Texas Lawmakers Head Home, But A Third Special Session Looms

Texas' GOP Big Three had plenty to celebrate following special session two, but there's still more lawmaking on the horizon.
Texas' GOP Big Three had plenty to celebrate following special session two, but there's still more lawmaking on the horizon. Screenshot
The Texas Legislature officially shut the door on special session number two Thursday night, as both the state House and Senate voted to adjourn and head home in time for Labor Day weekend.

Even though Republicans are celebrating the passage of most of the GOP's laundry list of laws during this past session, everyone knows a third special session to handle legislative redistricting and whatever else Gov. Greg Abbott decides to put on the agenda will happen in the weeks ahead. Abbott just has to decide when that will be.

The second round of legislative overtime started off with another Democrat-induced stalemate, as enough House members of the minority party remained out of state for the first week-plus of the session that the House still lacked the 100-member quorum needed to pass any laws.

But as some Democrats trickled back to Austin by August 19, the chamber was able to quickly move to approve the majority of Abbott’s conservative agenda, including his coveted “election integrity” bill. Critics claim the law will make it harder for Texans of color and disabled Texans to vote. They've also argued the only reason Abbott wanted any sort of election reforms passed to begin with was simply to assuage the prevalent, unfounded claims among the GOP faithful that former President Donald Trump lost in 2020 due to allegedly rampant “voter fraud.”

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) could have wrapped things up in the House and sent his members home hours sooner than he did Thursday night, but chose to keep the chamber in session because he apparently didn’t trust Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to let the Senate approve a key bit of House legislation that restored funding to the legislative branch and appropriated millions of dollars for one-time bonus payments to retired Texas teachers.

Just after 6 p.m. Thursday, a reportedly smirking Phelan told House members to stand at ease in order “to give the Senate some time” to hopefully follow through on the legislative funding bill Patrick's chamber had put off passing.

Rumors swirled earlier this week that Patrick was willing to block his Senate from restoring the funding, which Abbott vetoed in a rage-induced tizzy after Democrats killed the first GOP election bill back in May. Patrick's stalling tactics were blamed on the House's inaction toward approving his pet bills covering “critical race theory” in Texas schools and a ban on letting transgender Texan kids play on the sports teams that match their gender identity.

The House did end up passing Patrick’s new critical race theory bill. It expanded a previously passed ban on letting Texas history teachers talk about things like systemic racism in society and the concept of white supremacy by nixing a list of required history topics (added to the old bill by Democrats) concerning and written by Texans of color and women. The new bill also expanded the previous bill’s prohibition on discussing certain race-related topics and current events without giving “deference to any one perspective” to all public school classes and subjects.

But when the House declined to move forward on Patrick’s transgender sports bill, some wondered whether Patrick would continue to slow-foot Senate approval of re-funding the Legislature, or whether he’d block it outright. The House ended up passing its own bill to restore legislative pay on Wednesday night.

Eventually, Patrick caved and allowed the Senate to approve the House’s bill restoring the legislature’s funding, the final domino that needed to fall for Phelan and Patrick to agree on an early end to the session which could have run through Sunday.

“We’ll be back soon. There’s a little bit of unfinished business yet to be done,” Patrick said as he gaveled-out the Senate.

Minutes later, Patrick issued a not at all hyperbolic statement referring to the past week of Senate business. “As we finish this week, I am very proud to say that the Texas Senate completed one of the greatest weeks for Republican legislation in Texas, and perhaps, American history,” he wrote, referring to the GOP election bill’s passage, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Thursday not to block Texas’ unprecedentedly restrictive “heartbeat bill” abortion law enacted on Wednesday and the Lege’s latest critical race theory ban.

“As we finish this week, I am very proud to say that the Texas Senate completed one of the greatest weeks for Republican legislation in Texas, and perhaps, American history." - Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

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During the special session's final days, the Legislature in a flurry approved bills that limit the use of abortion-inducing medication in the state. Lawmakers also appropriated $1.8 billion in extra funds to secure the U.S.-Mexico border on top of the previously approved $1.1 billion for border security passed during the regular session (helped along by votes in favor of the bill from both former U.S. Senate candidate state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and rumored Houston mayoral candidate state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston).)

There will undoubtedly be yet another special session, given that the Legislature still has to take care of the pesky business of redistricting now that the pandemic-delayed U.S. Census results have finally arrived.

A couple of Senate Democrats — Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) and Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) — have filed a lawsuit arguing that some specific lingo in the Texas Constitution should be construed to mean political maps can only be redrawn in the first regular session after census results are made available, which wouldn’t be until 2023 and would require a federal judge to draw temporary maps for 2022 races in the meantime.

While a clever parsing of the Texas Constitution, if the suit makes its way to the 100 percent Republican Texas Supreme Court, it’s hard to imagine that body would hand such a big win to Democrats and deny their GOP brethren the right to redraw the state’s legislative districts in a way that would solidify Republicans’ electoral advantages in the state for at least the next decade.

There’s a chance Abbott could wait until the redistricting lawsuit is resolved before he calls the next special session, but it seems more likely he’ll ask lawmakers to return back to Austin sooner rather than later.

Other than redistricting, it’s unclear what else Abbott would add to the next special session agenda. The governor has full authority to decide what topics legislators can legislate on during the Legislature’s extra innings, which is why Patrick has already started lobbying his counterpart to include the transgender sports bill in the third session’s to-do list.

Patrick once again referenced “unfinished business” in his statement after the second special session ended Thursday night, referring to the transgender sports bill titled “the Fair Sports for Women and Girls Act.”

“The Senate has passed that bill 4 times, and it has failed in the House. I have asked Gov. Abbott to place it on the special session call later this month, and we will pass it again,” Patrick said. While Abbott did list the transgender sports issue as an agenda item during the past two special sessions, it’s always appeared to be more of a do-or-die topic for Patrick.

Other Abbott priorities included on the past session’s agenda that didn’t get passed are laws concerning mandates for COVID-19 vaccines and mask-wearing.

Abbot has continuously tried to block those two potential coronavirus mitigation measures through multiple executive orders, despite the still surging wave of Delta variant-induced COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that have pushed Texas hospitals toward their breaking points, and as millions of mostly unvaccinated children have flocked back to in-person classes over the past few weeks.
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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