Last Day at the Lege
Sine die arrives as threat of a special session looms
By Richard Whittaker,
9:40AM, Mon. May 29, 2017
The Texas Legislature has only one job: to pass a budget for the upcoming biennium. More realistically, it has to at least pass the budget and Sunset legislation extending the lives of state agencies. With today marking the final day of the 85th Legislature, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is holding the Sunset Bill hostage ... to demand a special session.
The ongoing story of the session – that, rather than simply Republican versus Democrat, differences have been split between the House and the Senate (and the fringe Freedom Caucus wrecking crew versus everyone) – was writ larger than ever over the weekend. With Senate Bill 1, the biennial budget, passed and on its way to the governor's desk, Monday all comes down to SB 1929. That's the omnibus Sunset Bill that will keep the lights on at a host of state agencies whose legislative remit would otherwise expire this year.
On Sunday, Patrick and Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, called a press conference, at which Taylor claimed the House had "created a crisis" by failing to give the Senate a working bill, and therefore the two chambers will have to come back for a special session. If Gov. Greg Abbott doesn't bring them back to complete the job, he said, important agencies like the Texas Medical Board would simply go away.
Not so, fumed the House in its own counter presser. According to Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, the leading Republican on the Sunset Advisory Committee, the House had done everything that was needed – and, in fact, it was the Senate that had unilaterally stripped the language out of SB 1929, for no good reason. "The ball's in their court," he said.
So why would the Senate do this? To trigger a special session. And why would the Senate want a special session? To allow Patrick another shot at passing his versions of the infamous bathroom bill and property tax reform.
It's important to note the bills will be his versions, as the House has already passed iterations of both. Patrick wants more radical language in each of them. The common interpretation of this weekend's events is that the Lt. Guv. found what he thinks is his tool to extracting the necessary special session out of Abbott.
Of course, it's not like Texas Republicans have become benevolent liberals overnight. On Saturday, both chambers approved the budget: a mean spirited spending plan that makes no one happy by both taking $1 billion out of the Rainy Day fund (which Senate leadership has opposed) and magically creates $2 billion by deferring a payment to the State Highway Fund (a trick that House leadership has called unconstitutional). The $216.8 billion biennial spending either cuts or freezes many essential social programs (including devastating funding for disabled children’s acute therapy service), while upping border spending (even though the Feds are doing the same thing) to $800 million, while further cutting revenue streams (such as dropping the concealed handgun permit costs, reducing state income by an estimated $20 million). The measure passed 135-14 in the House (with Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Pflugerville, absent).
Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, was one of the nay votes. Noting that it did nothing for the state's most needy, and was built on some very deceptive precepts, he said in a statement, "With this budget, the Texas Legislature has continued its tradition of building deep structural flaws into our state’s finances while failing to invest in our future."
So now it all comes to SB 1929. With the House convening at 10am, they'll mostly be waiting until the Senate is called to order at 11am. After that, everyone will be hanging on to see if logic prevails, and the upper chamber restores and concurs with the House language that at least allows agencies to limp along.
The rogue factor here is Gov. Greg Abbott. If he decides that he wants a special session for the bathroom bill, to feed more red meat to his extremist evangelical base, then he will let these cards fall as they may. But there is a very real question as to whether he wants to bring back 150 angry state reps for a special session just to placate Patrick.
Moreover, if he does call them back, legislators could start filing their own bills, such as the school finance reform that Patrick sabotaged by adding in broadly loathed school voucher language. On top of that, last week the federal court hearing the ongoing gerrymandering case from the 2011 redistricting dropped none-too-subtle hints that Abbott might want to call a special session to redraw new maps that could better withstand legal scrutiny (read: less likely to be thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court).
So with only a handful of hours before the session clock expires, the future of the legislature could really lie in the Governor's Mansion.