed legislation to limit what Texas educators can teach about race and to ban transgender Texan children from playing on the school sports teams that align with their gender identity.
When Republican House leaders on Monday delayed a planned vote on restoring the legislative branch funding that Abbott vetoed in a fit of pique back in May after Democrats killed the GOP’s first election bill during the regular legislative session, all eyes turned to the House Public Education Committee, which had been sitting on both the transgender sports and “critical race theory” bills.
But by Tuesday afternoon, Dutton had apparently softened his stance. In a hastily-called meeting of his committee that afternoon, and after insisting that he hadn’t been put under any sort of pressure from House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) or other Republican leaders to reconsider the two bills, Dutton allowed the committee to advance the critical race theory bill to the House floor for approval, but ended the meeting without voting on the transgender sports bill again.
Dutton’s choice to stymie the transgender sports bill is a shift from where he stood on the topic during the regular session — back in May, Dutton allowed a previous version of the bill to advance to the House floor in what appeared to be retaliation against a fellow Democrat who killed a Dutton-sponsored bill that would have allowed a potential state takeover of Houston ISD.
A House vote on restoring legislative funding (as well as approving one-time bonus checks for retired Texas teachers) was planned for Wednesday afternoon, but it’s unclear if the chamber’s Republicans will allow that vote to take place given that the transgender sports bill is still being held up by Dutton’s committee.
Wednesday also saw Texas’ “heartbeat bill” go into effect, thanks in part to inaction from the U.S. Supreme Court. On Monday, abortion advocates filed an emergency request for the nation’s highest court to weigh in and block the Texas law from going into effect, but the court has yet to consider the request or to rule definitively on the issue. The law allows for people to sue any person they suspect has either performed an abortion after a fetal heartbeat was detected, as well as anyone they believe may have aided or consulted with a person who had such an abortion, for up to $10,000 in damages.
On Tuesday, a Travis County District Judge Amy Clark Meachum gave some reproductive rights advocates a bit of relief when she issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the anti-abortion crusaders Texas Right to Life and their legislative director John Seago from filing lawsuits against two Dallas attorneys and a Dallas abortion fund. While a temporary victory for Texas abortion advocates, it was mostly a moral one, as Meachum’s ruling was too narrow to prevent the abortion ban from going into effect statewide Wednesday.
As anti-abortion advocates celebrated and abortion providers scrambled, President Joe Biden spoke out about Texas’ newly-enacted abortion law Wednesday, arguing the law “blatantly violates” the constitutional right to an abortion established by Roe v. Wade.
“The Texas law will significantly impair women’s access to the health care they need, particularly for communities of color and individuals with low incomes,” Biden said. “And, outrageously, it deputizes private citizens to bring lawsuits against anyone who they believe has helped another person get an abortion, which might even include family members, health care workers, front desk staff at a health care clinic, or strangers with no connection to the individual.”
“The Texas law will significantly impair women’s access to the health care they need, particularly for communities of color and individuals with low incomes." - President Joe Biden
Two other outraged Democrats, State Sens. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) and Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) attempted to derail state Republicans’ redistricting plans on Wednesday. Gutierrez and Eckhardt filed a federal lawsuit claiming the Texas Constitution’s strict wording on when new legislative maps can be drawn means the Legislature shouldn’t be allowed to do so until the next regular session in 2023, and that a federal judge in Austin should draw temporary maps in the meantime.
States are legally required to redistrict at least once every ten years once the new U.S. Census results come out, which typically occurs early enough in Texas legislative years for the process to begin during the regular legislative session. But pandemic-induced delays caused the 2020 Census results not to come in until August of this year.
The Texas Constitution’s section on redistricting reads that “The Legislature shall, at its first regular session after the publication of each United States decennial census, apportion the state into senatorial and representative districts.” Gutierrez and Eckhardt argue in their lawsuit the “first regular session after” Census results are published language means Republicans shouldn’t be allowed to draw new maps during a fall special session, as has been their plan since it became clear the 2020 Census results would be dramatically delayed.
Rob Henneke, General Counsel and Director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, argued via Twitter that the state constitution’s language “does not limit when redistricting happens, but only requires that it does.”
“It’s a shall, but not a ‘shall only,’" Henneke wrote.
It’s the kind of legalistic phrase parsing that might not work as a bumper sticker slogan, but could provide enough wiggle room for Republicans to prevail with their plans to redraw the state’s legislative maps in their favor.
It’s a shall, but not a “shall only.” The language does not limit when redistricting happens, but only requires that it does. Of course #txlege may (and should) convene this month to draw new districts— Rob Henneke (@robhenneke) September 1, 2021