Chuck Lindell and Nicole Cobler Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas — Ending a turbulent 140-day ride, the Texas Legislature gaveled its 87th regular session to a close Monday after a chaotic Memorial Day weekend — and the prospect of more to come with at least one special session in sight.
Then, with the House adjourned and the senators eating lunch together, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he will veto funding for the Legislature in the budget recently approved by lawmakers in retaliation for Democrats’ walking out of the Capitol the night before to kill an elections bill he strongly favored.
“No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” Abbott said on Twitter. “Stay tuned.”
The governor’s announcement roiled the Legislature’s closing day, a largely ceremonial affair featuring speeches and recognitions that had appeared little affected by the previous night’s dramatic quorum break by Democrats.
Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said he won’t miss the $600 a month that lawmakers earn, “but there are thousands of workers here with families to support.”
In addition to providing salaries for lawmakers and legislative employees, the budget pays for agencies that support efforts at the Capitol, including the Legislative Budget Board, Legislative Council and the state auditor’s office.
“This is petty and tone-deaf even for Texas,” Wu added. “Punishing working-class office staff, maintenance and other support services because he didn’t get every single one of his demands is very on-brand for Texas Republicans.”
It was a fittingly tumultuous end to a tumultuous session that saw Republicans pursue an aggressively conservative agenda, steamrolling Democrats to deliver victories on abortion, gun rights, a camping ban and “defund the police” movements — the latter two issues a direct swipe at Austin and its progressive leaders.
Senate Republicans also employed a little-used parliamentary maneuver to save a GOP bill limiting the way race can be taught in schools, approving House Bill 3979 on the session’s 137th day even though the Texas Constitution prohibits passage after the 135th day.
Outnumbered Democrats scratched out victories where they could, employing late-session delaying tactics to halt passage of GOP bills targeting transgender youths, voting restrictions and limitations on bail, knowing any victory could be short-lived with a Republican governor able to reset deadlines by calling a special session.
And indeed, after House Democrats killed a comprehensive rewrite of state election laws by abandoning the Capitol to break quorum, Abbott announced that “election integrity and bail reform” — along with other unspecified priority items — will be included in an as yet unscheduled special session.
Though Abbott didn’t discuss timing, a special session was already expected later this year to redraw political boundaries based on U.S. Census Bureau data to be released in August and to allocate roughly $16 billion in federal coronavirus relief money.
“Let’s have a restful, peaceful summer and hopefully be back here in the fall,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said before quickly adding: “But that’s not my decision.
That’s someone else’s decision.”
“I normally say I’ll see you in 18 months, but I might see you in 18 days or so,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said shortly before banging the session’s final gavel.
During the day’s session-closing events, the House and Senate adopted separate Memorial Day resolutions honoring soldiers who died in the line of duty, with Rep. Richard Pena Raymond, D-Laredo, striking a conciliatory tone while about a dozen military veterans in the House stood behind him.
“I want to take a moment in remembering over 1 million Americans who have died so that we can be here today, so that we can debate, so that we can argue,” Raymond said. “We have agreed so many more times than we disagree.”
Many House members also rallied behind Phelan, who came under attack by some members of the right wing of his party and by Patrick, who blamed poor House leadership for leaving GOP priorities vulnerable to Democratic delaying tactics.
“Thanks for standing up for the Texas House,” said Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi. “Thanks for bringing integrity to the Texas House.”
Phelan thanked House members for supporting many of his legislative priorities, including extending Medicaid coverage for new moms and addressing the February freeze that knocked out power for millions of Texans.
“Last night was an interesting night, to say the least,” Phelan said. “No matter the external forces that tried to distract us or diminish the work of this body, we are the Texas House. In this House, we work hard — and our rules matter. Our rules matter.”
In the Senate, Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, was selected to serve as the body’s president pro tem until the next regular session begins in 2023. It’s a largely ceremonial job that nonetheless places her second in the line of succession for the governor, behind only the lieutenant governor. She’ll also serve as Texas governor when Abbott and Patrick are out of state.
“We are chosen leaders of this great state of Texas at a time of great challenges. We came into our position, our position of leadership, for a time such as this,” said Campbell, wearing her signature yellow while fellow senators wore yellow roses in her honor. “We together, we will keep Texas strong.”
Senators were able to sit with family members at their desks, a marked difference from the austere and quick gathering to open the session Jan. 12 amid a worsening pandemic.
Near-record highs of 22,100 new COVID-19 cases and 360 deaths were reported that day, prompting the adoption of ad hoc safety measures that included mandatory face masks, enforced social distancing and limits on attendance at committee meetings and in the galleries overlooking the House and Senate.
As vaccinations and other steps took a significant bite out of the COVID-19 numbers, House leaders began relaxing rules, removing their mask mandate and allowing reporters to once again observe from the floor, though in limited numbers.
The Senate, however, set up stricter rules and enforced them throughout the session — requiring a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination to enter the Senate chamber, committee hearing rooms or the gallery and keeping reporters off the floor, though a mask mandate was eventually lifted.
The approach prompted Sid Miller, the state’s elected agriculture commissioner, to sue Patrick and the Senate to overturn rules as a violation of free speech and the right to petition the government for those who decline to receive a COVID-19 vaccination and object to tests for the coronavirus as invasive.
A Travis County judge tossed out the lawsuit, but Miller’s stand, plus his vocal opposition to Abbott’s since-rescinded pandemic orders that restricted business operations and required masks in public areas, raised questions about his political aspirations.
Though unusual, the lawsuit became merely a footnote to an unusual regular session.