In a bid to quickly pass all 20 items on Governor Greg Abbott’s special session agenda, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has put the Texas Senate into overdrive — and outnumbered Democrats have been powerless to stop him. This week, Patrick’s chamber suspended multiple rules, held a midnight session to rush necessary “sunset” bills and scheduled committee hearings to run all weekend long on bills that weren’t yet publicly available.
Patrick took control of the media narrative early Thursday morning, when he made a show of delivering pizza and soda to lawmakers. “Pizza at midnight? Dan Patrick’s buying,” gushed one headline. But the stunt didn’t impress leading Democrats, who say his tactics are undermining the democratic process.
“They’re not affording sufficient time to senators or the public to know what it is they’re up to,” Senator José Rodríguez, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, told the Observer. “And it’s important for people to be prepared to address particular bills when the hearing comes, so it’s not acceptable. The bottom line is this is subverting the deliberative process.”
On Friday morning, the Senate held committee hearings for a number of controversial measures, including the “bathroom bill,” anti-abortion measures and school vouchers. The hearings on the highly contentious bills — announced Wednesday afternoon — were scheduled almost simultaneously, meaning activists, lawmakers and media had to pick which was more important.
“It’s going to make it harder, not only for the public but for us senators. … I can’t be in all three hearings at the same time,” said Rodríguez, of El Paso. “I think they were very consciously and deliberately set consecutive … to have the effect of denying people adequate participation.”
Patrick did not respond to a request for comment, but he gave reporters the following explanation Wednesday: “It’s a hurry because we have 30 days and 20 bills. And you know I like to work fast. … Our goal is to have all 20 passed sometime mid-to-the-end of next week.”
Rodríguez twice tried to slow the chamber down using a parliamentary move known as “tagging” — essentially a request for 48 hours notice before a public hearing on a certain bill. Democrats were hoping the normally uncontroversial tactic could stall the Legislature’s action on red-meat issues like the “bathroom bill.”
Abbott, who sets the agenda for the special session, required the Senate to pass the “sunset” measures — legislation to reauthorize essential state agencies like the Texas Medical Board — before he added the 19 other, more controversial items to the call. So on Tuesday, Rodríguez first attempted the maneuver on the “sunset” bills.
But GOP senators, who have a supermajority, voted to retroactively suspend the “tag rule,” thwarting his effort — something 30-year-veteran Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she’d never seen happen before.
“To vote to do the people’s business without the people’s input is wrong and un-Texan,” Senator Sylvia Garcia, chair of the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus, told reporters Tuesday.
Early Thursday morning, Rodríguez tried the same tagging maneuver on 11 other bills, including the “bathroom bill” and school vouchers. Garcia noted from the floor that some of the bills were filed so recently that the language wasn’t even available yet.
“The public has no notice; our staff can’t get a copy of the bill,” she said. “Isn’t it required by the rules, before we take any action on the bill that we actually have a bill that exists?”
But Republicans voted again to suspend the tag rule, and the bills rushed on to committee, which Rodríguez called “a dangerous trend to subvert the rights of the minority and the rights of the public in order to accomplish their partisan goals.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Joe Straus has signaled he won’t be mimicking Patrick’s urgency.
“This isn’t a race,” he told reporters Thursday. “The House is going to give full consideration to the priorities here.”