Special Session Will Be A ‘Test of Wills’

Political deadlock during the regular session brings lawmakers back to the pink dome to pass a critical ‘sunset’ bill.

By Jill Ament & Rhonda FanningJune 7, 2017 12:52 pm

What the New York Times is calling one of Texas’ “most tumultuous political moments in decades” is set to play out in a special session announced by Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday.

Lawmakers will return to the Capitol on July 18 for a 30-day special session, the first one Abbott has called during his time as governor.

Abbot identified 19 items he wants legislators to address, but only after they approve a “sunset bill” they failed to pass during the regular session. The bill would keep several crucial state agencies from closing, including the Texas Medical Board, which licenses and oversees medical professionals.

“[The medical board] got caught up in the politics of the session,” says Republican strategist Deirdre Delisi. She says the medical board can be a contentious issue for the Legislature since it brings up a host of other social issues, including abortion.

Delisi says the Legislature’s failure to pass the sunset legislation was seen as a way to force a special session.

“It was done in such a way that you really couldn’t go without a Texas Medical Board and all the laws that are associated with it, so the Legislature was going to have to come in and deal with it,” she says.

Democratic analyst Harold Cook says that passing this piece of legislation could hold up legislators from addressing the other 19 items, which include school finance reform, a property tax rollback measure, private school vouchers for special-needs students and a revised version of the “bathroom bill.”

“You can pass a scheduling bill, which is really simple – it just continues the operation of the agency and the laws that regulate that agency,” Cook says. “Or you can choose to go ahead and take a deep dive into how that agency regulates, and that gets into a whole bunch of social issues that a lot of Republicans and conservatives would love and everybody else would hate.”

Delisi says that if the sunset bill becomes “a magnet for all these social issues,” the state could find itself without a medical board because it takes 90 days for a bill to go into effect.

The “bathroom bill” is one of Abbott’s most controversial agenda items, and it could lead him to call additional special sessions.

“This is going to be a test of wills,” Delisi says. “[Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick] has been very clear about his position on that bill and what he believes the House is willing to accept, which was the compromised House language that they put in a different bill during the session that was not acceptable to the governor.”

She says the fate of the bill will likely come down to just how far Abbott is willing to push this particular issue.

“Is he willing to keep on calling the Legislature into special session on that issue, because that’s where people will eventually start wearing down and you may see some movement,” Delisi says.

“I don’t believe the governor intends to call another special session if he doesn’t have to,” Cooks says. “And if that’s the case, I think it empowers [House Speaker Joe] Straus and a lot of the House members to do exactly what they did in the regular session, which was to kill a lot of this legislation and to moderate other of the legislation.”

Some of the 19 agenda items would directly impact Austin, leading Texas Standard listener MCFischer to write in and ask:

Governor Abbott has just called for a continuance of the session to pass additional legislation, some of which is aimed specifically at Austin. Would love to hear a session… addressing the question of why Abbott hates Austin so much. It sounds like a personal vendetta. What’s the story?

Delisi says anti-Austin legislation in the Capitol predates Abbott and goes back to when Democrats controlled the state.

“I think there is frankly a political advantage for the governor to focus a lot of energy and focus at the Legislature on some of these anti-business over-regulatory actions that the Austin City Council has been taking lately,” she says. “It’s a very liberal city, and with a conservative governor and a conservative state, it’s good politics.”

Cook says while Abbott’s anti-Austin sentiment may be good politics, it’s “not good news.”

“[City council members] are people who were duly elected by Austin residents. It’s not like they were appointed by some absentee rulers somewhere,” he says. “Austin residents chose their leadership and this is what Austin leadership has chosen in turn to do.”


Written by Molly Smith.