Looming over both chambers is the prospect of further additions to the session’s agenda by Gov. Greg Abbott, especially given the announcement Thursday night that the Texas Secretary of State’s office is planning to conduct a “comprehensive forensic audit” of the 2020 election results “in Texas’ two largest Democrat counties and two largest Republican counties — Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Collin.” Harris County leaders on Friday called the audit effort a bad faith attempt to cast aspersions on the security of Texas’ elections, all at the behest of former President Donald Trump.
The audit announcement came mere hours after Trump asked Abbott in a public letter to add a full election audit to the special session agenda. While Thursday night’s audit announcement came under the seal of the Texas Secretary of State, it bears mentioning that Texas actually doesn’t have a secretary of state at the moment, which has led many Capitol watchers to assume that the department is acting under Abbott’s direction. It’s also worth highlighting that even though Tarrant County has traditionally voted for Republican presidential candidates, in 2020 the usually red county sent its votes Joe Biden’s way, as did Harris and Dallas counties.
Texas did have a secretary of state earlier this year — Republican Ruth Hughes — whose office approved Harris County voting innovations like drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting that so infuriated Republicans that those techniques were outlawed in the GOP’s marquee “election integrity” bill signed into law in early September.
A Hughes representative also called the 2020 presidential election in Texas “smooth and secure,” which might have been the proverbial third strike that led Patrick’s Senate to refuse to consider approving Hughes’ re-nomination back during the regular legislative session. Without having the Senate’s stamp of approval, Hughes was effectively forced to resign at the end of the regular session at the end of May.
“We anticipate the Legislature will provide funds for this purpose,” read the audit announcement from the Secretary of State’s office. That would likely require Abbott to formally put that funding on the current session’s agenda, just as he did with other late additions like property tax relief and a constitutional amendment about state bail policies.
Patrick’s Senate would likely approve funding for an audit, the same way it quickly put forth proposed new Senate district maps that would up the chamber’s Republican vs. Democrat disparity from 18 to 13 to 20 to 11. Those maps would likely cost state Sen. Beverly Powell (D-Burleson) her North Texas seat since her district would be reshaped to include mostly Republican voters.
The Senate also took less than a full week to vote out a GOP-backed property tax reduction bill and, yet again, a bill Patrick is determined to push forward that would ban transgender kids from playing on the school sports teams that align with their gender identities.
“This is the fourth time we have passed this bill out of the Senate this year,” Patrick said of the transgender sports law, “and we will continue passing this bill until it finally becomes law in Texas.”
Phelan’s House hasn’t been nearly as active as Patrick’s Senate so far this session. That's no surprise to Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist and Texas politics expert.
“There are very few speed bumps for the Dan Patrick Express in the Senate, so they can move fast,” Rottinghaus said, due in large part to Patrick’s strong grip on his GOP senators and his willingness to take the political heat for strong-arming his colleagues into bending to his will. “Patrick more or less decides what to do and when to do it, so he runs the chamber.”
“But the House is different,” Rottinghaus said. “There are a lot more people, and the kind of problems multiply as you’ve got a wider variation in ideology in the Republican Party. So there are a lot more hurdles in the House.”
So far this session, Phelan has seen more of his House colleagues announce they won’t be seeking reelection after their current terms end than he’s seen actual bills passed in the chamber; So far, at least ten current representatives have declared they’ll be abdicating their seats. Seven are Republicans, three are Democrats.
Some of the House Democrats are looking for more influential gigs, including Celia Israel (D-Austin) who’s planning to run for Mayor of Austin, and Michelle Beckley (D-Carrolton) who announced a campaign for Congress.
“The best and most aggressive tactics the House Democrats have used to try to get their positions passed have failed,” said Rottinghaus. “So I could see that members might be a little unhappy about staying long-term in a chamber where their hard work is not always rewarded.”
On the red team, hard-line conservative state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) is looking for some more Capitol clout by challenging Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the 2022 primary election.
Two less radical lawmakers, state Reps. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) and Jim Murphy (R-Houston), both announced their plans to retire from the Legislature last week, surprising many of their colleagues given both men had declared just weeks earlier they’d be running for reelection. Paddie and Murphy are both extremely influential in the House — Paddie is currently chairman of the high-profile State Affairs Committee, while Murphy chairs both the Higher Education Committee and the House GOP caucus.
Both Republicans have come under fire from the far-right wing of their party this year for being insufficiently conservative. Paddie was censured by his hometown Republican Party just last week for a number of right-wing grievances including his support of giving Democrats a few token House chairmanships, as has been House tradition for years. Murphy has been blasted repeatedly by right-wing group Texas Scorecard for being a Republican In Name Only, and was rated by Rice University as the 76th most conservative Republican out of the House’s 81 GOP members.
Another moderate Republican who’s routinely frustrated his fellow GOP members, state Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), is widely expected not to run for reelection, but hasn’t yet decided for sure. Larson was the sole Republican not to vote for the House’s controversial “election integrity” bill. He also recently filed an amendment to Texas’ heartbeat bill” abortion ban that would create an exception for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, a once mainstream caveat in even GOP-backed abortion laws that didn’t make it into Texas’ most recent law restricting the procedure.
Rottinghaus said uncertainty about Paddie’s soon-to-be reshaped district could have played a part in his decision to retire, but that explanation wouldn’t apply to Murphy, whose district Rottinghaus expects to be redrawn in a way that would only bolster his reelection chances. He views the cases of Paddie, Murphy and Larson (if he retires as expected) as indicative of the hyper-charged right-wing partisanship that’s taken hold of the Texas GOP in recent years.
“You’ve had in the last few cycles an exodus of moderates in the Republican party. The tone of politics in state government has changed significantly, even in just the last two regular legislative sessions, and many Republicans no longer recognize the state they now govern,” Rottinghaus said. “It’s been a long time coming for these members in these seats.”
The fact that an arm of Abbott’s administration announced a Texas election audit mere hours after Trump pressured him to do so is further proof of that shift, and evidence of the way Trump’s influence still reigns supreme in the Texas GOP in 2021.
The tone of politics in state government has changed significantly, even in just the last two regular legislative sessions, and many Republicans no longer recognize the state they now govern." — Brandon Rottinghaus, University of Houston Political Scientist
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday excoriated Abbott and Trump over the Texas audit announcement from the Secretary of State’s office.
“All of us know this does not deserve to be treated as a serious matter or a serious audit. It is an irresponsible political trick. It is a sham. It is a cavalier and a dangerous assault on voters and on democracy,” Hidalgo said, all based on Trump’s unfounded insistence that voter fraud cost him the White House.
“The state’s announcement claims that the state will receive legislative funding for this. This is an opportunity for legislators to stand up and refuse to use taxpayer resources to undermine democracy and to perpetuate this dangerous lie,” Hidalgo said. “They know it’s a lie. We all know they know it’s a lie, and they need to do their job and their civic duty in protecting our democracy.”
If the past eight-plus months of lawmaking in Austin and Abbott’s repeated calls for special session after session to force through far-right legislation are any indication, it seems far more likely that the state’s Republican lawmakers will take their cues from Trump rather than heed Hidalgo’s call.
“Now special sessions are basically just political weapons,” Rottinghaus said.