Texas Republicans seal their shift to the right as third special session nears end

The session is focused on approving new district maps. Gov. Greg Abbott is also pressuring lawmakers to pass his priorities.

By Jill Ament & Laura RiceOctober 14, 2021 12:27 pm, , ,

The third Texas special legislative session ends Tuesday at midnight. It has long been on the books as a time for lawmakers to redraw district maps based on new census data. The process heavily favors Republicans, as they hold the majority in both chambers.

But redistricting is not the only item on the agenda. Gov. Greg Abbott continues to push the Legislature to pass priority items including a ban affecting student athletes who are transgender. Another last-minute addition to the session would exempt most Texas workers from vaccine requirements enacted by their employers.

“This was really a dramatic year of movement to the right,” Bob Garrett, Dallas Morning News Austin Bureau Chief told the Standard.

Houston Chronicle capitol reporter Taylor Goldenstein agrees this was an historic moment for Texas conservatives.

For a more detailed breakdown of action during the third special session of the 87th Legislature, listen to the player above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: Where do lawmakers stand with redistricting? that was supposed to be job No. 1, right?

Taylor Goldenstein: Right. The Senate is through three of the four [maps]. They’ve looked at Senate boundaries and congressional boundaries and the Board of Education, whereas the House, just yesterday, passed its House boundaries, but still needs to get through the Senate congressional and Board of Education [maps].

What about congressional and state Senate maps? What how would you describe the progress so far?

Bob Garrett: I think those are the most aggressive Republican grabs. I think the Texas House map is less aggressive, but on the congressional map, as you know, they are really reducing the number of competitive districts and doing a lot to move the the number of Republicans to 24 of the 38 seats. And in the Senate, they’re gaining and taking away this Democratic seat near Fort Worth. The House, they seem to have been more into incumbent protection, and protecting Republican House members. But in doing so, paring some Republicans, which they do because Republicans control rural Texas and its losing population. But they also have taken advantage of some retirements and thrown Democrats some bones.

What are you hearing when it comes to pushback from Democrats?

Goldenstein: Like with the other maps, like Bob is saying, there’s this kind of a common accusation that the Republicans didn’t take into account the changes that Texas saw that were primarily driven by people of color. And so I think we’ll continue to see them drill that point home, and [holding] hearings, setting up what will likely be a legal battle to come. [00:03:00][19.4]

But the special session is almost over. It’s set to end at midnight on Tuesday, right?

Garrett: There has been a lot of speculation that we weren’t going to get it done and we’re going to go into the year’s fourth special session. Yesterday, there was some glimmer of hope that they might finish everything by Tuesday night. You know, they’ve got a half-dozen or more other things bubbling around besides redistricting.

We need to touch on those. But how are they going to finish these maps? Are they going to work through the weekend?

Garrett: That would be just amazing to see them work through the weekend. They’ve kind of gotten in this rhythm in the special session of going home for the weekend. So I’m kind of making fun of them, but I think there’s a good likelihood they may have to work this weekend.

Gov. Abbott had other priorities this session, including a measure that would prohibit transgender student athletes from playing on public school sports teams that don’t align with their sex assigned at birth. A House version of this measure is supposed to be taken up on the House floor today. Does it look like it’s going to pass?

Goldenstein: Definitely. There’s been strong pushback. If you ask me, toward the beginning of the session, I would have said it was more of a toss-up. It’s been a little bit unclear whether the House wanted this measure. But at this point it’s so far down the line and on the House floor, it looks pretty poised to pass.

Garrett: I think Speaker Dade Phelan had said weeks ago that it would pass the House. I think you’ll see a lot of amendments today from Democrats, but this one looks like it’s a done deal.

Gov. Abbott is adding a last-minute item that would exempt most of the state’s workforce from vaccine requirements enacted by their employers. But didn’t he just issue an executive order? Does he not think that’s enough when it comes to these mandates against mandates? 

Garrett: The reception the governor has gotten from business groups has not been applause. This was not something they were seeking. This is something really sought out by a minority of Republican primary voters [who] are passionate and are listening to Fox News and other news channels and just are adamant against any coercion of the vaccine. And this is really causing problems with a lot of mixed signals for businesses who had been sort of happy, most of them, to say, oh, well. Biden’s administration is making us do this, so we just have to go along. Now, there’s just a lot of confusion.

Goldenstein: That’s what I’m hearing as well. Even Republicans who seemed like they were supportive of the idea during a committee hearing yesterday also expressed concerns like Bob is bringing up about the conflict it creates with federal guidelines.

This has got to confound the process of redistricting, which, again, was supposed to be the prime reason for the third special session. Are there other items that lawmakers are trying to get through in these final days?

Garrett: They’re trying to pass a small property tax break using some of the state surplus. They’re trying to spend the $16 billion in Joe Biden federal relief money. They are trying to take care of dogs and make sure they’re not tethered inhumanely. They’ve got a lot on their plate. Oh, and we didn’t even mention illegal voting penalties.

Illegal voting penalties? Say more about that.

Goldenstein: That actually came also pretty last minute from Gov. Abbott after the big election bill that was so controversial in the beginning of this summer [that] actually lowered the penalty for illegal voting from a second-degree felony to a misdemeanor. And that, again, was something that really bothered some of the people on the on the right, and was brought to his attention by some of those grassroots groups. And he put it on the agenda this session to to reverse that change.

What were some of the highlights and lowlights of this legislative year?

Garrett: It was a year moving really to the right. They may end their work Tuesday, but not all of those items we’ve talked about will necessarily get across the finish line. But redistricting has to get done. A lot of the other stuff doesn’t have to get done. But this was really a dramatic year of movement to the right. I think you saw, it’s such a contrast to 2019, which came after the Beto O’Rourke Democratic surge of 2018 and 2019 [which] was all about pragmatics and governing and let’s fix the schools. This year, after surviving the Democrats’ attempt to take the Texas House last fall, the Republicans feeling their oats, but then Gov. Abbott getting primaried by people to his right set in motion a dynamic. The abortion thing will be a big story for years to come in Texas, and I think these redistricting maps are going to lock in some Republican majorities for at least several years. So the Republican governance has moved significantly to the right.

Taylor, what are your takeaways?

Goldenstein: I would agree with Bob. I think you will look back in history and think this was kind of a moment for conservatives who went through some scares and came out victorious, and brought that confidence forward into 2021.

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