The Lege This Week: Amid Pandemic, Abbott Prioritizes Red Meat

The governor continues his war on local control while protecting businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits.

Governor Greg Abbott gives his State of the State address on February 1, 2021.
Governor Greg Abbott gives his State of the State address on February 1, 2021. Via Office of the Texas Governor

The governor continues his war on local control while protecting businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits.

Governor Greg Abbott gives his State of the State address on February 1, 2021.
Governor Greg Abbott gives his State of the State address on February 1, 2021. Via Office of the Texas Governor

Welcome to the 87th Legislative Session. Since the last session came to a close in June 2019, Texas has been hit by an unrestrained pandemic and a crippling economic crisis. Now, under unprecedented circumstances, lawmakers are faced with a number of urgent challenges. The Texas Observer is following along every step of the way. 

Go here for last week’s dispatch from the state Capitol.

What We’re Following: 

With many parts of Texas still besieged by huge COVID-19 caseloads, a bungled vaccination rollout, and an unemployment rate unseen since the Great Recession, Governor Greg Abbott chose to paint a much rosier picture in his State of the State address Monday. 

“Texas remains the economic engine of America, the land of unmatched opportunity, and our comeback is already materializing. Texas has added new jobs for eight months in a row. … Texans are returning to work. Students are returning to school. Families are re-establishing routines,” Abbott said. 

“With each passing day of more vaccinations and increased immunity, normalcy is returning to Texas.” With his prologue about that pesky pandemic out of the way, Abbott went on to outline his political agenda for the 2021 session that consists largely of red meat for his party’s right-wing base.

He declared five “emergency items” that are the only items that the state Legislature can vote on in the first 60 days of the session. In addition to his call to expand broadband access across the state, Abbott’s items include punishing cities if they attempt to “defund the police.” The governor wants to overhaul statewide bail laws to keep “dangerous criminals off the street,” along with establishing “election integrity,” and providing sweeping liability protections for corporations faced with potential COVID-19-related lawsuits. 

State troopers guard the Capitol during protest against police brutality prompted by George Floyd's death in May 2020.
State troopers guard the Capitol during protest against police brutality prompted by George Floyd’s death in May 2020.  Michael Barajas

Ahead of the elections, Abbott demonized calls to “defund the police” and focused on his favorite political punching bag, Austin, whose city council voted over the summer to cut its police budget. Abbott has proposed harsh legislative responses, including a state takeover of the Austin Police Department, as well as vague measures that would freeze local property tax revenue and withhold sales tax revenue from cities that don’t adequately toe his pro-police line. Abbott’s also reviving his failed push from last session to enact his own version of bail “reform” that would effectively put him in charge of the state bail system. 

Abbott and other state leaders spent the weeks leading up to the 2020 election pushing back against every local attempt to make voting in a pandemic easier and safer, all while spreading misinformation about alleged, rampant, voter fraud. So it’s no surprise the governor made “election integrity” one of his emergency items. 

Several Republican lawmakers have already introduced election bills that would further restrict the mail ballot system and increase criminal penalties for voter fraud. Last session, Senate Republicans passed an “election integrity” bill that would raise criminal penalties for certain election-related offenses; establish stricter rules for assisting disabled, elderly, or absentee voters; and altogether increase the likelihood that people who mistakenly violate election laws face criminal prosecution. As we reported then, voting rights advocates warned that the bill would “sharply escalate an ongoing campaign of voter suppression.” While the bill died in the House, Abbott wants that same bill to be a starting point for lawmakers this session.

Lastly, the governor is calling on lawmakers to rush through legislation giving businesses immunity from potential COVID-19 lawsuits. Since the pandemic began, powerful corporate interests in Texas have pushed Republicans to protect them from such legal action, warning that a (yet-to-materialize) wave of frivolous lawsuits would cripple businesses. As we recently reported, it’s hard to quantify just how many Texans who had no choice but to work have died from COVID-19—and it’s even harder for their families to seek justice from negligent employers. Sweeping liability protection would only make that even more difficult.

If Abbott’s state of the state address is any indication, this session will be a stark departure from the bipartisan “kumbaya” session of 2019, when his emergency items included teacher pay raises, school safety, improving mental health resources, and Hurricane Harvey recovery aid. After holding onto power in the 2020 elections, Republicans are once again free to indulge the party’s right-wing impulses.

What We’re Reading:

Remnants of the makeshift memorial erected after the August 3, 2019 mass shooting at the Cielo Vista Walmart.  via Wikimedia Commons

After El Paso massacre, Gov. Greg Abbott signaled openness to gun control. Now, some worry he’s moved on.

In the wake of back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa in 2019, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick voiced tentative support for measures to strengthen the state’s gun control laws. But Abbott made no mention of the shootings or potential reforms in his state of the state address, instead declaring his intention to make Texas a “sanctuary state” for gun owners. This has gun-reform advocates concerned that Abbott is backtracking. / Texas Tribune

Buffeted by critics, Gov. Abbott moves to limit his own power in future disasters

Over the course of the pandemic, the governor has pushed the bounds of his emergency powers, sparking backlash from many in the Republican Party. Now, Abbott is saying he’s open to measures that would rein in his authority during disasters. / Houston Chronicle

Phelan on the House floor in 2019.  Kolten Parker

Speaker Dade Phelan shakes up Texas House leadership with new chairs on key committees

The new House speaker announced committee assignments on Thursday, which include a number of interesting changes to the powerful committees in charge of education, redistricting, appropriations, and state affairs. / Texas Tribune

All Hat, No Cattle

The Texas Legislature is known for its outlandish members, ludicrous antics, and right-wing flare-ups. Here’s your weekly dose.

On Tuesday afternoon, Republican Senator Charles Schwertner decided it was time to take a stand. Was it against the pandemic still running roughshod over his constituents? No. Against the societal scourge of sexual harassment? No. Rather, Schwertner’s bold stand was against housing the homeless. 

In a tweet, the senator announced he was “fighting back” against the City of Austin’s plan to convert a hotel in the northwest part of town into what’s called permanent supportive housing. The name is self-explanatory—it’s permanent housing, and support services are provided on-site—but the phrasing is apparently opaque to Schwertner, who claimed the plan was “without support or assistance.” Further, the senator seemed outraged by the concept that a city, such as Austin, can exist in multiple counties. In an attached press release, he said he was opposing “Austin’s plan to relocate homeless individuals to Williamson County.” 

By way of conclusion, the senator announced he’d be filing legislation to require cities to seek “advance notice and approval” from county commissioners courts before building housing for the homeless. After all, as any good Republican knows, the one thing our homeless services system needs is more bureaucracy. —Gus Bova

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Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].


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