With the close of this year’s third special legislative session late Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott has succeeded in pushing most of his agenda through the House and Senate. Redistricting was the main event during the most recent session, and new maps aimed at preserving Republican power have been sent to the governor’s desk. The maps face a number of legal challenges. Other items approved by lawmakers ranged from a measure to protect dogs from harmful restraints to a bill prohibiting the participation of transgender student athletes on teams that don’t align with their sex assigned at birth.
Sarah Self-Walbrick is a reporter at Texas Tech Public Media and Cassi Pollock is state politics reporter for The Texas Tribune. Both have been covering the special session. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about what did and didn’t pass during the third special session.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: I guess the bills that had to pass were the new political maps, right? Tell us about what the final versions look like.
Cassi Pollock: Definitely the biggest issue on lawmakers plates over the past roughly 30 days was redrawing the state’s Congressional, State House, State Senate and State Board of Education maps. Those maps were going to be drawn using the latest census data, which was delayed largely due to the pandemic. That data showed that people of color fueled about 95% of the state’s population growth over the past decade. The new maps [that are] heading to the governor’s desk, are focused largely on solidifying the GOP stronghold across the state and protecting incumbents. There aren’t really any new districts that were drawn in which a majority of the eligible voters in that district are voters of color.
And it will continue to play out. There’s already a legal challenge, right?
Pollock: There is already a legal challenge. Yes. And I think more [challenges are] expected. [That] is just the conventional wisdom out there. Every redistricting process is typically quite bitter and polarizing. And yesterday the first federal lawsuit was filed and it was filed in El Paso. And it’s essentially challenging that the Legislature’s new districts for the State Board of Education, as well as some of the other new maps, discriminate against voters of color of the state.
Sarah, you’ve been reporting on the redistricting process from Lubbock and how the changes would alter the political landscape in more rural parts of Texas. How would the maps that got passed do that?
Sarah Self-Walbrick: The maps all around will keep Republicans in power for the next decade. And so in my neck of the state, the big story is that our districts had to get bigger. So pretty much the only rules lawmakers had to follow during this redistricting process [were] about population. And despite the narrative elsewhere in the state where we did see population increases, that wasn’t the story up here. And so our already geographically sprawling districts just got bigger. I think congressional District 13, is probably one of the better examples. That’s going to stretch from Dalhart up in the northwest corner of the state all the way down to Denton, which is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. That’s over 400 miles between those.
I listened to a lot of citizen testimony throughout this process. And I think whether it was concern in the urban areas, of your representative not representing your specific interests, we heard the same thing in the rural areas. It all comes down to possible dilution of representation and people wanting to make sure that they have who they need down in Austin.
We should point out that the reason the maps turned out this way was because the party in power – in this case the GOP – wanted to solidify their stronghold across the state and protect incumbents as much as possible. That happens in redistricting fights. The final hours also saw passage of one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s top priorities, dealing with the homestead exemption tax. What is that and what happens next?
Pollock: The measure was essentially filed in the 11th hour of the special session. It came after negotiations appeared to reach a standstill on the broader issue of property tax relief. So what lawmakers essentially did is [to] pass a constitutional amendment that would raise the state’s homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000 for school district property taxes. That would net the average homeowner about $176 in savings on their annual property tax bill. This issue will get put to Texas voters on the May ballot. [They] will get to decide whether homeowners will get that trim in their property tax bills. And one other note on this new proposal is that it would cost the state more than $600 million annually if this measure does end up getting approved at the ballot box.
Over the weekend, a measure that would prohibit trans youth playing on public school sports teams that align with their gender identity also cleared both chambers. That was a consistent priority for Gov. Abbott this year. Sarah, were you hearing a lot about that bill where you are?
Self-Walbrick: We heard quite a bit of this. So this bill has a long history this session. This one played out throughout the past few months. It was initially led by Lubbock-area state Sen. Charles Perry, who was an advocate for this legislation. He described the bill as transformational, and a way to keep school sports fair. Critics say that it unfairly targets kids who already deal with a lot. There’s been plenty of critique that this is just the latest iteration of a Republican priority. It’s unclear what the enforcement of this bill will look like on a more local practical level, but it’s headed to the governor’s desk now.
Gov. Abbott got most of what he wanted, but some things didn’t quite make it through. Cassie, are there any that you want to note?
Pollock: Most of Abbott’s agenda items for this most recent special session were sent to his desk for signature. However, state lawmakers did not really really bite on his issue to advance legislation to prohibit vaccine mandates by any Texas entity, which would have included hospitals and private businesses. Abbott’s executive order banning the vaccine mandate is still in effect, but lawmakers chose to not pass legislation, essentially codifying that.
House members also did not take any interest in taking up Abbott’s issue to increase the penalty for illegal voting. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed that sweeping elections bill that will reduce the penalty for illegal voting from a second degree felony to a Class A misdemeanor. That’s going to be effective in December, but in late September, Abbott, who had already signed the bill into law, asked lawmakers to reverse that change. Lawmakers did not. You had support in the Senate, which rallied behind Abbott’s call and pushed through a bill rather quickly. And then House Speaker Dade Phelan hit the brakes on the measure, saying that the chamber was not interested in relitigating the issue, and instead wanted to focus on that redistricting process and property tax relief.
It’s been a long legislative season. Is it now over, over? What are you hearing about a fourth special session? Is that a possibility?
Self-Walbrick: I think Abbott’s been kind of coy about this so far. We haven’t heard an official yes or no from him, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan have indicated that thitat doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. But I don’t think it’s over until it’s over.
Cassi, what do you think?
Pollock: I completely agree. The governor so far has not really given any indication of whether he plans to call lawmakers back for another special session, either later this year or maybe even early next year, heading into primary season. Abbott was speaking at an an event with the Kingwood Tea Party in the Houston suburbs late Monday night, and one of our Tribune reporters was able to ask him if he thought that a fourth special session would be necessary. And Abbott just said “have a nice day,” before moving on.
To Sarah’s point, I think that there’s certainly not much of an appetite left in either of the two chambers to remain in Austin for another 30 days, at any point in the near future, given that they just wrapped up month 10 of this, essentially.