AUSTIN – The Republican-led Legislature reported for work Thursday, but offered up competing visions about how to tackle the special session, with the Senate moving full-steam ahead on a slate of hot-button social issues, while the House signaled it will start with efforts to restore its staffers’ pay.
The Senate quickly set hearings on three items dear to the GOP’s staunchest conservatives, including a rewrite of election laws and restrictions on young athletes who are transgender and abortion-inducing drugs.
The House, a bigger and more cumbersome body, introduced bills on two of Gov. Greg Abbott’s 11 agenda items that are Speaker Dade Phelan’s top priorities – bail changes and elections.
But, showing it has different priorities than the Senate, as well as anger over Abbott’s veto of funding for the legislative branch, the House until late Thursday afternoon had scheduled a committee hearing on just one bill – to restore a $410 million, two-year budget for lawmakers’ offices and support agencies that Abbott whacked. Late in the day, the House posted notices that the election and bail bills will be heard Saturday.
Opening-day sessions in the two chambers were brief, with several GOP senators posing for selfies and two House members quizzing Phelan about possible actions to punish:
- Arlington GOP Rep. Tony Tinderholt asked the speaker how quickly the House could move on Tinderholt’s House Resolution 5, designed to discourage a quorum break such as that House Democrats used to stop an elections bill from passing near the end of this year’s regular session. Under it, the chamber could strip committee chairmanships and seniority privileges of those who break quorum, as well as membership on non-substantive panels, such as Calendars, which decides which bills go to the floor. Phelan “respectfully” declined to answer Tinderholt’s hypothetical questions.
- Grand Prairie Democratic Rep. Chris Turner asked Phelan whether lawmakers could “re-appropriate funds” approved for Abbott’s office as they decide how to respond to the Republican governor’s requests for more money for property-tax relief, foster care and cybersecurity. “Mr. Turner, that is a hypothetical question,” Phelan again replied. Later, pressed on whether the House actually might cut funding of the governor’s office, Turner shrugged. “It was a fair question to ask,” he said.
The first day underscored how the two chambers already have dueling priorities, with the House eager to restore the pay and benefits of its staff, which would end on Sept. 1 if no action is taken. Counting members’ personal staffs and experts on bill drafting, budget writing and reviewing agencies’ books and performances, the Legislature has more than 2,000 employees.
At 1:30 p.m. on Friday in Capitol Extension Room E1.010, House Appropriations will hear the measure restoring the Legislature’s money, House Bill 1.
“It’s not legislators that he’s punishing [but] state employees,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.
Abbott has justified his veto of lawmakers’ funding by pointing to the late-May walkout by House Democrats that killed the election bill in the regular session.
“No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” Abbott tweeted at the time.
On Thursday, though, Turner sought to reframe Abbott’s action as hurtful to the general public.
“When constituents call our offices and there’s no one there to answer the phone, here’s who Governor Abbott’s hurting: He’s hurting single parents who are trying to collect child support. He’s hurting unemployed Texans who can’t get through to the Workforce Commission,” he said.
While the Senate also introduced and scheduled a Friday hearing on back-filling the legislative branch’s budget, the chamber also moved into high gear on other Abbott demands.
As foreshadowed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a tweet a day earlier, on Thursday, the Senate introduced, Patrick referred and committee chairmen set hearings on bills on these controversial subjects that are important to social conservatives:
- SB 4, a bill to limit shipments of and require more reporting about medications that induce abortions, will be heard by Senate Health and Human Services on Friday in the Senate chamber, at noon or on adjournment of the full Senate.
- SB 1, the voting bill, will be heard by Senate State Affairs at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Capitol Extension auditorium. The panel also will hear SB 31, which would require the Secretary of State to enter into an agreement with the Department of Public Safety to review driver license records each month, to ferret out whether any noncitizens are on the voting rolls. Abbott’s request that his appointee David Whitley do that in 2019 backfired, as thousands of legal residents who’d properly obtained driver licenses were wrongly targeted as having done something wrong. Disclosures in a lawsuit challenging Whitley’s action revealed the legal residents had become naturalized citizens – as required – before registering to vote.
- SB 2 and SB 32, on transgender sports, will be heard by the same Senate panel in the Senate chamber at 10 a.m. Monday. The difference between the two bills is that SB 2 would apply to state colleges and universities, as well as public schools, while SB 32 just would affect athletes at K-12 campuses.
Late Thursday afternoon, Abbott spoke at greater length in favor of the transgender sports legislation than he had previously.
“There have been instances occur in the United States where you’ll have boys who are transitioning to be a girl play in girls’ sports and you have boys beating girls in sports,” he said on WBAP Radio. “So that’s just insane.”
Noting news accounts about how weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics, after being selected by New Zealand for the women’s event at the Tokyo Games, Abbott repeated his dismay.
“That’s just insane and it has to be stopped and now we want to make sure we pass a law that makes sure that’s not going to be allowed in Texas,” he said.
Wrapping up the Senate’s rapid-fire scheduling, Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has set a hearing for Friday on Abbott’s call for lawmakers to give retired teachers a “13th check,” or one-time, supplemental payment of up to $2,400 each (SB 7).
“Luckily, with the Texas economy roaring back, I am hopeful that the Legislature will be able to fully fund a 13th check without issuing any further debt to the State or to the pension fund,” Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, SB 7′s author, said in a release.
The Finance panel also will hear testimony on restoring the Legislature’s funding (SB 10). The hearing is at 1 p.m. Friday in Capitol Extension E1.036 (the Senate Finance Room).
Phelan’s new select panel he created for the special session, Constitutional Rights and Remedies, will hear the chamber’s two bail-setting overhaul measures (HB 2, HJR 1) and elections bill (HB 3) at a hearing that begins at 8 a.m. Saturday in Capitol Extension Room E1.030.
Leading House Democrats say state GOP leaders’ push for the election bills – which would increase penalties for election-law violations and preempt local decisions, such as those taken by Harris County to make voting safer and more convenient during the COVID-19 pandemic – is inspired by a false narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
“We’re here to feed an ugly beast [that] is at least premised on a lie, … on President Trump ‘somehow losing’ an election,” said Houston Democratic Rep. Armando Walle. “That is the premise for why we are here and why this governor continues to feed that beast … to be able to placate a right-wing agenda.”
But neither Walle nor Turner would speak about whether House Democrats again might break quorum.
“Every option is on the table,” said Walle, who was speaking for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “We’re going to use every parliamentary means available to us to stop these bills.”
Patrick, who appeared on Fox News 90 minutes before the Senate convened, warned Democrats they’ll regret another walkout.
“If they leave, they’re stuck,” he told anchor Bill Hemmer. In the November 2022 election, “independents will say this is anarchy,” Patrick said. He predicted no further quorum breaks by the Democrats.
“The price they would pay would be too huge with the voters, I believe,” said Patrick, who’s asking state residents to register support for SB 1 by taking a poll on his campaign website.
On Thursday afternoon, House Democrats voiced contempt for HB 3 on the south steps of the Capitol during a rally held by Black Voters Matter, a voting rights organization that claims it helped sway recent U.S. Senate elections in Alabama and Georgia.
Referring to confusion about which chamber wrote last-minute changes into the GOP-backed elections bill that died in the final days of the regular session, Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said the Republican legislators didn’t know what was in the bill because the legislation was written by national policy groups.
“This is not just a Texas fight,” Hinojosa said. “Texas is one of eight states targeted by the Heritage Foundation Republicans who want to take away your voice.”
The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. that took credit in May for overhauling elections laws in Georgia.
Elections laws aren’t the only national issue taking center stage in Texas.
During the rally, Dallas Democratic Rep. Toni Rose said she and other House Democrats would oppose proposals for more sweeping bans on teaching critical race theory in schools. More than half of U.S. states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict teaching critical race theory or limiting discussions of racism and sexism in the classroom.
“If Black children have to deal with racism, white children should be able to learn about it,” Rose said.
Abbott made critical race theory, already constrained by one bill he signed last month, one of the special session’s 11 agenda items. As of 4 p.m. Thursday, no bills had been filed on the subject.
Though Abbott unveiled his proclamation setting the agenda on Wednesday, he could add more items at any time during the 30-day session.