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:
The Capitol’s Toxic Culture
News broke last weekend that the Texas Department of Public Safety was investigating an allegation that a legislative staffer had been drugged by a lobbyist who works for one of the most powerful firms in Austin. On Thursday, DPS and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office announced in a statement that DPS conducted its investigation and that “we have concluded that there is not enough evidence to support these allegations and that criminal charges are not appropriate. No crime occurred in this instance.”
The allegations had prompted several lawmakers to ban lobbyists from that firm—or lobbyists altogether—from visiting their offices this week. But many who work at the Capitol said that there must be a bigger reckoning with the Capitol’s longstanding toxic culture of sexism, discrimination, and harassment. “Legislators banning this lobbyist and his firm is not enough. Change the culture,” San Antonio Representative Ina Minjarez tweeted on Sunday. “Ensure she receives full support & the services she needs. Invest in the safety of our staffers & believe them if they ever outcry.”
Amid national wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations in 2017, theTexas House instituted a new policy that formalized the process for filing complaints. After serious allegations of sexual misconduct against two Democratic state Senators in 2017, the Texas Senate slow-walked a review of its policy. Still, sexual harassment complaints are rarely ever filed, in large part because staffers fear that they’ll face retaliation or there will be no consequences. No senators called for the resignation of Senators Borris Miles or Carlos Uresti after the 2017 allegations; Miles is still in office. State Senator Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican, was stripped of a committee chairmanship amid a sexual harassment allegation in 2019; this session, he was named chair of another committee.
“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around the Capitol,” Speaker Dade Phelan said in a speech on the House floor this week. “We can and must do better when it comes to changing the culture in this building.” He ordered the House to create an email hotline to report sexual misconduct, among other changes. Representative Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat who has spoken about her own experience being harassed by a male colleague, filed a bill this week that would require lobbyists to receive sexual harassment training.
What’s in Dan Patrick’s Hat?
After the House passed a measure to allow most people to carry guns without a permit a couple weeks ago, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said he supported the legislation but didn’t think it had the votes in the upper chamber. The Senate version of permitless carry had languished in the State Affairs Committee, leading many to believe the cause was dead. Then, last Friday, Patrick created the Special Committee on Constitutional Issues and stacked it with members who support permitless carry.
The House promptly referred its permitless carry bill to the new committee, and the panel chair, Schwertner, scheduled a hearing. Dozens of people—many of them gun-rights advocates—lined up to attend the hearing. At the start of the hearing, Schwertner pronounced that the bill would be approved by the end of the day and would get a vote on the Senate floor next week. Of Patrick’s assessment that the bill didn’t have enough Republican support, he said: “I personally refuse to accept that.”
In an interview with former NRA spokesperson and conservative radio host Dana Loesch, Patrick said he was “still a few short” on the necessary votes but that he was “optimistic” he’d whip enough support by the time it reaches the floor next week. Patrick said six Republicans supported it, six against it, and another six were still on the fence. “It’s rare that I do this. Usually if you don’t have the votes for a bill, you don’t bring up a bill that’s going to lose,” Patrick said. “But this is an important issue. … And I’m optimistic and working to be sure we get those votes to pass it out.”
If the necessary 18 Republicans don’t vote for it, he said he may pull “a rabbit out of the hat.” Or he might just be blowing smoke.
There’s a decent chance that the bill is dead on arrival, rabbit or not, and Patrick is just going through the motions to satisfy his conservative base. “There are many ways to kill a bill without leaving any fingerprints,” an unnamed Democratic senator told Texas Monthly. Patrick has raised concerns about permitless carry in the past—especially considering opposition from law enforcement. Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger, who has often single-handedly blocked controversial conservative priorities from getting to the Senate floor, has said that he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the state’s current gun permit system. Plus, there are some Republicans in purple suburban districts who might hesitate to take a vote that could hurt them in a general election race.
Meanwhile, after previously declining to take a stance on permitless carry, Governor Greg Abbott promised to sign the measure when it gets to his desk. “Once the Senate passes it out, the House and Senate will convene and work out any differences and get it to my desk. And I’ll be signing it,” Abbott said in a radio interview.
Abbott is notorious for staying silent on controversial conservative issues until he knows how they will play out. So it’s possible that he just waited to announce he’d sign permitless carry once it became clear that it wouldn’t reach his desk.
What We’re Reading:
The Senate passed a bill Tuesday in an 18-12 vote that would classify providing gender-affirming health care to transgender minors as child abuse. It’s one of many bills Republicans are pushing that targets the rights of transgender Texans. It’s unclear whether this bill has support to pass the House. / Texas Tribune
After weeks of delays and growing criticism from public education advocates, Abbott announced that the state education agency would finally dole out billions in federal aid to school districts. The money is meant to help students make up for ground lost during the pandemic. / Austin American-Statesman
As it turns out, wind farms bore even less responsibility for the state’s power blackouts than initially thought, according to the state’s grid operator. Natural gas power plants were the biggest contributor to the outages. Meanwhile, lawmakers are still pushing legislation that would stick renewable energy producers with new fees while largely letting natural gas companies off the hook. / Texas Tribune
Democratic legislators have filed a slate of bills that would address demand-side contributors to the winter blackouts by creating new energy-efficiency standards and dedicate funds to help Texans weatherize their homes. But they all look likely to die in committee. / Dallas Morning News
Lawmakers this session have filed a flurry of proposals related to the pandemic. But efforts that have taken up most of the oxygen at the Capitol this session include voting restrictions, permitless carrying of handguns, and measures targeting transgender children. / 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.
House Elections Committee Chair Briscoe Cain tried to pull a fast one on his fellow committee members on Thursday. With little notice, Cain called up Senate Bill 7—the Senate’s main “election integrity” bill—and motioned to replace it entirely with the language in House Bill 6, a vastly different “election integrity” bill that is favored by House leadership, the Texas Tribune reported.
As Democratic members repeatedly voiced their objections, Cain said there were no objections to adopting the substitute language and then quickly called for a vote. Republican Travis Clardy refused to cast a vote, forcing Cain to withdraw the proposal since it didn’t have enough votes. The committee then recessed for a session on the floor; Cain later reconvened and the measure passed on a party-line vote. The move preempted the bill from getting a public hearing.
This isn’t the first time Cain’s antics have backfired in his first term at the helm of the committee. Earlier this session, he tried to block Democratic members from asking questions about HB 6, which he authored, and then promptly called for a recess. However, he forgot to say when the committee would reconvene, which forced him to reschedule the hearing for another day.