The Texas Legislature’s regular session ended Monday. But lawmakers could be headed to a special session, in addition to the one focused on redistricting in the fall, after a last-minute effort by House Democrats prevented the passage of a controversial voting bill.
Madlin Mekelburg of the Austin American-Statesman and Jeremy Wallace of the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News spoke with Texas Standard about what happened over the weekend and about highlights from the entire 140-day session.
Tension Over Voting Bill
House Democrats walked out Sunday night in a last-minute effort to deprive the House of the quorum needed to vote on Senate Bill 7, which would have limited early voting, voting by mail and more, across the state. Wallace says Republicans had also added additional provisions late Saturday which, he says, “caught Democrats off-guard.” One provision would have reduced early voting on Sunday, which Wallace says one Democratic senator said would have specifically disenfranchised Black voters.
“That was a direct assault, according to state Sen. Royce West from Dallas,” Wallace said. “[West] said that was an attack on ‘souls to the polls,’ and clear the intent of the Republicans was to just really jam a bill that was just absolutely impossible for Democrats to accept.”
The 20-page addition to SB 7 would have also allowed the state to overturn an election if there was even a hint of fraud.
Gov. Abbott’s Response To Walkout
Mekelburg says Abbott tweeted, after the walkout, that he would veto the part of the state budget that funds lawmakers’ salaries.
If Abbott follows through on that threat, lawmakers would lose their modest $600-per-month salaries. But Mekelburg says the bigger consequence would be lost funding for other important bodies at the Capitol, including the Legislative Budget Board and the Sunset Advisory Commission.
“A lot of lawmakers kind of bristled at this threat from the governor and said, ‘you know, you’re going to make a monarchy if you get rid of this one arm of the Legislature,'” she said. “We haven’t seen that veto happen yet, but that’s definitely a threat that’s going to be looming as we move forward.”
Mekelburg says, rather than go through with the veto, Abbott is more likely to call an additional special session to address the voting bill and other priorities that didn’t succeed in the regular session.
Electric Grid Improvements
Lawmakers passed some bills providing funding for weatherization of Texas’ electric grid. But Mekelburg says it was much less than what many had hoped to achieve after February’s devastating and deadly winter storms. She says improving the grid will likely become a priority issue in a special legislative session.
‘Fetal Heartbeat’ Bill
Republicans successfully pushed through one of the strictest abortion bills in the county, and in Texas’ history. The so-called fetal heartbeat bill makes abortions illegal after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. In some cases, that can be as early as six weeks – a time when many women might not know that they are pregnant. It’s also a stage of gestation when the cardiovascular system is very immature. A UC San Francisco OB-GYN told Wired Magazine in 2019 that what can be detected that early is more of “a group of cells with electrical activity.”
Local Versus State Jurisdiction
Mekelburg says lawmakers passed bills to restrict some of the more controversial practices by liberal-leaning cities over the last year. That includes restricting public camping statewide and penalizing cities for so-called defunding police departments, or redirecting police funding to other programs – both things for which the governor has come down hard on the city of Austin.
Wallace says gun legislation stood out to him. Texas passed so-called constitutional or “permitless” carry, which allows anyone 21 years or older who doesn’t have a criminal record to carry a gun without a permit. Wallace says the legislation has been a priority of conservatives for years.
“Now Texas will allow anybody to carry a gun [with] no safety requirements, no training,” Wallace said.
Three bills aimed at transgender youth failed. One would have prevented transgender girls from playing on girls’ school sports teams. Another would have revoked medical licenses for physicians providing gender-affirming health care to children. The last bill would have deemed it child abuse for a parent to help their child get the medical care needed to transition. Wallace says these were “huge issues” for Senate Republicans but didn’t gain the same momentum in the House.
“The House just wouldn’t go there,” he said. “Once again, Republicans pushed this, but it was just one bridge too far.”