Matthew Busch

The Lege This Week: Behind Closed Doors

With the end of session near, Texas lawmakers descend into the backrooms of the Capitol to hash out hugely consequential legislation.

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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—and now the fallout from deadly blackouts. 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:

For all their harping about Governor Greg Abbott’s excessive use of power during the pandemic, the Legislature has all but ensured that he’ll have the final say on how Texas will use its huge share of federal aid and stimulus funds. Over the past month, a conference of House and Senate appropriators met behind closed doors to iron out their budget differences. It was more axe than iron. 

The most significant difference in the two chambers’ budget plans were two House provisions relating to how the state spends that federal money. The House budget mandated that the Legislature sign off on how the state uses its billions in federal COVID-19 relief and stimulus funds. At the urging of public school advocates, the House also added a provision requiring that federal funds earmarked for Texas schools go directly to local districts. Last summer, Abbott and top legislative leaders opted to use about $1.3 billion in federal aid funds to replace the state’s share of school spending, which translated to school districts getting next to no extra aid. 

But when the budget deal emerged on Wednesday, the two House provisions had been stripped, all but ensuring that Abbott—in concert with top legislative leaders— will once again determine how all that money is spent. Once a budget deal is struck, it typically sails through final votes in the House and Senate on its way to the governor’s desk. Abbott will be free to again use the roughly $6 billion in remaining federal school aid, meant to help students catch up, to offset the state’s own budget commitments.

abbott, legislature
Governor Greg Abbott delivers a speech to the Texas Senate on the opening day of the 86th Legislature.  Kolten Parker

The apparent power grab has some House members and education advocates feeling burned. “The disrespect shown will put us in a special session,” Representative Lyle Larson, a moderate Republican from San Antonio, tweeted. The Texas State Teachers Association issued a statement urging Abbott to use all the funds to supplement school districts’ budgets. Every penny of the stimulus funds must be allocated to Texas’ public schools to keep classrooms safe, recoup financial losses from the pandemic, and help students recover from learning losses.” 

On Thursday evening, the Governor’s Office emailed lawmakers a statement from Abbott promising that the fall special session for redistricting will also include allocating those federal recovery funds, which means the state will sit on the aid for at least four more months. 

School leaders are also sounding the alarm about Republican Senator Larry Taylor’s last-minute push to put more restraints on school districts’ federal aid, capping the share of funds that they can spend over the next three years at 60 percent. The measure was tacked onto a school finance bill and would hit large urban school districts hard, wreaking havoc on their finances and disrupting their plans to help students catch up. Meanwhile, small rural districts would be exempted. Taylor says he merely wants schools to take more time and ensure they spend their extra allowance “wisely.” 

Republicans have already passed many of their top legislative priorities, including a draconian near-total ban on abortions, which Abbott signed into law Wednesday at a ceremony that press were blocked from, surrounded by dozens of gleeful Republican legislators and one Democrat, Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., who voted for the bill. 

But, with less than two weeks left, there’s still plenty of consequential legislation that lawmakers are trying to rush through—and much of this is happening behind closed doors. In the final days of session, House and Senate conference committees are negotiating major legislation in the backrooms of the Capitol. Out of the public eye, lawmakers, at the behest of powerful special interests and political factions, can make bad bills even worse, and gut, water-down, or maim good bills. 

Currently, the House and Senate are sorting out their respective omnibus voting restrictions bills, which feature some stark differences after Democrats successfully tempered some of the most harmful aspects of the House version, including provisions that further criminalized voting law violations. Same with the permitless carry legislation, as Republicans try to overcome disagreements over amendments—including barring permitless carry for people recently convicted of certain crimes—that were attached in the Senate. 

The House will soon vote on their compromise version of Senate Bill 3, which is the main package of electric grid reforms, before it heads to conference committee. The legislation is supposed to prevent future deadly blackouts similar to those that devastated Texas in February. But the oil and gas industry, which raked in billions of dollars during the crisis, has already succeeded in weakening proposed regulations, including mandatory weatherization standards. 

A slew of right-wing priorities could also be rushed through during in the final days of session, including anti-trans bills, a ban on “taxpayer-funded” lobbyists, overhauling state bail law to keep more Texans in jail if they can’t afford to post cash bonds, an anti-social media censorship bill, a toothless bill to curb the pandemic powers of the governor and local officials, and a bill that would require professional sports teams to play the national anthem.  

A bitter, albeit brief, standoff between the Senate and House almost derailed many of those Thursday. Several state representatives accused Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of stalling many of their bipartisan priority bills on criminal justice reform and health care. In retaliation, the House adjourned for two days, imperiling a handful of Patrick’s own priority legislation in the lower chamber. Within a few hours, the Senate Jurisprudence Committee—where many of the criminal justice bills were stuck—convened and began quickly working through a list of House bills. The House, in turn, scheduled three of Patrick’s prized base-pleaser bills for debate on Monday, including the Star Spangled Banner bill, the social media censorship bill, and the limit on “taxpayer-funded” lobbyists.

What We’re Reading

Greg Abbott signs extreme six-week abortion ban into law, puts enforcement in the hands of private citizens 

On Wedneday, Abbott signed into law one of the most extreme abortion bans in the U.S., amounting to a near-total prohibition. All despite strong opposition from the medical and legal communities, who warn the legislation could topple the state’s court system and already fragile reproductive health care network. / The Guardian 

‘Collective amnesia’: Texas politicians knowingly blew 3 chances to fix the failing power grid

In the wake of each power failure, or near-failure, over the past decade, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly stood at a fork in the road. In one direction lay government intervention that would strengthen the state’s power system. The other direction continued Texas’ hands-off regulatory approach, leaving it to the for-profit energy companies to decide how to protect the power grid. In each instance, lawmakers left the state’s lightly regulated energy markets alone, choosing cheap electricity over a more stable system. / Houston Chronicle

How House Democrats tempered a GOP bill that makes it harder to vote

While the House debated its main “election integrity” bill, three Democrats and five Republicans sat in a conference room off the floor negotiating substantial changes in the bill, including ones to lessen proposed criminal penalties for unintentional voter fraud and to protect caregivers of the disabled and elderly from being prosecuted for what otherwise would be the new crime of helping someone to vote. The Democrats knew they could not stop passage of Senate Bill 7, but felt they could make it “less bad.” / Texas Monthly 

‘This program is run amok’: Texas lawmakers criticize costly tax incentive program

Amid growing criticism and investigative exposés, Texas senators on the Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee called for wide-ranging reforms to the state’s largest corporate tax incentive program, which has ballooned in lifetime costs surpassing $10 billion and is set to expire at the end of 2022. (Read the Observer’s latest investigation into Chapter 313 here) / Houston Chronicle

Texas Senate overwhelmingly approves bill shielding trucking companies from lawsuits if their driver hits you 

The corporate-backed tort reform lobby’s top legislative priority is on its way to the governor’s desk after receiving unanimous support—including all 13 Democrats—in the Texas Senate. After the unanimous vote, Houston’s Democratic Senator Borris Miles changed his vote to ‘No.’ / KXAN

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.

Earlier this week, Dan Patrick reportedly refused to advance any House bills until the House advanced one of his pet bills, the “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act,” which would require professional sports teams that have state contracts to play the national anthem before every game. Patrick made the measure one of his top priorities for this session after Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban briefly considered ending the team’s pre-game performance of the national anthem. 

In response to Patrick’s hostage act, the House state affairs committee promptly held a hearing on and approved the measure. Even then, House bills—like extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers from two months to one year after birth—still didn’t move in the Senate. Only after the House threatened to kill Patrick’s government-mandated patriotism recital—among his other pet bills—did the Senate start moving popular House bills in committee. 

Of course, good things rarely come when the Texas Senate jumps into action. GOP Senator Lois Kolkhorst, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, announced changes to the House Medicaid bill, cutting the expanded coverage for moms down to six months.