Texas House Democrats’ dramatic fly-out to Washington, D.C. last week left the state House at a standstill. But across the hall in Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate, Republican lawmakers were undaunted, rapidly passing a conservative laundry list of legislation that's all but assured to die at the special session's end.
The Texas Senate took just four days to crank out its new “election integrity” bill and a new bail reform bill designed to keep more folks accused of violent crimes locked up before trial. Gov. Greg Abbott said those two items were the main reasons he called for the current special legislative session, since previous bills covering both topics were killed by House Democrats in the waning hours of the regular session back in May.
Patrick’s Senate also pushed through bills to ban transgender athletes from playing on the school sports teams that match their gender identity and to block social media censorship of conservatives, two right-wing priorities of Patrick’s that failed to advance during the regular session.
But it isn’t just blatantly partisan topics the Senate is passing bills on; Patrick’s colleagues have also approved bills to give retired Texas teachers an extra paycheck, and have passed two separate bills from Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) designed to lower property taxes for first-time home buyers and elderly homeowners.
“Make no mistake, the Texas Senate is in the Texas Capitol to work,” Patrick said in an email to supporters Tuesday.
While Patrick has celebrated each bit of legislation his senators passed last week with a cavalcade of press releases, he ended each message with a reminder that none of these shiny new bills will become law as long as the House remains out of commission.
“Final passage of this bill into law will require the House Democrats who have fled the state to return to the House for a quorum. If they do not, this bill will die,” Patrick’s passive-aggressive boilerplate in each press release reads, before promising that the Senate will once again pass the bill in question “over and over until the House finally has a quorum.”
The “over and over” bit relates to Abbott’s promise that even though a special session can only last 30 days according to the Texas Constitution, he’ll keep on calling them one after the other until enough Democrats tire of their walkout to return to Austin and give the House its minimum two-thirds majority (at least 100 representatives) required to make quorum and get back to legislating.
Thanks to all the absentee House Democrats, all House Speaker Dade Phelan was able to do last week was issue the call for state law enforcement officers to track down absent members and haul them back to Austin (an authority state police only have within Texas’ borders) and strip his one-time ally Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso of his Speaker Pro Tempore position.
Phelan also chartered a private jet that’ll take any willing Democrats in D.C. back to Austin on Saturday, but not a single Democrat took the Speaker up on his offer. Some of the D.C. Dems couldn't have flown back even if they'd wanted to, as five representatives went into isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.
The Texas House Democratic Caucus didn't name the representatives in question, but said all five were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. After news of the breakthrough infections spread, some critics of the absentee Democrats chastised the group for not social distancing or wearing masks on their flight to D.C., although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has advised that vaccinated people can de-mask and be in close contact with other vaccinated folks. Phelan simply extended his thoughts and prayers to the sick Democrats in a statement Saturday.
Not to be outdone by Phelan's chartered jet stunt, Abbott's campaign group Texans For Abbott announced Friday they'd be more than happy "to assist the Texas House Democrats with any media booking needs they may have" during their stay in the nation's Capitol.
"[Texans for Greg Abbott] is hopeful the Democrats will take a little time off of sightseeing and eating knock-off BBQ to continue going on television to explain to their constituents why they are not in Austin representing them and fighting for retired teachers, foster care children, and seniors in need of property tax relief," the group's sarcastic statement read.
In keeping with Phelan and Abbott's PR strategy on the walkout, this latest dig at the absentee Democrats only mentioned the special agenda items with bipartisan support, and not the controversial election law that led lawmakers to skip town in the first place.
The Senate’s most recent election bill, Senate Bill 1, is chock-full of provisions Republicans claim would make voter fraud less likely but that Democrats argue are unnecessary at best and discriminatory against the disabled and minorities at worst.
The bill would ban 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting, would add extra ID requirements for absentee voting, and would revive a previously failed Republican attempt to cross-reference voter rolls with state records about individuals’ immigration status they provide when applying for driver’s licenses or state ID cards. It would also give partisan poll watchers the ability to roam more freely around polling places, which Democrats fear could lead to aggressive conservative volunteers intimidating voters of color.
“This bill is about making it easier to vote and hard to cheat,” the bill’s author state Sen. Bryan Hughes said during its debate on the Senate floor last week. But Houston Democrat state Sen. John Whitmire warned the poll watcher rules in particular will mean “You’re going to have physical encounters” and that “there won’t be enough constables in Harris County to respond to those calls.”
By Patrick’s estimation, the Texas Senate might be completely done passing bills covering every single one of Abbott’s special session agenda items as soon as this week.
Patrick scratched two more items off Abbott’s wish list on Friday with yet another bill limiting what Texas teachers can talk about regarding race in their classrooms and a bill that would outlaw sending abortion-inducing drugs through the mail.
The first of those bills is the latest legislation to cover “critical race theory,” the once niche academic term conservatives have started using as a catch-all to refer to any mention of systemic racism present in society, past, present or future.
The full Legislature already passed a law banning so-called critical race theory during the regular session, but the newest version passed by Patrick’s Senate strips away amendments added by Democrats that would have required Texas history teachers to include specific writings from minorities and women in their curriculum.
The Senate has yet to approve a bill overturning Abbott’s controversial veto of funding for the entire Legislature as of September 1, which he issued in fury after Democrats killed the Republican election bill at the end of the regular session, but a Senate committee has approved a bill to restore that funding and a full Senate vote should happen early this week.
In addition to the popular bill authorizing extra payments for retired teachers, the Senate passed Bettencourt’s property tax relief bills unanimously last week.
One of Bettencourt’s bills allows new homeowners to claim their first-year homestead exemption tax break during the year they bought the house, as opposed to having to wait until January 1 of the next year as current law dictates. His other property tax bill would lower fixed tax rates for homeowners over 65 or who are disabled. That bill would require a constitutional amendment that voters statewide would have to approve.
In a statement Wednesday, Bettencourt claimed his bills and the constitutional amendment, if approved, would provide “a quarter billion dollars of property tax relief in Texas.”
“Unfortunately, the House Democrats are not here to vote on the constitutional amendment to help 1.9 million over 65 or disabled homeowners [get their] tax freeze,” Bettencourt wrote, or to approve his separate bill that he claims would “address a longstanding issue in Texas that prohibits homeowners [from[ getting hundreds or thousands or dollars of property tax relief in their first year of home ownership.”
The state Senate has been able to keep passing bills during the special session because they’ve been able to maintain the two-thirds majority of members present to meet the Texas Constitution’s quorum requirement. Meanwhile, the House is stuck in limbo because more than a third of its members — all Democrats intent on blocking Republican election legislation — have ditched Austin for either Washington, D.C. or parts unknown, rendering the House unable to pass bills or even hold committee hearings.
A handful of Senate Democrats flew up to D.C. last week to support their fellow House Democrats and attend some of the meetings where Texas lawmakers are pressuring U.S. Senate Democrats to push harder to pass federal voting rights bills that would block some of the election reforms proposed by Texas Republicans. But enough Democratic senators remained in Austin so the Senate never lacked the two-thirds majority of its 31 members needed to keep passing bills.
A Thursday Senate press release spelled out that Patrick’s chamber “will likely have to consider, debate and vote on all these bills again, as a quorum break over the elections bill in the House all but guarantees that these bills will die when the special session ends on August 6.”
“Abbott has said he will call the Legislature into session again and again until he can sign these bills into law,” the release continued.
House Democrats have signaled they’re willing to stay out of Austin at least through this current special session. If enough of them have the will and the means to remain away from the state Capitol for longer than that, there’s no telling how many times Patrick’s Republican Senate will have to pass and re-pass all of these bills.
Even if Patrick's Senate keeps passing all of this legislation over and over again in every special session to come, an eventually functional House would still have to hold up its end of the legislative process to get any of those bills to Abbott's desk, either by voting to approve the same exact Senate bills or by passing similar legislation and then setting up joint House and Senate conference committees to hammer out any differences.
The legislative fun doesn't stop there: Once a conference committee comes up with an approved Frankenstein-esque combination of any Senate and House bills passed on the same topic, that newly-formed bill then has to be voted on again by both the House and Senate.
Simply put, the table is set for a long, steamy summer of grandstanding and gridlock if Texas Democrats and Republicans can't figure out how to play nice in the months ahead, no matter which party one might believe is morally in the right here.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.