When Texas House Democrats concluded they could not halt the progress of a bill placing tighter restrictions on voting in Texas, more than 50 of them left Austin on Monday to block the bill. Most of them chartered a jet to Washington, D.C., where they spoke outside the U.S. Capitol Tuesday morning.
House Bill 3 — which passed in the Texas Senate Tuesday on a party line vote, but is set to die without a quorum in the House — would ban 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting, make it harder to vote by mail, increase the power of partisan poll watchers, and increase criminal penalties for voting mistakes. Democrats criticized the bill as voter suppression, and asked federal lawmakers to pass legislation that they say would protect voting rights in Texas and across the country.
“We also know that we are living right now on borrowed time in Texas, and we can’t stay here indefinitely to run out the clock, to stop Republican anti-voter bills,” said state Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Garland. “That’s why we need Congress to act now and pass the For the People Act.”
The U.S. House previously passed the For the People Act, which would overrule many of the restrictions currently being considered in Texas and those that have already passed in other states. U.S. Senate Republicans blocked the measure on a party-line vote, and that isn’t likely to change.
But the Texas elections bill is only one of 11 items on the special session agenda.
Bail reform — one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priorities for the special session, along with the elections bill — passed the Senate Tuesday. Senate Bill 6 would make it more difficult for some people to bond out of jail, and state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, called it a direct response to an increase in violent crime.
“We have failed our communities,” Huffman, the bill’s author, said in a hearing Saturday. “We have failed our citizens. Definitely, we have failed the victims. And it’s time to do something about it.”
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, is part of the current walkout which would kill that legislation, and helped lead a previous Democratic walkout in 2003. Unlike many of his colleagues, Coleman spoke to Houston Public Media from an undisclosed location in Texas, where he’s recovering from a partial leg amputation.
Coleman said the bail bill unfairly targets people who can’t afford to pay, and will die on the vine without House Democrat participation.
Critics have blamed “bail reform” for a rise in violent crime in Houston, though an independent monitor’s report found no increase in crime tied to people out on bail for misdemeanors. Many of those critics also point to people out on low bonds for felonies accused of reoffending.
“The make-everybody-pay-bail bill. So, people can’t be released on their own personal recognizance for nonviolent crimes as we have here in Harris County,” Coleman said. “And that’s basically what that bill is about. It’s about Harris County.”
Harris County currently operates under a federal consent decree that mandates bail reform for misdemeanors, after a court found the county’s misdemeanor bail practices unconstitutional. According to a federal judge, the system unfairly detained poor people while others who could afford bail were able to go free.
There has been no change to the county’s felony bail practices, though it is the subject of a similar, ongoing federal suit.
The walkout would also kill a bill that would force transgender kids to play on sports teams that align with their sex assigned at birth. That bill was already set to die in the regular session, before state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, revived the bill in what appeared to be retribution against fellow Democrats who failed to advance his own legislation.
Separate bills targeting transgender health care stalled in the regular session, and were not revived. The school sports bill will now likely meet the same fate.
“I don’t know why these folks have an obsession with transgender citizens,” Coleman said.
The Democrats have been roundly criticized for their walkout by Republicans. House Republicans accused the caucus of failing to do its job, while Abbott said he would call for as many special sessions as it took to pass the priority bills. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has vowed to pass the legislation over and over until it gets a vote in hte House.
The remaining Texas House members voted to send for the legislators — and if necessary, arrest them when they again come within state lines — in order to pass GOP priority legislation.
“Once they step back into the state of Texas they will be arrested and brought to the Texas Capitol, and we will be conducting business,” Abbott told Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Monday.
It’s not the first time this year that House Democrats have walked out. Lawmakers walked out of the House chambers in the closing hours of business of the regular session, killing a previous version of the voting bill.
In response, the governor vetoed funding for the Legislature, including pay and benefits for more than 2,100 state employees who support the Legislature’s work.
That, too, is now compromised: A bill to restore legislative funding stands to die without a vote in the Hosue. But that hasn’t stopped Democrats.
“When you start the process in such a coercive way, when you say, ‘I am going to be the absolute ruler of the state of Texas and defund the legislative branch,’ you have poisoned the entire process,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, speaking outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
House Democrats are counting on the Texas Supreme Court to overturn the governor’s veto, so they won’t have to, according to Rep. Coleman.
“The precedent in this country is separation of powers, in that you have an executive branch, a judicial branch, and a legislative branch,” Coleman said. “Everything in Texas statute and constitution says we have the same separation of powers as the Congress.”
Coleman said the plan is for House Democrats to stay away for the duration of the special session. But he added that what happens next is up to the governor.
“Remember that the State Senate, when they left to go to Albuquerque, they stayed away for 45 days back in 2003,” Coleman said. “So, preparation to run the clock out on this special session is part of the planning process. If the session ends in the beginning of August, then we’ll come back. If they call another session, then we’ll reassess it at that time.”
Additional reporting by Paul DeBenedetto.