Freshman State Senator Sarah Eckhardt Lays Out Her Agenda
Kirk Watson's replacement readies for her first term under the pink dome
Since she prevailed in last summer's special election to replace Kirk Watson, Sarah Eckhardt's days have been filled with readings and meetings: perusing the rules of the Texas Senate, bills from past sessions and those prefiled for this one, while engaging with state agencies, community stakeholders, and elected officials in her district to help craft priorities for her first term under the pink dome.
"It's been like drinking through a fire hose," Eckhardt told the Chronicle as we discussed the different ways the 87th Texas Legislature could unfold. We could see a stripped-down regular session to adopt the 2021-23 biennial budget (the only bill state lawmakers are obligated to pass) and measures to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, with redistricting put off until a later special session.
Or, if Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dade Phelan, can align themselves, the session could broaden to include issues Eckhardt wants to champion, like Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform, and universal broadband access. "I recognize I am in the minority," Eckhardt said, "so I am trying to have a balanced approach. I want to prepare for the worst case, a stripped-down session, and pray for the best case, a session where we tackle important issues for Texans."
In addition to shoring up health access for low-income Texans and mending the state's frayed social safety net, Eckhardt has her eyes on efforts to end the Texas tradition, ever since statehood, of part-time legislators only convening for a few months every two years. "We needed our Legislature in 2020," she said, "but it has been shuttered since May 2019 while the state and nation have been rocked by shootings of Black and brown people, voter suppression, and a pandemic." Though perennial proposals for an annual legislature have gained little traction in a big state that likes small government, the idea is gaining steam even with GOP lawmakers like state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio.
On criminal justice, Eckhardt supports the George Floyd Act (read more), expected to be this session's primary vehicle for reform efforts, and told us she will either file her own bill to decriminalize marijuana or co-author or sponsor one by another lawmaker (read more). As for Abbott's desire to take over the primary police force in her district, "I hope to be a voice of reason at the state level," she says, "to say that policing is an intensely local affair.
"Public safety is a big, important topic, and I am a proponent of local control," Eckhardt continued. "I may disagree with what a particular municipality does with public safety, but if it doesn't violate the [Texas or U.S.] Constitution, then it's the right of those elected leaders to make those changes. The remedy is at the ballot box, not the Legislature."