Special Session Looms, For Better or Worse

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(From left) Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Joe Straus.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr and Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(From left) Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott, and House Speaker Joe Straus.

Some people say the Texas governor is not the state’s most powerful officeholder, but don’t tell that to the 31 members of the Texas Senate or the 150 members of the Texas House of Representatives. Come July 18, they will be back in Austin for a 30-day special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott.

I’m not asking you to feel sorry for your elected representatives who normally meet only once every two years for five months and are now having to haul themselves back to the Capitol when they normally would be on summer vacation and not in session again until January 2019. On the contrary, I wish they were not convening for the simple reason that far more bad than good can happen in this special session.

How it turns out will say a lot about the respective powers of Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Joe Straus, and how their differing philosophies on governance and distinctly different legislative priorities will affect all of us. All three are Republicans, but as anyone can see, they sometimes seem to be circling one another rather than walking “shoulder to shoulder,” as Patrick has described his body language toward the governor and his special session agenda.

Democrats, meanwhile, who more or less hold only one-third of the seats in the Legislature, are forced to maneuver with parliamentary tactics to prevent bad bills from passing, while taxpayers can do little but watch from the sidelines. Living in one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, Texas voters have few opportunities to make changes at election time. Texas is a one-party state, and that is not going to change unless the millions of disengaged adults in Texas start exercising their right to vote.

The Rivard Report will publish a guide to elected officials later this week that will allow you to contact your elected state officeholders by phone or email to share your views in advance of the special session.

The governor is the only officeholder who can order a special session, and he is the only one who can dictate what legislative issues get considered during the approaching one-month marathon. Abbott’s 20-item agenda, however, reflects the very different priorities of the three top officeholders. Abbott and Patrick both want a so-called “bathroom bill,” while Straus would rather see lawmakers focus on public school finance reform.

City leaders, meanwhile, are on the edge of their seats over bills that did not pass in the regular session and will be reintroduced. Such legislation would strip cities of annexation powers, while another proposed bill would force cities and counties to hold rollback elections whenever tax increases of a certain size are sought. Rollback elections appeal to small-government advocates, but as the state reduces funding in each biennial budget on everything from public school funding to health care, local officials are forced to shoulder more and more of those costs with limited options to pay for essential services.

There probably wouldn’t be a special session if Patrick had not held hostage important sunset legislation regulating state agencies during the regular session. That forced the governor’s hand. Abbott has made it clear he will not let Patrick or other legislators consider any of the other 19 items on his agenda until a sunset bill is passed by both the Senate and House.

Our nonprofit partners at the Texas Tribune have done a good job of outlining just how wide-ranging and ambitious the governor’s list is, given the short time frame legislators have to act. No one believes all 20 items will lead to bills for the governor to sign. A more realistic list – one that anticipates how much legislation can realistically be introduced, debated, and voted on – would be much shorter.

To gain a better understanding of how a special session works, watch this two-minute explanatory video with the Texas Tribune‘s Ross Ramsey. To understand the importance of the sunset legislation that was not passed during the regular session because of all the debate over the” bathroom bill” and other proposals, read this excellent article by the Tribune’s Alex Samuels.

The governor’s 20-item wish list is leftover business from the regular session that began Jan. 10 and ended May 29. If legislators could not pass those bills in the space of five months, how will they do so in 30 days? They won’t, but they will pass some bills for the governor to sign, and Abbott can always call back legislators for one or more future special sessions if he feels strongly enough about a given item left unaddressed. He has not said what he will do in the event the special session results in the same sort of standoff between Patrick in the Senate and Straus in the House.

A lot of people are tuned out and turned off by politics in Washington, D.C. and in Austin, but what happens, or does not happen, in Austin over the 30 days starting July 18 will have a very real impact on San Antonio and on you. We are grateful to have the kind of quality journalism produced by the Texas Tribune published on the Rivard Report. We believe our readers are better off by following the action, or inaction, in Austin. We hope you avail yourself of the guide to elected officials we will publish later this week to make your views known to those who represent you in elected office.

You also can support nonprofit journalism, in San Antonio and in Texas, by becoming supporting members of the Rivard Report and the Texas Tribune. Just click on the links to sign up, make your donation, and keep us in business. We will keep you informed with fact-based journalism.

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