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Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week unanimously agreed on a proposal to cut the overall property tax rate for the coming year, a compromise that avoids a potential quorum break by Republicans that would have forced an even deeper cut.

The rate of 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value is 3 percent less than the current levy. This means the owner of a home valued at $300,000, with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption already factored in, could save up to $54 in the first year. However, as Harris County Appraisal District valuations continue to rise, homeowners could see slightly higher tax bills, despite the lower rate.

The overall rate is the sum of the rates Commissioners Court sets for four entities: the county as a whole, the flood control district, the hospital district and the Port of Houston. Compared to the current levies, the flood control district rate will increase slightly, while the other three entities would see a rate cut.

Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia last week proposed a rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, a 2.2 percent cut from the current rate of 59.9 cents.

The two Republican members wanted more significant savings for taxpayers, noting economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey proposed a rate of 57.9 cents.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned against cutting the tax rate, and thus revenues, too much because it will make raising more revenue in the future more difficult. That is because of a revenue cap the Legislature placed on cities and counties last year which limits year-over-year growth to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

“We should be negotiating on what the county needs,” Hidalgo said. “It does not benefit me, politically, to want to cut taxes less. I simply know we’re headed down a dangerous path.”

After hours of haggling at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, the panel agreed on the 58.1 cent rate, which Garcia offered as a compromise. The court at one point was mulling a half dozen options and County Administrator David Berry confessed he was struggling to keep track of who had proposed which.

See here for the background. They say in baseball that you gain more by avoiding dumb decisions than you do by making brilliant ones. I’m just glad we were able to avoid the dumb outcome here.

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.

Sine die’d

Special session 2.0 is over. And what a lousy thing it was.

The Texas Legislature adjourned its second special session Thursday evening, ending a nearly 30-day stretch that was called to pass a GOP elections bill after House Democrats carried out a weekslong quorum break to block the passage of that legislation during the summer’s first overtime round.

The two chambers gaveled out minutes apart after giving final approval to a number of Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda items, including so-called critical race theory legislation and a bill that will, among other things, restore funding for the Legislature itself.

The House adjourned first, with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, wishing members a happy Labor Day weekend before gaveling out.

Over in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told senators he was proud of their work and nodded to another yet-to-be-called special session that will focus on the redistricting process in the coming weeks — where lawmakers will draw new political maps for the state’s congressional delegation, the Legislature and the State Board of Education.

“We’ll be back soon,” he said. “There’s a little bit of unfinished business yet to be done.”

Earlier Thursday, state lawmakers passed legislation that restores funding for the Legislature — including salaries and benefits for some 2,100 state employees — that was set to run out at the end of the month after Abbott vetoed those dollars earlier this summer. The governor’s veto was intended as retribution for House Democrats who walked out of the Capitol in the final hours of the regular legislative session to block a GOP elections bill in May.

In addition to restoring the funding, the Legislature this week passed a similar version of that controversial GOP elections bill. State lawmakers also reworked the process for releasing accused criminals on bail, beefed up border security fundingexpanded virtual learning for studentsrestricted use of abortion-inducing drugs and banned the storage or disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas.

The small bit of good news is that the transgender sports bill and the last-minute fraudit bill did not pass, though as noted there will be another shot at that. Redistricting is up next, and the rumor mill suggests we will have two weeks off before the machinery cranks up again. I suppose it’s possible there could be a temporary restraining order in the lawsuit filed against doing legislative redistricting, but as Congressional redistricting would still be on the menu that would not stop the session from being needed. Anyway, enjoy the brief respite before the next bout of madness begins.

“Big boy pants”

Some hot Dutton on Patrick action going on here.

Another partisan stalemate has broken out in the final days of the second special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott this year, again imperiling the jobs of 2,100 legislative staffers along with two key conservative priority bills.

On Monday night, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, abruptly adjourned the House Public Education Committee, which he chairs, without voting on two bills prioritized by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the leader of the Senate: a bill that would limit how educators can teach social studies and talk about race at Texas public schools, referred to as the “critical race theory bill,” and another that would require transgender students to participate in sports based on the gender listed on their birth certificate instead of their gender identity.

“We have gotten to the point now where the Senate has adopted certain principles and practices that I don’t think bode well for this Legislature. I think that what’s happened is we have allowed them to do certain things and they disrespect the House in certain fashions,” Dutton said. “It has gotten worse to the point where today, what I am told, is that if we don’t pass these two bills — the [critical race theory] bill and the transgender bill — the Senate is not going to consider trying to fix the funding in Article X. So, I want to see if he has his big boy pants on. This meeting is adjourned.”

Article X refers to the section of the state budget that covers funding for the state Legislature and other independent agencies that support its work. Abbott vetoed legislative funding in June in retaliation for the defeat of his priority election and bail changes bills when Democrats first walked out of the House in May during the final days of the regular legislative session.

The Legislature was set to lose its funding this month, as the new fiscal calendar starts Wednesday, but Abbott and legislative leaders extended its funding through the end of September. Still, the Legislature has not passed a long-term solution for the rest of the next two-year budget cycle, putting in peril the livelihoods of the staffers funded through the Legislature. Lawmakers salaries are constitutionally protected and therefore not affected by Abbott’s veto.

House Bill 5, a wide-ranging bill that includes funding for a 13th check for retired schoolteachers and the restoration of legislative funding, was set to be heard on the chamber floor Monday, but its author, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, suddenly postponed its consideration until Wednesday. On Tuesday, Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, asked the House to reconsider the motion by which the bill was postponed, which would allow lawmakers to take up the bill immediately. The vote failed by a vote of 74-49.

Dutton did not say who had told him that the Senate would not pass the legislative funding bill until the House passed the two bills in his committee. His office has not returned a request for comment from The Texas Tribune. Patrick’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

I’ll never complain about someone spitting on Dan Patrick, but Harold Dutton is hardly a hero here. He has already shown that he doesn’t care about trans kids, and it’s clear that his interest here is in not getting rolled by the Senate. That said, no one with any power in the House has stood up for the restoration of Article X funding, which continues to be in jeopardy and clearly isn’t anything Dan Patrick cares about. It’s pathetic how little pushback Dade Phelan and the House Republicans have given to Greg Abbott on this, which leaves that task to the likes of Dutton, who does know what to do with the power he has. There’s no one to cheer for in this story, and I feel confident that Dutton will give Patrick what he is demanding if Patrick plays ball, but at least for now he’s standing for something worthwhile. The Chron has more.

Other things the Lege has been up to

A brief roundup, to clear some tabs…

Bad Bail Bill 2.0 moves forward.

A sweeping revision of the process for releasing accused criminals on bail won initial approval from the Texas House on Friday night, nearly three months after the GOP-priority legislation stalled in the regular legislative session.

Senate Bill 6, which would require people accused of violent crimes to put up cash to get out of jail, tentatively passed the House on an 82-37 party line vote. The Senate passed the legislation earlier this month on a 27-2 vote.

A House committee advanced the bill Monday after taking out a controversial provision that would have restricted charitable groups from posting bail for defendants, a practice that gained popularity last summer when groups posted bail to release people arrested while protesting the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer.

On Friday, House members added a related provision back into the bill that does not limit the ability of such groups to post bail. Instead, the amendment would require charitable bail funds to be certified by county officials as nonprofit organizations and file reports on who they bond out of jail.

“The original bill that came over [from the Senate] was essentially going to outlaw … the charitable bail process,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, on his amendment. “We made it very clear to the other side of the building that this would not stand.”

The bill still needs to pass the House a final time before it is sent back to the Senate, which can either accept the House changes or enter into closed-door negotiations. State Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who authored the bill, did not respond to questions about House changes this week.

See here and here for some background. This is bad, and there’s a decent chance parts if not all of it will eventually be found unconstitutional, but in the short term it will do some damage. Go read Grits for Breakfast or follow him on Twitter for a deeper dive.

Some virtual learning gets funded.

After months in limbo, Texas lawmakers took a step toward expanding and funding virtual learning as the pandemic still proves a threat to families not yet comfortable sending their children back to classrooms.

The Texas House approved Senate Bill 15 on Friday night in a 115-3 vote. The bill will go to a final reading and vote in the House before making its way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The House’s initial approval of the bill will give some parents a measure of relief that there could be more virtual learning options as the pandemic once again strains the state’s resources. Hospitalizations and cases are surging due to the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.

Necessary, albeit regrettable. We wouldn’t be revisiting this topic if we had a better handle on COVID, but given that we are not we need to acknowledge reality where we can. This is one reasonable place to do so.

More border boondoggling.

The Texas House approved nearly $2 billion in additional funding for border security operations, giving Gov. Greg Abbott more state dollars to implement his plans to build a border wall and incarcerate migrants for state criminal offenses in an effort to deter migrants from coming to the state.

Lawmakers gave initial approval Friday to a funding bill by a vote of 81-38 that would triple what the state allocated for border security during the last biennium. The $1.88 billion appropriated by House Bill 9 is in addition to the $1.05 billion lawmakers approved for border security this spring.

“There’s a crisis on our southern border with serious consequences extending throughout our state,” said Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who authored the bill. “Texas must respond to the crisis that has been brought to our doorstep.”

In June, Abbott announced Texas would build a state-funded border wall to decrease the number of migrants entering through its border with Mexico. Earlier this year, the two-term Republican governor launched Operation Lone Star, an effort that directed state military and police resources to the border to aid local and federal authorities fighting the smuggling of people and drugs across the border.

Abbott, who is seeking reelection next year, had previously said he expects the state to build hundreds of miles of wall along the state’s 1,254-mile border with Mexico, but had not specified where the wall would be or how much it would cost.

This message has been paid for by the Greg Abbott campaign.

More money for “temporary” hospital workers.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that for the second time amid a recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations that Texas will increase the number of state-funded relief workers it will be sending to Texas hospitals, bringing the total to 8,100.

The Texas Department of State Health Services had previously authorized contracting 5,600 medical personnel, and Thursday’s announcement adds 2,500 more.

During the state’s winter COVID-19 surge, more than 13,500 temporary medical workers were deployed across the state, according to DSHS. Those numbers began to dwindle once cases started to decrease and vaccinations became more widely available.

Now, the highly-contagious delta variant has pushed the state to reverse course and again take the lead in alleviating staffing shortages as hospitals are inundated with COVID-19 patients and intensive care unit beds are becoming scarce. On Aug. 9, Abbott directed DSHS to use staffing agencies to secure out-of-state medical personnel for Texas hospitals and asked hospitals to voluntarily halt elective medical procedures.

The state will fully fund the temporary health workers through Sept. 30.

Not technically a Lege thing, but Lege-adjacent. See my previous point about things we wouldn’t need to be doing if we had handled COVID better. I have no idea where we will find all these relief workers, but that’s yet another mess Greg Abbott will have to clean up for himself.

And finally, one thing the Lege hasn’t been doing:

And yet here we are. Still not too late, I suppose, but with every passing day this becomes more and more true.

Texas gets its Medicaid 1115 waiver back

Hrmph.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

A federal district judge on Friday temporarily reinstated a 10-year extension of a federal health care program that Texas uses to help pay for health care for uninsured Texans and is worth billions of dollars annually.

The agreement was set to expire next year after federal health officials in April rescinded the Trump-era extension to the 1115 waiver agreement — which Texas has had with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services since 2011 and is up for review every few years — and ordered Texas to collect public input, as the agreement requires, while it renegotiates a new extension beyond its original October 2022 expiration date.

The decision did not stop the funding for the current waiver, which provides $3.87 billion in annual funding to partly offset free care provided by Texas hospitals to the uninsured, and to pay for innovative health care projects that serve low-income Texans, often for mental health services.

In his order on Friday, the U.S. District Judge J. Campbell Parker granted a preliminary injunction sought by Texas to block the federal government from rescinding the original Trump-era agreement. The decision removes the requirement, at least for now, for Texas to negotiate its deal with CMS if it wants 1115 funding beyond October 2022.

The decision by CMS was “likely unlawful” and resulted in “turmoil in the state’s Medicaid program,” in part because the state had already begun “reassigning staff, making plans, appropriating money, passing regulations, and engaging stakeholders to work towards implementing the necessary changes” allowed by the original deal, which was confirmed in January before it was rescinded by the Biden administration in April, Barker said in the order.

[…]

The 1115 waiver was meant to be temporary while Texas transitioned to an expanded Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, but that never happened because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states couldn’t be forced to expand Medicaid.

Since then, the state has relied on the waiver for various programs to care for Texas’ uninsured, with Republican state leaders frequently leaning on it in their arguments against Medicaid expansion.

See here, here, and here for some background. I don’t know the technical details well enough to know if this is a reasonable decision on the merits or if Paxton once again found himself a super friendly judge. I’m not even sure if this means that the entire Trump-approved ten-year extension is back in play, or if there will be another opportunity for the Biden administration to force the issue, perhaps next year when the previous agreement was to expire. Perhaps if one of the alternate means of allowing/forcing Medicaid expansion is part of the reconciliation package, the issue can be revisited, or perhaps largely rendered moot. It does seem likely to me that Congress could change the terms of the 1115 waiver, as the issue here was over the executive action, I just don’t know who would be pushing that in the legislative process. All in all, a deeply unsatisfying state of affairs at this time.

Supreme Court upholds Abbott’s power grab

Ugh.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday denied a request from several Democratic House members and state employees asking the justices to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of legislative funding in the upcoming two-year state budget.

Abbott vetoed the funding in June after House Democrats walked out during the final days of the regular legislative session in May, killing two of his priority bills on elections and changing the state’s bail system. Abbott then brought the Legislature back for a special session to get the bills passed, but more than 50 House Democrats again broke quorum — denying the lower chamber of the number of present members needed to move bills — by decamping to Washington, D.C., until the 30-day session ended Friday.

Democrats challenged Abbott’s veto in court, saying it stripped their power as a “co-equal branch of government.” But the Texas Supreme Court on Monday sided with Abbott on his veto that will effectively defund the Texas Legislature, its staffers and legislative agencies later this year.

[…]

In an unsigned opinion, the all-Republican court said the lack of funding for the legislative branch “continues to exist not because of a dispute between the Governor and the Legislature, nor even because of one between the Governor and a minority of House members. Rather, the principal dispute is among the members of the Legislature.”

“This political dispute within the legislative branch is not an issue of separation of powers that we can decide,” the court said in its opinion.

[…]

The court said House Democrats could have worked with other lawmakers during this year’s first special sessions to reinstate Article X of the state budget, which covers legislative funding, without having to pass any other bills. They also could have worked with their fellow lawmakers to pass the bill more than 10 days before adjournment, which would have made it veto-proof. But they chose not to do so.

“Relators argue that the Governor is unconstitutionally coercing them to vote for legislation that he favors. But the Governor has not forced the Legislature to enact his priorities before addressing its own funding,” the opinion read. “The Legislature was free to use the special session to reinstate Article X funding. It could have done so without addressing any of the other items listed in the Governor’s call.”

“[T]he Governor’s veto of Article X followed by his call of a special session neither prevents the Legislature from funding itself nor forces the Legislature to enact legislation of the Governor’s choosing,” the opinion read.

The court noted that Abbott was trying to advance his favored pieces of legislation but that a majority of lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Legislature also supported those bills.

The court said the Democrats’ alleged injury may have started with Abbott’s veto, but continued only because they could not agree with their fellow lawmakers “over the order in which to consider legislation.”

You can read the unsigned opinion – there’s a load of political courage, I tell you – here. I didn’t expect the Supreme Court to wade into this, when it would be so much easier to avoid it, but this is just sophistry. The only reason there was a special session is because Abbott called one, as he has the sole power to call them. Would the Supreme Court feel differently if he hadn’t, or if he hadn’t added Article X funding to the special session agenda, another thing he has control over? Or is it now the case that constitutional separation of powers is entirely dependent on the calendar?

It is what it is at this point. The Article X funding will get restored, likely pretty soon at this point, and we’ll all go on our merry voter-suppression way. Just don’t come crying to me when a future Governor zeroes out Supreme Court funding. The Chron has more.

Meet the new special session

Same as the old special session, at least at first.

It appears likely that not enough Democrats will show up for the Texas House to conduct business when a second special legislative session convenes Saturday.

Some of the more than 50 Democratic representatives who fled Texas to foil the first special session began trickling out of their Washington, D.C., hotel and heading home Friday. But 27 members have committed to staying in the nation’s capital. At the same time, Democrats were working to confirm that at least 50 members will pledge to not return to the House floor on Saturday even if they are back in Texas.

If that happens, the chamber would again be deprived of a quorum to conduct business for at least a few days. And it could set up a showdown over whether House Speaker Dade Phelan has the authority, and political will, to compel Democratic representatives in Texas to show up at the Capitol.

The ongoing absences would further delay any consideration of the 17-item agenda Gov. Greg Abbott has set for the 30-day special session, including a contentious voting bill, which Republicans have vowed to pass into law, that motivated Democrats to leave the state last month. Two-thirds of the 150 member chamber must be present to conduct business. One seat is currently vacant.

“If you’re looking for us to telegraph exactly what we’re going to do over the next couple days, we’re not going to do that at this time,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democratic caucus chair, said earlier in the day. “The governor would love us to do that, but we’re not going to.”

The House Democratic caucus would not confirm any details about its next move as of Friday evening after marking the last day of the first special session that was derailed after 57 members broke quorum.

The number of Democrats actually in Washington had appeared to dwindle to about 40 members over the last few days. But with 27 Democrats planning to stay behind, even some of the Democrats seen departing from their hotel in Washington on Friday indicated the House floor may not be their destination.

[…]

“If Congress is in session, we’re in session,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said earlier in the day. “Our job is here, and we will have a significant number of members staying here and waiting day by day, engaging day by day, finishing the fight.”

Well, we’ll see. We ought to know early on what the head count is. In one of the earlier stories I saw, it was noted that the Republicans are also not quite at full strength, as some are on vacation or otherwise not available – Jake Ellzey is now in Congress, so right there they’re down one – and that means they need that many more Dems to show up to get to 100. We don’t know if Speaker Dade Phelan is going to follow through on the threat to use DPS to hunt down wayward Dems in the state and drag them to Austin. We may eventually get a quorum, but it won’t happen right away.

Later on Friday, this happened.

Twenty-two Texas House Democrats sued some of the state’s top Republican leaders in federal court in Austin late Friday, alleging that GOP officials’ efforts to bring them home for a special legislative session infringed on their constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The lawsuit was filed on the final day of the first special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott — and on the eve of a second specially called legislative session — and names as defendants Abbott, House Speaker Dade Phelan and State Rep. James White.

[…]

It’s unclear why White was listed as a defendant. White said Friday night he was not aware he’d been sued or why he was named as a defendant. The lawsuit also did not use Phelan’s legal name, which is Matthew McDade Phelan.

Abbott and Phelan did not immediately have a statement on the lawsuit.

The Democrats’ attorney, Craig Anthony Washington, a former Democratic lawmaker, did not respond to a request for comment. Washington is practicing law under a probationally suspended license, according to the State Bar of Texas.

The lawsuit alleges that some Democrats are being targeted because of their race and skin color, but then provides no evidence.

It also claims the three Republican lawmakers acted together under the “color of law” to cause the harm alleged in the suit, but then points no specific harmful actions other than “public statements.” The lawsuit also says some individual plaintiffs experienced “retaliatory attacks, threats and attempts at coercion relating to the exercise of their First Amendment rights” but again does not provide specifics.

The plaintiffs listed in the case are state Reps. Senfronia Thompson, Trey Martinez Fischer, Gene Wu, Vikki Goodwin, Ron Reynolds, Eddie Rodriguez, Jon Rosenthal, Jasmine Crockett, Mary Ann Perez, Alma Allen, Christina Morales, Nicole Collier, Celia Israel, Ana-Maria Ramos, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Terry Meza, Donna Howard, Jarvis Johnson, Ray Lopez, Shawn Thierry, Elizabeth Campos and Gina Hinojosa.

The lawsuit alleges that the three Republican lawmakers have attempted “by public statements and otherwise, to attempt to deny, coerce, threaten, intimidate, and prevent” the Democrats and their constituents from voting in all elections, petitioning the government for redress of grievances, speaking publicly about their constitutional rights, exercising their right of association and their right to not being arrested without probable cause. The Democrats allege that in acting together, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to deprive them of their constitutional rights.

Because of the defendant’s actions, the complaint alleges, the plaintiffs have been “deprived of liberty for substantial periods of time, suffered much anxiety and distress over separation from their families, and much discomfort and embarrassment.” They also have suffered damages to their reputations and have had to spend time traveling to Washington to lobby Congress to pass laws that would protect voting rights.

That sounds pretty unlikely to me, even without the issues noted for attorney Craig Washington. You can read a copy of the lawsuit and come to your own conclusions, but this seems like an extreme longshot. And as to why Rep. White was named as a defendant, my guess is it stemmed from his request for an AG opinion suggesting that the quorum-breaking Dems had “vacated” their seats. Even if you could count on Ken Paxton’s office to give an honest answer, that seems like a big escalation of the stakes.

And in other desperation moves, there’s this.

Texas Republican leaders said Friday they were extending “an additional month of funding” for the Legislature as a deadline to reinstate those dollars vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott nears, which could cost some 2,100 state workers their salaries and benefits.

The announcement Friday by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan comes a day ahead of the beginning of a second special session, where it’s still unknown whether enough state lawmakers in the lower chamber will convene in time to restore the funding long term.

[…]

Citing an emergency, the Legislative Budget Board requested the transfer of funds, according to a memo dated Aug. 6 from Abbott responding to the LBB’s proposal. Funds amounting to at least $12.6 million will be transferred from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the Senate, the House, and legislative agencies such as the LBB, the Legislative Council and the Legislative Reference Library.

Abbott referenced his veto in that memo, reiterating his position that “funding should not be provided for those who quit their jobs early and leave the state with unfinished business, exposing taxpayers to higher costs for additional legislative sessions.”

“However, in order to ensure the Legislature is fully resourced to do the work of the next special session,” he wrote, “I recognize that the partial restoration the Legislative Budget Board had proposed is necessary.”

The extension announced Friday means that those legislative employees and legislative agencies will have funding intact through Sept. 30 instead of Sept. 1, when the next two-year state budget takes effect.

I thought the LBB could only meet when the Lege was not in session, which is certainly was on Friday. If this is all it took, then why not act sooner? And why not free up more money? This has the feel of something half-baked, though I suppose if no one challenges it in court there’s nothing to stop it. And hey, even if someone does challenge it in court, the Supreme Court will just sit on it until the matter becomes moot anyway, so what difference does it make? We’re off to a roaring start here, that’s for sure.

Special session 2.0 coming right up

Here we go again.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that the second special legislative session will begin at noon Saturday — and with an expanded agenda.

The 17-item agenda still includes well-known Abbott priorities like the election bill that caused House Democrats to flee the state at the start of the first special session, which ends Friday. But it also features six additions, including the spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds and potentially changing the legislative rules regarding quorums.

[…]

The start of the second special session is approaching amid continued uncertainty over the fate of paychecks for over 2,100 legislative staffers. Abbott vetoed their pay after House Democrats staged a walkout over the elections bill in the regular session that ended in May, and the funding was set to start Sept. 1.

The reinstatement of that funding remains on the agenda for the second special session.

The new items on the call also include legislation to protect Texans from radioactive waste and to change the timeline for the 2022 primary elections. The latter item is likely a nod to the fact that the primaries will have to be pushed back due to delays in the redistricting process.

The item on changing the rules around quorums comes after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called on Abbott to add something like it to the agenda for the second special session. The lieutenant governor wants to lower the threshold for each chamber to conduct business from two-thirds of members to a simple majority. That would require a state constitutional amendment and thus a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

As for education during the pandemic, Abbott is asking lawmakers to pass legislation that “in-person learning is available for any student whose parent wants it.” He also wants legislation that ensures that masks and vaccinations are not mandatory in schools, which he has already ordered through executive action.

Not anything here that would make it more enticing for the Dems to come back, that’s for sure. The item about changing quorum rules is cute, but if it needs a 2/3 vote to pass as a constitutional amendment, I would not expect it to go anywhere, for all the obvious reasons.

What will the Dems do? They haven’t said yet, and as before I don’t know. Looking back, they didn’t get a voting rights bill passed, not that anyone could have expected that, though it’s fair to say there’s a lot more pressure being applied on President Biden and the Senate Dems to make that happen. Perhaps the new “Right to Vote” bill by Sen. Ossoff has a chance – it wouldn’t address everything – redistricting reform would be a key omission – but it would help. As expected, between the infrastructure bill and the January 6 committee hearing and our national fruit fly-level attention span, they’re getting maybe one percent of the press coverage they got when they first left, but again, I don’t know what could have changed that. They successfully killed off the first session, and for the most part the Republicans have been able to do little but sputter and post the occasional juvenile photo on Instagram, so I’d call this a draw. A draw that still inevitably ends with them back in Texas and the odious bills they have been able to stop so far getting passed anyway. Again, it was always going to be this way, barring a miracle from Sens. Manchin and Sinema.

Two other points: One is that redistricting data is soon to arrive.

Ideally for the Republicans, they breeze through this session, finish up all the business they want to get done, then get a short break before embarking on this much more involved task. They want to get to this quickly to foreclose even the minimal possibility of a federal voting rights bill that includes preclearance and redistricting reform being enacted. The ideal scenario for Dems is less clear to me, but running more time off the clock so that the original special session items have to take a back seat to this is probably better than what I just laid out as being best for the GOP. In short, the best outcome is still bad unless there’s some federal action to mitigate the damage.

As for restoring legislative funding, the Quorum Report posted an item just before the new special session was announced that suggested the possibility of the Legislative Budget Board moving some money around to fix that problem. Unfortunately, the LBB can only meet when the Lege is not in session – the QR report speculated that they would have this weekend to do that, with Special Session 2.0 being called for Tuesday – so that is off the table. That means that either the Dems show up and the Lege fixes it, the Supreme Court rules that Abbott’s veto was unconstitutional (AS THEY SHOULD ANYWAY), Abbott himself uses his emergency powers to plug the hold he dug, or the funding runs out and who knows what happens to redistricting. You know that sequence from “Animal House” where the Deltas have sabotaged the marching band and the parade they were in has devolved into chaos? That’s the energy I’m getting from all this now. I’ll leave it to you to decide who Bluto and Niedermeyer are in this analogy. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: More here from the Trib, reiterating that House Dems have not committed to a specific action just yet.

“I’ve lost track of what day it is” quorum-busting post: What next?

Hey, guess what: The current special session will be over soon, like this Saturday. What happens next?

Uncertainty is running rampant among Texas Democrats and Republicans as the final days of the special legislative session dwindle away.

The session officially ends Friday, and lawmakers are already gearing up for a second special session as House Democrats show zero interest in returning from Washington, D.C., and restoring quorum in the lower chamber for this session.

Abbott has promised to call a second special session to pass the GOP’s priority voting bill, but the exact timing is uncertain. Abbott also has yet to detail what other items, if any, he intends to include on the agenda for the next special session. And House Democrats have not yet revealed what they have planned after the session ends this week.

At stake is the fate of the elections bill, which prompted Democrats who object to the legislation to leave in the first place, as well as the livelihoods of some 2,100 state workers and legislative agencies that are set to lose funding next month.

Everyone agrees Abbott will call another session, likely for next week. Abbott says it will have all of the current items on it for Special Session 2. No one knows yet what the Democrats will do. No one knows when or if the Supreme Court will rule on Abbott’s line item veto of the legislative budget. Which, by the way, is something he had thought of before, because he’s a wannabe autocrat and much like Trump knows that the Republican sycophants in charge of the Legislature will never hold him accountable for anything. No one knows if there will be redistricting repercussions of the legislative budget veto, or if its funding can be restored in time for that work to begin. You can read the rest of the story for more details, but that’s the big picture. Hasn’t this been fun?

Appeals court overturns verdict in firefighter pay parity lawsuit

Wow.

An appeals court on Thursday reversed a ruling that declared Houston firefighters’ pay-parity measure unconstitutional, a major win for the fire union and one that could have far-reaching effects on city finances.

The fire union won approval of a charter amendment, known as Proposition B, in 2018 that would have granted them equal pay with police officers of similar rank and seniority. The city and the police officers’ union quickly sued, though, and in 2019 a trial court ruled the referendum unconstitutional because it contradicted state law that governs how cities engage with police officers and firefighters. The voter-approved charter amendment was never implemented.

In its ruling, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston said that was an error. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote in a 2-1 opinion that the Texas Legislature did not intend to stop cities from enacting such pay measures.

“Preemption is not a conclusion lightly reached — if the Legislature intended to preempt a subject matter normally within a home-rule city’s broad powers, that intent must be evidenced with ‘unmistakable clarity,’” Hassan wrote.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court. Both the city and the police union said they plan to appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear when the city would have to implement the pay parity measure.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected fiscal watchdog, said the ruling was disappointing and concerning from a financial perspective. He said the administration and union need to iron out a collective bargaining agreement so the city knows how much it will have to pay if Prop B is upheld and back wages are owed. It could be in the ballpark of $250 million to $350 million, he said, adding the city and union could agree to pay that money over several years instead of all at once.

“We need to have certainty on the ultimate financial impact to the city,” he said. “I have a concern because ultimately, the taxpayers are going to foot this bill… If we do have a big, one-time payment, where’s that money going to come from?”

Good question. See here for the background here for the majority ruling, and here for the dissent. I would imagine this will be put on hold pending appeal to the Supreme Court, so we’re probably looking at another two years or so before this is resolved. It’s possible that the Mayor and the firefighters could hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would moot this, or perhaps the next Mayor could, if the Supreme Court decides to wait till after the 2023 election to hand down a ruling. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it is theoretically possible.

When might SCOTX rule on the line item veto thing?

The short answer to that question is “who knows, when and if they feel like it”. I’m just going to focus on the analysis part of this, because that is what interests me more.

Legally, the case hinges on whether the Texas Constitution allows a governor to cut off funding for an equal branch of government.

Politically, it’s unclear whether the court would be doing Abbott a bigger favor by upholding his veto power, or by extricating him from a stalemate that’s not going his way.

Either way it goes, the case will have broad implications for the future of Texas governance, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

If the veto is upheld, it strengthens executive power, giving Abbott and future governors a new axe to wield over the Legislature.

“This is well beyond the Schoolhouse Rock version of how government works,” Rottinghaus said, referencing a children’s animated series that simplified political concepts into cartoons. “This is a political story as much as it is an institutional separation of powers story. So it’s going to really push the boundaries of what’s allowable in Texas, especially in its governor.”

And if Abbott’s veto is upheld it would likely deflate the Democrats who fled to Washington D.C, leaving them to shoulder part of the blame if about 2,100 legislative staffers lose their jobs come fall.

“It takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the Democrats if the courts back the governor in this fight. So that’s really, I think, what they’re waiting for,” he said. “The bottom line is that they can’t keep doing this forever, that the Democrats are going to see that at some point, politically, they’re not getting any more purchase.”

And the court itself could face political repercussions when its members are up for reelection. Courts have not pushed back on executive power for decades, Rottinghaus said. The doctrine of separation of powers has been eroded over the last couple of decades, he says, and if the court takes Abbott’s side, then it’s likely to further blur the line.

“I’m a big believer in separation of powers. I don’t think this is a partisan argument,” Rottinghaus said, saying he wished the whole Legislature, both parties, would “stand up for itself collectively” against the move. “To boil it down, this is basically a question about which power’s more robust, the power of the executive veto or the separation of powers — institutions that have been weakened by political fights.”

[…]

Jeffrey Abramson, a University of Texas at Austin law and government professor, says he believes the veto infringes on the Texas Constitution.

“Like every other state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution is based on the fundamental principle that separating government power among three coequal branches of government is the best way to limit the possibility of tyranny,” Abramson said in emailed comments. “Gov. Abbott’s defunding of the Legislature, by vetoing the part of the budget that provides funds for the legislature, is a clear and frightening attack on separation of powers. It is an attempted executive coup.”

It’s unclear when the Texas Supreme Court could rule on the issue — or if it will at all. It could rule any day now, delay a decision or decide the court does not have the jurisdiction over the case at all. The justices could also rule to disallow part of the veto — for example, legislators are allowed a per diem payment under the constitution — or find that the issue is not yet ripe and punt it down the road to decide at another time. Attorneys for House Democrats asked for the court to expedite its decision “well before” the new budget comes into effect.

“If I had to really put money on it, I would say that the court would back the governor’s veto, in part because they might view this as being a temporary political skirmish that can be resolved,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

If the veto is deemed constitutional, House Democrats warn it will set a dangerous precedent.

“People need to understand that going forward, every governor will be using this power. Every Legislative session will involve a list of demands, [and] it will be explicit or implicit that if the governor doesn’t get this legislation, and then the legislature won’t exist,” said Chad Dunn, attorney for the House Democrats who filed the petition to the Supreme Court, in an interview. “That is dangerous stuff, and it’s got to be remedied immediately.”

The House Democrats also warn the state’s top court: if it happens to us, it could happen to you, too. They argued in court filings that if the governor can defund the Legislative branch, a co-equal branch of government, for going a way he disagrees with, he could then turn around and do the same to the state’s top court.

Abramson agrees.

“Imagine a governor that stripped Texas courts of funding as a way of retaliating against a decision the governor did not like and as a way of pressuring the courts to do his bidding,” he said. “No one would think the governor had such power. But he has done the equivalent to the Legislature.”

Just for the record, I’ve already imagined that. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine. Doesn’t mean that the great legal minds that make up our Supreme Court have imagined it, or are capable of imagining it. But some of us can, and did.

Separation of powers is baked into the state constitution, Rottinghaus said. If Abbott’s veto is upheld, it could throw off the balance completely.

Charles Rhodes, a Texas constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, agreed.

“Using the line item veto power as a sword to make the other branches yield to his will, that’s going to totally upset the original foundations of the very strict separation of power scheme that the founding fathers of the Texas Constitution of 1876 envisioned,” Rhodes said.

If the veto is deemed valid, then it will likely cause permanent change to the power structures in Texas, he said.

“Sometimes, Texas is referred to as a weak governor state,” Rhodes said. “But if the governor can start leveraging vetoes to control legislation and to control the courts, then our governor just became one of the most powerful gubernatorial officials of any state.”

I mean, what else is there to say? The state’s arguments in favor of the veto are total weaksauce. This really shouldn’t be a hard question. It’s just a matter of whether the Supreme Court has the guts, and the imagination, to properly address it.

More briefs in the lawsuit over the line item veto

I sure hope this means a ruling is on the horizon.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has asked the Texas Supreme Court to toss a lawsuit brought by House Democrats over Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to veto funding for the Legislature, arguing that lawmakers improperly blocked the issue from being resolved when they fled the state.

After Abbott vetoed the portion of the coming two-year state budget that funds the Legislature and its staff, known as Article X, more than 50 Democratic state House members filed a lawsuit accusing the Republican governor of violating a constitutional provision that provides for three separate and independent branches of government. In calling lawmakers back to Austin for a 30-day special session, Abbott gave them the option to restore the funding.

In a filing Tuesday evening, Solicitor General Judd Stone wrote that the special session is the “forum for addressing the very issue in dispute, yet it is (the Democrats) who are preventing that outcome by purposefully stopping the Legislature from being able to exercise its constitutionally granted powers.”

[…]

Stone went on to argue that the matter “is a political question unsuited for adjudication” that should instead be resolved by the legislature.

“By staging another walkout, …House Democrats are forcing the Legislature into the result they say would injure them—the lack of Article X funding,” Stone wrote. “Proceeding with this case would improperly reward (Democrats) for their misguided attempt to manufacture jurisdiction and would waste this Court’s resources.”

Democrats responded to the filing Wednesday, arguing there is no link between the lawsuit and Democrats’ quorum break. Chad Dunn, the Democrats’ attorney in the case, framed the court filing by Paxton’s office as an “attempt to blame the victim by putting the onus on the Legislature to rectify Governor Abbott’s unconstitutional conduct.”

“Governor Abbott’s veto violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers by effectively abolishing a co-equal branch of government. The recent events in the Texas Legislature do not change that fact,” Dunn wrote. “Rather, they confirm the need for this Court to decide whether Governor Abbott may threaten the Legislature’s existence — and hold hostage the more than 2,000 public servants who work for it — as a means of achieving his legislative objectives.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sorry, I Am Not A Lawyer and I clearly have a rooting interest in the outcome, but the state’s argument is transparently self-serving. Abbott is entirely the reason we’re in this situation. He vetoed the funding. Only he had the power to call a special session, and to set the agenda, to give the Lege a chance to respond. He could have only put Article X funding on the agenda, at least until that was resolved. The only way out of this conundrum that doesn’t give all the power to Abbott is to declare that he cannot veto the funding for the legislative branch. (And again, if he can do that, he can also veto the Supreme Court’s funding.) The state constitution makes no sense otherwise.

The Statesman gives more of the Democrats’ response.

“Governor Abbott’s veto violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers by effectively abolishing a co-equal branch of government. The recent events in the Texas Legislature do not change that fact,” their lawyers told the court in a response filed Wednesday.

If anything, the quorum break that has hamstrung the special session demands the court’s answer to the central question: “Whether Governor Abbott may threaten the Legislature’s existence — and hold hostage the more than 2,000 public servants who work for it — as a means of achieving his legislative objectives,” the Democrats argued.

What’s more, they said, Abbott has not said he will sign into law a bill restoring the money.

“There is good reason to think he will not unless and until the Legislature has first fulfilled his other agenda items,” said the letter signed by lawyers Jim Dunnam and Chad Dunn.

Instead of accepting the argument that Abbott’s veto is an improper intrusion on another branch of government, Republicans are working to “blame the victim” by putting the onus on lawmakers to correct Abbott’s unconstitutional action, they argued.

“It is the Governor’s unconstitutional veto that is harming (House Democrats) by defunding the Legislature — not the subsequent decision by some Members to push back on this unprecedented break in the constitutional structure by breaking quorum,” Dunnam and Dunn wrote.

I do sympathize with the Supreme Court not wanting to rule on this hot potato, but if they can’t stand the heat they shouldn’t have run for the Court in the first place. Put on your grownup pants and do what needs to be done.

Day 2 quorum busting omnibus post

Gonna round up a few stories here. Don’t know how often I’ll be this energetic, or how often there will be this many stories that I see that are worth commenting on, but it is Day Two. We’re just getting started, and there’s lots of people still paying attention.

The cops are almost certainly not coming for the wayward Dems. I mean, come on.

A showdown in the Texas House was locked into place Tuesday after the chamber voted overwhelmingly to send law enforcement after Democrats who left the state a day earlier in protest of a GOP priority elections legislation.

More than 50 House Democrats left Monday for Washington, D.C., to deny the chamber a quorum — the minimum number of lawmakers needed to conduct business — as it takes up voting restrictions and other Republican priorities in a special session.

That agenda, set by Gov. Greg Abbott, includes House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, the election legislation at hand that would make a number of changes to Texas’ voting system, such as banning drive-thru and 24 hour voting options and further restricting the state’s voting-by-mail rules. Over the weekend, both House and Senate committees advanced the election bills.

The impact of the House move is unclear since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction in the nation’s capital.

Meeting shortly after 10 a.m., the House quickly established that it lacked the two-thirds quorum required to do business, with only 80 of 150 members participating in a test vote.

Then Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, chair of the House Administration Committee, moved to issue what is known as a “call of the House” to try to regain quorum. That motion passed 76-4. Metcalf offered another motion, asking that “the sergeant at arms, or officers appointed by him, send for all absentees … under warrant of arrest if necessary.” That motion also passed 76-4.

Metcalf’s motions were opposed by four Democrats who were present on the House floor Tuesday morning: Reps. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, Tracy King of Batesville, Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass and John Turner of Dallas.

Axios noted Greg Abbott on Fox News shaking his fist and threatening arrest as well. It’s noise – remember, a big part of this is about the PR for both sides – and in all honesty, it’s what I’d do in the Republicans’ position. Let’s just say I will be extremely surprised if anyone is met at the airport by police on the way back.

If 58 Dems went to DC, then there were nine who did not. We know four of them, at least, and they make sense – Guillen and Morales represent districts carried by Trump in 2020, King’s district trended redder in both 2016 and 2020, and Turner is not running for re-election. I’ll be interested to see who the others are. Everyone will have their reasons for their choices, and bear in mind that family responsibilities may well be among those reasons.

The Chron adds a few tidbits.

Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, asked [Speaker Dade] Phelan on the floor Tuesday whether Democrats could be removed from committee chair positions for breaking quorum. The speaker said they could not.

Morales, whose gargantuan district spans an area from Eagle Pass nearly to El Paso, said he chose to stay in Texas because he believes it was what his constituents, who tend lean more conservative even among Democrats, wanted from him.

“I felt, and I think what my constituents expected, was for me to be in the Capitol, to make sure that I’m fighting for their rights, and that I fight in opposition to this voter suppression,” he said. “Everyone can fight and they can fight differently. My way of fighting is being here because that’s what my constituents expect.”

Morales said it is clear Democrats would be “steamrolled” when the Republican majority did not give them 24 hours after a House committee hearing this weekend to offer amendments based on the testimony they heard.

“It was just fanfare. They had no intention of actually working and actually coming to play and actually making those modifications necessary to the bill,” he said. “ That is why Democratic leadership decided to take the actions that they did.”

Morales said he expects that Phelan will allow members who ask permission to be excused to leave the chamber on an individual basis. He’ll need to do so to be at work at his day job as a city attorney on Tuesday night.

The process of asking for permission to leave the chamber will likely be repeated every day.

Troopers will now go to the missing members’ homes in their districts and in Austin, and places of work and family and friends’ houses, Morales said.

The Texas Senate, meanwhile, had a quorum of 22 members and was expected to debate its version of the voting bill later Tuesday.

The home visits were a part of the 2003 walkouts as well. You never know, someone might try to sneak home for some reason.

The bit about the Senate having a quorum feels a little surprising even though it obviously isn’t. I don’t know how much incentive Senate Dems have to do anything other than screw around and try to make trouble as they can. As for the likely death of other bills, well, that was priced into the decision to break quorum.

Bills to restrict pretrial release from jail, ban critical race theory in schools and prohibit transgender public school students from competing on teams that correspond with their gender identity were up in the air after dozens of Democratic lawmakers chartered flights to Washington, D.C. But their departure also left in jeopardy more widely-supported measures, like giving more money to retired teachers and restoring vetoed funding for more than 2,100 legislative employees who could potentially go without paychecks starting in September.

[…]

Beside bills on voting and bail, other Republican priorities that are now in danger during Abbott’s 30-day session include efforts to stop social media companies from blocking users for their viewpoints, limiting pill-induced abortions and adding money for policing efforts at the Texas-Mexico border. But the governor also tagged lawmakers to tackle less partisan issues — like adding funds for foster care, property-tax relief and retired teachers. On Monday, he slammed Democrats for leaving those on the table.

One piece of legislation would provide what is known as a “13th check” to retired teachers across Texas. The bills would direct the Teacher Retirement System of Texas to distribute a one-time supplemental payment of up to $2,400 by January of next year.

Committees in the House and Senate unanimously advanced the legislation Friday in some of the earliest committee votes of the special session.

Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said its members “desperately need help,” especially after the economic stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think there are mixed feelings,” Lee said of the potential demise of the 13th check proposal due to Democrats leaving the state. “I think that educators care about voting rights, educators care about the truth, they care about working together and compromising and listening — so that’s what they hope both sides of this policy spectrum will ultimately yield, that people will work together.”

As far as legislative employees — who earn a median salary of $52,000 per year — some staffers and a legal representative said there may be other ways to pay the employees of elected officials and those who help all lawmakers write bill drafts and provide cost estimates for legislation.

Lawmakers could potentially roll over money from the current fiscal year, if they have any, to pay their staffers. Or the Texas Supreme Court may rule in favor of the employees and House Democrats in a lawsuit arguing Abbott’s veto was a gubernatorial overreach. And Abbott has used his emergency power to move money around before, as he did by directing the transfer of $250 million from Texas prisons to a border wall down payment.

For Odus Evbagharu, chief of staff to state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, the onus to restore his and his colleagues’ wages is on Abbott.

“I don’t believe it’s on the House Democratic Caucus to answer for that. I think that’s going to be an answer that Governor Abbott’s gonna have to answer himself,” Evbagharu said. “My best guess is you hope he doesn’t further punish staff for decisions that lawmakers are making.”

Most of these bills are garbage, and their death (however fleeting) is a bonus as far as Dems are concerned. The legislative funding issue is entirely on Abbott for his temper-tantrum veto, and I hadn’t even thought about him using emergency powers to override himself. That’s if the Supreme Court doesn’t settle this, AS THEY SHOULD. The extra paycheck for teachers is a genuine shame, but it could be handled in any subsequent special session.

Again I want to emphasize, Greg Abbott has the primary responsibility here. He pushed these divisive, red meat issues, he called the special session to try again on the ones that failed, and he broke all precedent by vetoing the legislative funding. This is his mess.

One thing, though, seems clear: this comes at a very bad time for Governor Greg Abbott, who was already having a pretty bad week. Abbott is facing, so far, three challengers to his right in the Republican primary for governor. The charge from his Republican opponents is that he’s feckless and weak. The quorum break, which is designed to deny passage of one of his priority pieces of legislation, fits neatly into a narrative that he is getting outfoxed by an ostensibly powerless Democratic opposition. That the narrative is largely untrue—Democrats certainly believe they got the shaft this session—doesn’t matter much.

If the crisis resolves by offering concessions to the exiled Democrats, or otherwise weakening the bill, Abbott will catch hell. The best case for him is to “break” the Democrats and win the fight, but taking a hard line could also prolong the crisis. At first, messaging from his camp was uncharacteristically soft, perhaps because it’s not clear what he could say. In a statement Monday, Abbott said Democratic absences were standing in the way of “property tax relief” and other issues, a sign that the governor’s office was uncomfortable centering the election bill that’s the problem here. On Tuesday, he started talking tough, threatening them with arrest and “cabining” in the Capitol if they return to Texas, but both those threats reflect his underlying powerlessness. The main talking point so far, at least on social media, is that the Democrats brought beer with them.

[…]

Abbott’s predicament is one he seems uniquely unfit to solve. Unlike his predecessor, Rick Perry, he has never had much in the way of personal relationships with lawmakers. He has no credibility with Democrats to coax them back. But even Republican legislators don’t trust him very much. Abbott did not help the situation with his decision after Democrats walked out on the last day of the regular session to veto funding for the Legislature in retribution. He is holding Republican staffers and state employees hostage in order to coerce Democrats back to the chamber. That may make Abbott look “tough,” but hurting your allies to spite your enemies isn’t sensible politics.

The one thing Abbott does have going for him here is that the Dems will eventually come back, one way or another, and he will always have to call at least one more special session to deal with redistricting. He could just decide to wait and let the Dems figure out what they’re doing and mostly ignore them until they return. I don’t think he’ll do that, but he does do best when he mostly stays out of sight.

Whatever Abbott does or doesn’t do, things are happening in the Senate.

As Democrats fled the state to avoid voting on a GOP priority elections bill that would restrict voting rights in the state, the Texas Senate approved the bill Tuesday with a party-line vote of 18-4.

[…]

[Bill author Sen. Bryan] Hughes amended the bill to drop requirements for curbside voting that troubled advocates for people with disabilities. The original version of the bill required any person other than the voter using curbside voting to leave the car while the voter was casting their ballot.

Hughes removed that provision to “avoid confusion and not create hardship for anyone with a disability.”

Another amendment by Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, was intended to bring the bill into compliance with federal laws on voter assistance. It removed provisions from the bill that required people assisting voters to specify under oath how they were providing assistance to a voter and that they were doing so because the voter had a disability.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, also amended the bill to allow for tents to be used as temporary polling places if a regular polling place sustained physical damage that rendered it unusable. The permission would only grant the temporary permission for one election and would have to be approved by a county commissioners court.

Another amendment by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, required poll watchers to be provided training manuals to educate them about their duties.

Note that eight Senate Democrats are also in DC, with a ninth on the way. That’s not enough to break quorum in the Senate, so on they go with that wretched business.

Meanwhile, what are the Dems trying to accomplish? I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with that other Senate.

At a press conference Tuesday in Washington, DC, the group of Democrats specifically called on Biden and Congress to demonstrate “the same courage” they had shown by traveling to the nation’s capital during a special legislative session that had been called by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has since threatened to arrest the more than 50 Democrats who fled. As they did in a statement confirming their plans to boycott the session before hopping aboard two private planes on Monday, the group once again hailed both the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act as examples of model legislation for protecting voting rights at the federal level and implored Congress to pass them.

“We were quite literally forced to move and leave the state of Texas,” Texas Rep. Rhetta Bowers said in a press conference flanked by some of her fellow state Democrats. “We also know that we are living right now on borrowed time in Texas. And we can’t stay here indefinitely, to run out the clock, to stop Republican anti-voter bills.” Bowers said that although Texas Democrats would use “everything in our power to fight back,” they ultimately needed Congress to act with the same urgency.

“We are not going to buckle to the ‘big lie’ in the state of Texas—the ‘big lie’ that has resulted in anti-democratic legislation throughout the United States,” Rep. Rafael Anchia added.

[…]

Tuesday’s press conference came hours ahead of President Biden’s much-anticipated speech on voting rights in Philadelphia, where he’ll make a forceful condemnation of Republican efforts to enact voter suppression laws. His message, however, is not expected to include support for ending the Senate’s filibuster rules, which advocates say stand in the way of passing meaningful protections for voting rights.

They did get to meet with numerous key Senators, though not yet the two that hold this legislation in their hands. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci puts it for when and if they do, what the Dems have is an emotional appeal.

The emotional appeal may be the only route left for [Rep. Senfronia] Thompson, her colleagues, and other Democrats who see this moment as a turning point for U.S. democracy. Manchin and Sinema already have all the facts. They’ve shown no willingness to budge. Now, they’ll have to tell a crowd of fugitive Texan legislators singing a civil-rights protest song that their extreme measures to protect the franchise will be for naught.

Like I said yesterday, that is the ultimate grand prize. I hope it has better odds than a Powerball ticket.

Finally, Houston Matters spoke to State Reps. Penny Morales Shaw, who is in DC, and Garnet Coleman, who is not because of health issues, though he is not in Austin. They also spoke to US Rep. Lizzie Fletcher about the subject, for which a YouTube clip is here. And here is the note I think we can all agree it would be best to end on:

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Quorum broken again

And they’re off.

Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives left the state Monday afternoon en route to Washington, D.C., in a bid to again deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass new voting restrictions with 26 days left in a special legislative session called largely for that purpose.

Upping the ante in both the legislative fight at home and the national debate over voting rights, most House Democrats boarded two planes out of Austin headed for the U.S. capital without a set return date. At least 51 of the 67 Democratic representatives — the number needed to break quorum — were in the process of leaving Monday afternoon, most arriving at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Monday to board chartered flights that departed around 3:10 p.m.

The House is set to reconvene Tuesday morning, but the absent Democrats would mean there will not be enough members present to conduct business under House rules.

“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” Democratic leaders said in a joint statement released Monday.

With the national political spotlight on Texas’ efforts to further restrict voting, the Democratic exodus offers them a platform to continue pleading with Congress to act on restoring federal protections for voters of color. In Texas, the decamping will mark a more aggressive stance by Democrats to block Republican legislation further tightening the state’s voting rules as the GOP works against thinning statewide margins of victory.

Ultimately, Democrats lack the votes to keep the Republican-controlled Legislature from passing new voting restrictions, along with the other conservative priorities on Gov. Greg Abbott’s 11-item agenda for the special session.

Some Democrats hope their absence will give them leverage to force good-faith negotiations with Republicans, who they say have largely shut them out of negotiations over the voting bill. Both chambers advanced their legislation out of committees on party-line votes after overnight hearings, passing out the bills early Sunday morning after hearing hours of testimony mostly against the proposals and just a few days after making their revived proposals public. The bills were expected to hit the House and Senate floors for votes this week.

[…]

Even if Democratic lawmakers stay out of state for the next few weeks, the governor could continue to call 30-day sessions or add voting restrictions to the agenda when the Legislature takes on the redrawing of the state’s political maps later this summer.

Monday’s mass departure follows a Democratic walkout in May that kept Republicans from passing their priority voting bill at the end of the regular legislative session. For weeks, Democrats had indicated that skipping town during the special session remained an option as Republicans prepared for a second attempt at tightening the state’s voting laws.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement later Monday that the chamber “will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum…”

[…]

If a quorum is not present when the House convenes Tuesday, any House member can move to make what’s known as a call of the House to “to secure and maintain a quorum” to consider a certain piece of legislation, resolution or motion, under chamber rules. That motion must be seconded by 15 members and ordered by a majority vote. If that happens, the missing Democrats will become legislative fugitives.

“All absentees for whom no sufficient excuse is made may, by order of a majority of those present, be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained,” the House rules state. “The house shall determine on what conditions they shall be discharged.”

It’s unclear, though, what options Phelan may have to compel Democrats to return to the Legislature if they’re out of state.

Past experience would suggest that his options are basically nil. The DC police and the FBI are not going to be rounding them up and putting them on planes.

This is both a fast-moving story, and one that will play out over who knows how long. I’m probably not going to be able to keep up with every story and hot take out there, so feel free to browse the Internet or just scroll through Twitter – if you’re anything like me, you’ll have all the content you can consume and then some. I’m going to highlight what I think are the main salient points:

– What is the exit strategy here? That has always been my question. It was clear that the 2003 Senate Dems didn’t really have one, though one could argue that if they had held out a little longer they might have been able to scuttle the 2003 re-redistricting for the 2004 cycle. Maybe they can negotiate some concessions from Speaker Phelan in return for a promise that they’ll stay put for this session and the next one on redistricting. Maybe that’s a pipe dream. I have no idea. I hope they do.

– This is all about PR at this point. The main thing the Dems have going for them is that their action is extremely popular with their base – if this doesn’t help them with fundraising, nothing will – and there’s nothing on the special session agenda that has appeal to anyone who isn’t a Republican primary voter. (With one exception, which I’ll get to later.) The bottom line here is that they will portray themselves as fighting for a principle, while Republicans will claim they are cowardly running away. There’s no real question about how each side will perceive things, but there is room to affect the lower-information voters. If Dems can look good to them, they will have achieved a key objective.

– Does this help move Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema on national voting rights legislation? I have no idea. It can’t hurt, I suppose. For sure, if an end result is the passage of a voting rights bill, which would necessitate some alteration to the filibuster, that would be a huge, titanic, earth-shaking victory for the Dems, no matter what else happens in Austin. I would not hold my breath, but the Dems are clearly shooting the moon. You can’t say they’re not giving it their all.

– How long can they hold out? Remember, being in Washington DC means not being home, not being with family, not having a whole lot of control over one’s daily routine. Once the adrenaline wears off, and the reality of having to hold out until at least August 6 kicks in, this can very easily become a slog, and just keeping morale up, while also trying to win that PR battle, will be a chore. It’s also got to be expensive – there are no accommodations in DC that will rival the Ardmore Holiday Inn, I suspect. Part of that exit strategy I mentioned above is making sure the inevitable return at least looks like it’s on their terms, and not because they had run out of options or money or resolve, or because they were losing the PR battle. That’s the other end of the spectrum from the “getting a federal voting rights bill passed” side.

– The issue of restoring funds for the legislative branch will remain unresolved while the Dems are away. Maybe the Supreme Court will feel compelled to address the matter, or maybe they will be like “hey, y’all could totally solve this without us, we’re gonna keep out of it”. I hope someone is communicating with the employees who are still out in the cold right now.

– Like I said, none of the rest of the agenda, including items that Abbott may be planning to add, are anything that the average voter cares about. It’s all terrible from the Dems’ perspective, and the fact that things like the anti-trans sports bill is also hung up is a bonus. That’s the one item that has polled reasonably well, however, and it would not surprise me to see the Republicans make some noise about it. I feel confident saying that’s a long-term loser for them, but all we care about right now is the next 30 days, and the next 15 or so months after that.

For now, Dems are riding high, and they will get a lot of positive attention as well as the usual hate. How long that lasts, we’ll see. Even by this time next week, they may be struggling to get news coverage. It’s going to be a hell of a month. The Chron, the Signal, and pretty much every other news outlet (for now) has more.

State House takes a step toward reinstating legislative funding

Good, but it’s just a first step.

Texas lawmakers are moving swiftly to reinstate funding for the Texas Legislature, vetoed last month by Gov. Greg Abbott, that affects the salaries of more than 2,100 employees across several state agencies

The House Appropriations Committee voted on Friday 21-0 to move forward a bill that would reinstate the funding after Abbott vetoed it to punish House Democrats who broke quorum in the final days of the session to kill two of his priority bills. The Senate Finance Committee heard testimony on a similar bill around the same time Friday afternoon, but did not take a vote.

House Appropriations chairman Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who authored the bill, said the funding in it is identical to what the House and Senate had worked out in legislative funding during the regular session.

The bills hit close to home for lawmakers as funding for their staff hangs in the balance. Abbott’s veto of Article X of the state budget wiped out funding for the legislative branch. He said lawmakers who “walk off the job” should not receive compensation, but his action does not affect lawmakers, whose pay is constitutionally guaranteed.

The veto applies to the thousands of staffers who work directly for lawmakers and several state agencies. Those agencies include the Legislative Reference Library, which conducts research for the Legislature; the Legislative Budget Board, which develops policy and budget recommendations and provides fiscal analyses for legislation; the Legislative Council, which helps draft and analyze potential legislation; the State Auditor’s Office, which reviews the state’s finances; and the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the efficiency of state agencies.

If funding for the legislative branch is not restored by September, when the new fiscal year starts, those employees would lose their jobs and benefits, like health care.

I have seen it suggested elsewhere that the Lege should not take any other action until this is signed by Abbott. I don’t expect that to happen, but it would be one way for the Legislative branch to assert its independence. As for the Supreme Court, I’m pretty sure if you listened closely, you could hear their thumbs twiddling. You’re on your own here, y’all.

Here’s your special session agenda

They call this “red meat”, but it’s really just bullshit.

Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the agenda for the special legislative session that begins Thursday, asking lawmakers to prioritize 11 issues that largely appeal to conservatives who wanted more out of the regular session.

The announcement of the agenda came just over 24 hours before lawmakers are set to reconvene in Austin.

The agenda includes Abbott’s priority bills related to overhauling Texas elections and the bail system, as well as pushing back against social media “censorship” of Texans and the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Those issues were anticipated after they did not pass during the regular session and Abbott faced pressure to revive them or had already committed to bringing them back.

[…]

The special session agenda also includes funding for the legislative branch, which Abbott vetoed last month. He did so after House Democrats staged a walkout in the final hours of the regular session that killed the priority elections bill. The inclusion of the legislative funding raises the possibility that lawmakers could restore paychecks for their staff — and other staff at the Capitol — before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1. More than 2,000 staffers are affected by the veto of the Legislative funding, which Democrats have called an executive overreach of power.

Late last month, House Democrats and legislative staffers asked the state Supreme Court to override it. The court had not ruled in the case yet.

The Democrats’ walkout prompted a flood of national attention, and now the minority members must decide how to try to derail it in the special session with their staff pay on the line. Republicans also have their work cut out for them in the special session, faced with preventing another embarrassing defeat of the elections bill and remedying two provisions they claimed after the regular session were mistakes.

The special session is set to start at 10 a.m. Thursday and could last up to 30 days, with the potential for Abbott to add more items as it proceeds. It is one of at least two special sessions expected this year, with a fall special session coming to address redistricting and the spending of billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Abbott’s agenda for the first special session notably does not include anything about the state’s electric grid, which was exposed as deeply vulnerable during a deadly winter weather storm in February that left millions of Texans without power. Lawmakers made some progress in preventing another disaster during the regular session, but experts — as well as Patrick — have said there is more to do. Last month, calls for the Legislature to take further action to fix the power grid were renewed when grid officials asked Texans to conserve energy.

Despite Abbott’s recent claim that grid is better than ever, he sent a letter Tuesday to the state’s electricity regulators outlining a number of steps he would like them to take to “improve electric reliability.” But it appears Abbott does not want to reopen legislative debate on the issue for now.

Just to recap, I continue to expect the Supreme Court to delay and hope the legislative budget veto issue becomes moot. I don’t think there’s much if anything that Democratic legislators can do to stop any of these bills if Republicans are determined to pass them – it’s not out of the question that on some of them the Republicans are not sufficiently unified – so the best thing to do is to try to at least make sure everything has a real committee hearing first. Finally, I’m not surprised that Abbott has no interest in revisiting the power grid, not when he’s already staked his claim on everything being just fine now. The other piece of business for the Dems is to hammer this point over and over again, until it seeps into the public consciousness. Good luck, y’all. This is going to suck. The Chron has more.

The response to the lawsuit over the line item veto

I know, scintillating headline, but there’s plenty of action here.

The state is defending Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent veto of legislative funding as a bipartisan group of former state leaders — as well as more Democrats — weigh in against the governor.

The state faced a Monday deadline to respond to a Democratic lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to overturn Abbott’s veto, which he issued after House Democrats staged a walkout that killed Republicans’ priority elections bill at the end of the regular session in May. Abbott has promised to bring back the bill in a special session and scheduled one to begin Thursday; he has not announced the agenda yet.

“The Governor properly exercised the veto power bestowed upon him by the Texas Constitution and acted consistently with this Court’s precedent,” the state said in its response. “Under the Texas Constitution, the Governor has the exclusive power to disapprove any bill.”

At the same time, three former state leaders filed an amicus brief arguing Abbott’s veto is “an attempt to intimidate members of the Legislature and circumvent democracy.” The brief was filed by former House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican; former House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat; and former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a Republican.

The brief says Abbott’s move “should rebuked by people of all political persuasions.”

[…]

Another amicus brief surfaced Monday that argued against Abbott’s veto and was signed by all 13 Democrats in the Texas Senate, as well as a group of law professors and a few current and former Republican elected officials. The GOP signees included state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, as well as former state Reps. Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen and Sarah Davis of West University Place.

See here for the background. All of the case information is here, with the response by the AG on behalf of Abbott’s executive clerk here. The first two amicus briefs, by Straus, Laney, and Ratliff and by various legislators and law professors, explicitly cite the constitution and the separation of powers doctrine, while the one by the League of Women Voters raises the issue of redistricting work not being done by legislative staffers.

The state’s defense essentially amounts to 1) It is too constitutional, 2) The Court lacks jurisdiction for boring technical reasons (specifically, the Governor’s clerk is not an executive officer of state government), and 3) The relators lack standing because the issue isn’t ripe yet, which is a fancy legal way of saying that since the legislative funding doesn’t run out until August 31 there’s no actual injury yet and thus no cause to sue. I Am Not A Lawyer and have no opinion on the first two items, but item 3 strikes me as technically correct but also beside the point. It should be possible to prevent an injury from occurring, not just waiting around for the disaster to happen and then trying to clean it up. The state’s argument is that because there’s already a special session on the docket, this can and should be fixed without the court getting involved. That may well be, and it would not surprise me at all if SCOTX were to sit on this for as long as possible, to give the legislative process a chance to patch this up without needing for them to issue a ruling. I think that would set a terrible precedent and would not address the “future Governor vetoes the funding for the Supreme Court in a fit of pique” scenario, but then no one ever claimed SCOTX was a profile in courage.

As far as the possibility of the Lege restoring funding before it runs out, there’s this:

If the Dems get what they asked for, that would undermine the case for their writ. It’s still what they have to do, and then hope that SCOTX sees the constitutional issue as more important than the practical one. We’ll see.

Lawsuit filed over veto of legislative budget

Good. And necessary.

A group of Texas House Democrats and legislative staffers is asking the Texas Supreme Court to override Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent veto of a portion of the state budget that funds the Legislature, staffers there and legislative agencies.

More than 50 Democrats, a number of state employees and the Texas AFL-CIO have signed on to a petition for a writ of mandamus, which was filed Friday morning.

“The state is in a constitutional crisis at this moment,” said Chad Dunn, an attorney involved with the petition, during a briefing with reporters Thursday.

[…]

The petition argues that Abbott exceeded his executive authority and violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine. The parties involved with the petition are asking the all-Republican court to find Abbott’s veto unconstitutional, which would allow Article X of the state budget, the section at issue, to become law later this year.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus in the lower chamber, told reporters Thursday there are roughly 2,000 employees in the state’s legislative branch that would be affected by Abbott’s veto if it stands.

Lawmakers receive $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session for both regular and session sessions.

“This isn’t about [lawmakers’] paychecks,” Turner said during the briefing. “What he’s doing is hurting our staff and hurting our constituents.”

See here for the background, and here for a Twitter thread from Rep. James Talarico explaining the reasons behind the petition. Rep. Talarico notes that the effect of the veto “also includes nonpolitical staff like the custodians, cafeteria workers, landscapers, and parking attendants…[who] will also lose their pay and their health insurance on September 1”, which is the end of the fiscal year. The special session for July will almost certainly include action to restore this funding, but only if Abbott puts it on the agenda, which gives him quite a bit of leverage. Way too much, if you believe what the state constitution says.

The plaintiffs have asked the Supreme Court for a ruling before September 1. I have no idea what they will do, but consider this for a moment. Beto beats Abbott in November 2022. After taking office, he issues an executive order of some kind, maybe to kill the Abbott border wall. Doesn’t really matter, whatever it is he gets sued by Jared Woodfill, who gets a writ of mandamus from SCOTX blocking the order. And then, a few months later after the Lege passes its budget, Governor Beto uses his line item veto authority to defund the Supreme Court, which he says is payback for their dumb and disrespectful ruling against him.

You may say that’s ridiculous. I would agree, but the real question is what (other than a respect for norms and not being a petty tyrant like Greg Abbott) would stop Governor Beto if it came to that? If the Supreme Court says there are no limits on what a Governor can do to exert influence over another branch of government, then surely this too is fair game.

Those of you with memories that extend past last week may remember the precursor to all this, when Rick Perry threatened to veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA’s office if then-DA Rosemary Lehmberg didn’t resign following a drunk driving arrest. Lehmberg, whatever her faults, was an elected official who did not answer to the Governor, but Perry felt it was within his power to attempt to force her out and to use the threat of cutting off funding for a division of her office as the stick. Perry was subsequently indicted by a grand jury for an abuse of office charge, but the Court of Criminal Appeals came to his rescue and tossed the indictment, buying his argument that he was being arrested for exercising veto power. But it wasn’t that – indeed, he never did veto any PUI funding – it was the threat and the coercion. Abbott’s veto, done as retaliation against a legitimate legislative action that he just didn’t like, is the next step of this progression. It’s autocratic, it’s a huge abuse of power, it’s dangerous, and it must be stopped by the one branch of government that can stop it. If SCOTX doesn’t recognize the need to do this, they will have truly failed us all.

UPDATE: A statement from Abbott about the lawsuit can be found here.

We do agree that “Greg Abbott” and “disaster” go together well

I just have one question about this.

Over the past year, Gov. Greg Abbott has issued disaster declarations across the state for a number of tragedies: the coronavirus pandemic that killed more than 50,000 Texans, a winter storm that left millions of people in freezing temperatures without power for days, hurricanes and floods that wiped out homes and local infrastructure.

The disaster declarations give the governor broad power to suspend state laws and regulations that hinder a jurisdiction’s recovery from a disaster and to allow the use of available resources to respond to the disaster.

Then, on May 31 the two-term Republican governor who is seeking reelection next year took the unprecedented step of declaring a disaster for 34 counties based on an increase of illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border. The declaration allowed Abbott to request the reallocation of $250 million of legislatively appropriated funds toward a border wall construction project pushed by his office.

“It’s extraordinarily unusual,” said Jon Taylor, professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Traditionally, it’s used for natural disasters,” he added, though state law does allow for its use for some man-made disasters.

Abbott’s move raises questions about the executive branch’s emergency powers, rekindling concerns raised during the early days of COVID-19 last year when Abbott used his broad emergency powers to enact restrictions shutting down businesses to curb the pandemic. In response, the Legislature tried without success to rein in Abbott’s authority this session.

But now, critics are questioning whether an increase in illegal immigration constitutes a disaster that merits emergency action by the governor.

State Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, said Abbott’s use of a disaster declaration to reallocate legislatively appropriated funds to a project from his office stretches the concept of emergency authority “to its breaking point.”

“A governor should not be able to circumvent the legislative process by declaring such matters to be emergencies and then implementing whatever measures he wishes,” Turner said in a statement. “If a governor can commence such a long-term, multi-hundred-million-dollar public works project under the cover of emergency powers, it is difficult to know what the limits of those powers are.”

“I hope the Legislature will reassert its authority and resist this ill-considered action by the Governor,” he added.

See here and here for the background. My question is this: Who’s going to sue, and when will they do it? The Lege is not going to rein in Abbott – he’s not going to put that on the special session agenda, and even if he did the same Republicans who grumbled about his COVID actions are just fine with this. Filing a lawsuit is all that’s left. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t – my advice is to hire a better attorney than Jared Woodfill if you want a chance – but that’s the only avenue available at this point. It’s fine by me if there are multiple lawsuits, in both state and federal court. Just, start filing. The longer this charade goes on, the worse it’s going to get.

They’re coming back

Brace yourselves.

Gov. Greg Abbott has set a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 8, his office announced Tuesday.

Abbott’s office did not specify what legislative priorities will be included on the special session agenda and said in an advisory that such items “will be announced prior to the convening of the special session.”

Abbott has already said that he plans to ask state lawmakers to work on two priority elections and bail bills that died in the final hours of the regular legislative session after House Democrats walked out of the chamber. More recently, Abbott has said the agenda for the Legislature’s overtime round will also include further restricting in schools the teaching of critical race theory, which refers to an academic discipline that explores the role racism plays in institutions and structures of governance.

The GOP priority elections bill, known during the regular session as Senate Bill 7, was a sweeping piece of legislation that would have created new limitations to early voting hours and curbed local voting options like drive-thru voting, among other things.

It’s unclear what tweaks, if any, will be made to the bill during a special session. After the Legislature adjourned in May, some Republicans said they planned to change at least one controversial provision in the bill that dealt with the window for early voting on Sundays. The last-minute addition to the bill had raised concerns that it would harm get-out-the-vote efforts by Black churches.

Abbott’s other priority legislation that died, known as House Bill 20 during the regular session, would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash. That bill was also killed after House Democrats broke quorum to block passage of SB 7.

Lawmakers were already expected to return to the Legislature this calendar year for a special session focused on redrawing the state’s political maps and doling out billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds. Abbott has said that special session will happen sometime in September or October.

We knew this was coming, and we knew that SB7 in some form would be the main item of interest. I don’t know as I write this if the usual suspects in the US Senate will get their shit together and pass a federal voting rights bill that may include some form of preclearance, but it is very much in the political interests of Texas Republicans to pass SB7 before that happens. They definitely have the advantage of being able to move more quickly, but that could at least theoretically end at any time. For sure, they wouldn’t want to wait until the redistricting session for that.

One presumes that the restoration of legislative funding that was vetoed by Abbott will be addressed. I hope that this announcement spurs on the advance of any litigation over that veto, if indeed there was litigation in the works. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I’d bet that the Texas Supreme Court would be delighted to dismiss any such lawsuit on the grounds that it is moot if that matter has been resolved legislatively by the time they have it dumped on them. As to what else may be on the call, we’ll have to wait and see. For sure, every wingnut who didn’t get their pet bill passed will ask for it to be added. As long as the Lege remains in session, Abbott can add more items as he sees fit.

Which leads to another thing to consider:

Another question hanging over state lawmakers is whether Democrats plan to again break quorum to prevent the passage of an elections bill during a special session. A number of House Democrats have said that all tools are on the table with regards to a special session strategy, including potentially leaving the state to help block the legislation.

“It’s no secret that that’s something that’s been effective in the past,” state Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Dallas Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, during an interview last week on CNN.

I think another Killer Ds scenario is unlikely, but who knows? As with the walkout that led to the quorum break in May, we won’t know till it happens. For what it’s worth, this was Rep. Anchia’s initial reaction to the news on Twitter:

Make of that what you will.

Abbott follows through on veto of legislative funding

So here we go.

Gov. Greg Abbott followed through Friday on a threat to veto a section of the state budget that funds the Texas Legislature, its staffers and legislative agencies.

The governor’s move targeting lawmaker pay comes after House Democrats walked out in the final days of the regular legislative session, breaking quorum, to block passage of Senate Bill 7, Abbott’s priority elections bill that would have overhauled voting rights in the state. The move also killed bail legislation that Abbott had earmarked as a priority.

In a statement, Abbott said that “funding should not be provided for those who quit their job early, leaving their state with unfinished business and exposing taxpayers to higher costs for an additional legislative session.”

“I therefore object to and disapprove of these appropriations,” the governor said.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner of Grand Prairie called the move by Abbott an “abuse of power” and said the caucus “is exploring every option, including immediate legal options, to fight back.”

“Texas has a governor, not a dictator,” Turner said in a statement. “The tyrannical veto of the legislative branch is the latest indication that [Abbott] is simply out of control.”

Since Abbott issued his threat earlier this month, other lawmakers and political leaders have raised concerns over how the move could impact staffers and legislative agencies that are funded by Article X, which is the section of the budget he vetoed, such as the Legislative Reference Library and the Legislative Budget Board.

“I’m just concerned how it impacts them because they weren’t the ones who decided that we were going to break quorum, it wasn’t their decision, right?,” said House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, in an interview earlier this month.

Questions have also been raised about the constitutionality of the move, which according to the Legislative Reference Library is unprecedented.

See here, here, and here for the background. I very much want to see a lawsuit filed to challenge this, because the constitutional questions this veto raises need to be answered. Someone might also point out that Abbott could veto funding for the courts under whatever pretext he wanted as well if this is kosher. Separation of powers has to mean something.

I’m going to turn the mike over to Scott Braddock for a minute:

Hard to know how people will react to something unprecedented like this, but it’s not a stretch to think there may be some anger at Abbott from people who had supported him in the past. How they express that, and whether it might extend beyond a primary are questions I can’t answer. More immediately, the impression I have gotten from reading the Twitter posts of more legislatively fluent people is that as long as there is a special session before the end of the fiscal year (I think that’s August 31 but could be wrong), then this funding can be restored before any staffer loses a paycheck. More likely than not that is what will happen regardless of any litigation. But as with the freeze and blackouts of February, this is for thousands of people another huge and unexpected disruption to their daily lives and the security and stability they thought they had. No matter what happens, that’s going to leave a mark. Texas Standard has more.

Abbott’s border wall

I have many questions about this, but for this post I will limit myself to three.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that Texas will build a border wall along the state’s boundary with Mexico — but provided no details on where or when.

Abbott declared his plans during a press conference in Del Rio. He said he would discuss the plans next week. The Biden administration issued a proclamation that stopped border wall construction on his first day of office.

Abbott announced the news while discussing a slew of border initiatives, such as a $1 billion allocation for border security in the state budget lawmakers just passed and a plan to establish a Governor’s Task Force on Border and Homeland Security with public safety and state government officials.

“It will help all of us to work on ways to stem the flow of unlawful immigration and to stem the flow of illegal contraband,” Abbott said, while seated next to officials from the National Guard, Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Division of Emergency Management.

At the conference, Abbott also announced plans to increase arrests along the border — and increase space inside local jails.

“They don’t want to come to across the state of Texas anymore because it’s not what they were expecting,” Abbott said before being met with applause from those at the conference. “It’s not the red carpet that the federal administration rolled out to them.”

He also announced an interstate compact with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to resolve the border “crisis,” and called on other states to do the same.

1. How exactly is any of this going to be paid for? I know Abbott has promised more details next week, but we just had an entire legislative session, with a budget being passed, and I don’t remember “building a border wall” being part of it. Also, arresting however many people and putting them in jail – who will be paying for that? Even if one can claim that there is a line item in the budget for this, does anyone believe it’s enough?

2. How many lawsuits do you think this will generate? There’s federal-state issues, such as whether states can arrest migrants for trespassing, likely questions about how various funds may be spent on this ill-conceived idea, and who knows what else. Some number of lawyers are going to make a lot of bank on this.

3. We’re totally going to start seeing “Abbott for President 2024” speculation because of this, aren’t we? Time to find a nice Internet-free cabin in the woods, I suppose. More from the Trib here.

Can Abbott actually veto the legislative budget?

Who knows? We’ll see if he actually does it.

Fresh off the defeat of two of his legislative priorities Sunday night when Democrats abandoned the Texas House to block a sweeping elections bill, Gov. Greg Abbott flexed his executive muscle Monday — vowing to defund a co-equal branch of government while raising questions about the separation of powers in Texas.

“I will veto Article 10 of the budget passed by the legislature,” he wrote on Twitter. “Article 10 funds the legislative branch. No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities.”

Abbott did not give additional details about how the veto would work, telling his nearly 600,000 Twitter followers only to “stay tuned.” He’s also said that lawmakers will be brought back for a special legislative session this year to pass the failed priority bills. But the veto announcement on social media sparked concerns about the increasing encroachment by the state’s executive branch into the legislative branch’s purview.

“We have not seen a governor in modern times who has taken such a step to minimize the legislative branch of government,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “The Texas Constitution sets out a balance of power, and it has stuck to that since the inception of the Texas government. To change that by altering which branch was able to be politically and financially stronger is clearly antithetical to the Constitution.”

[…]

On top of funding the two chambers of the Legislature, Article X of the state budget also funds nonpartisan agencies that are crucial for policymaking, including the Legislative Reference Library, which conducts research for the Legislature; the Legislative Budget Board, which develops policy and budget recommendations and provides fiscal analyses for legislation; the Legislative Council, which helps draft and analyze potential legislation; the State Auditor’s Office, which reviews the state’s finances; and the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the efficiency of state agencies.

Several of these agencies would be crucial for the all-important redrawing of political maps that lawmakers are expected to take up in an already planned special session in the fall.

[…]

Rottinghaus, who is working on a book about former Gov. Rick Perry, said the growth of the executive branch’s power is one of the themes of the book, but “Abbott has taken it to the next level.”

“Perry made the tune popular, but Abbott took it to No. 1 with a new band,” he said.

Perry could serve in some ways as a cautionary tale for Abbott. In 2007, Perry signed an executive order mandating that all sixth grade girls get vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer. But lawmakers came back during that legislative session and blocked his executive order, saying Perry had overstepped his authority.

“He backed off immediately. He saw he’d gone too far,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s a battle that the governor doesn’t want to pick because the courts could say he’s wrong, the Legislature could defund the executive branch in the same way — there’s all kinds of options that the Legislature can use. … That’s what Perry found. If you cross the Legislature, you’re risking a revolt you can’t contain.”

Not everyone believes the governor will follow through, however.

Abbott has until June 20 to announce his vetoes. The current biennial budget ends Aug. 31. If Abbott called back lawmakers before the end of August and got his priority bills passed, he could then let lawmakers restore the funding for the new budget starting in September without any impact to people employed by the legislative branch.

“Abbott likes to puff up and then deflates very quickly,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic political operative who runs the Lone Star Project. “He doesn’t have the guts to send termination notices to public servants who are just doing their jobs.”

On Thursday, Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty he would call lawmakers back for two special sessions. The previously planned fall special session would be in September or October and deal with redistricting and the allocation of $16 billion in federal COVID-19 funds. But before that, Abbott said, he’d call legislators back to work on the defeated elections and bail bills.

Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said he was doubtful the veto would come to pass and said it would reflect poorly on Abbott if it did. Staffers for Republican lawmakers who played no role in the Democratic walkout would also be harmed.

“If it’s a political statement that he’s making, that’s one thing,” Larson said. “But if he follows through with it, I think a lot of people will lose confidence in his ability to govern. I know independent voters, Democratic voters and a lot of Republican voters will lose confidence in his ability to govern if he starts retaliating toward the majority party that did not walk out of the Legislature. It makes no sense.”

See here for some background. Not making sense is not a bar to Abbott. I still think he’s more likely to back down at the end than not, but if I’m wrong about that I hope someone files a lawsuit and forces the courts to sort it out. I mean, if Abbott can zero out the legislative budget, he can do the same for the courts, and I have to think they would not like that. There’s only one way to find out, if it comes to that.

City’s budget passes

There was a little bit of drama, but nothing too big.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s City Council voted Wednesday to approve a $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year that relies heavily on a massive infusion of federal aid to close a $201 million budget hole and give firefighters their biggest raise in years.

Council members also banded together to rebuke the mayor by increasing the money given to district offices to spend on neighborhood projects for their constituents.

The council voted 16-1 to approve the spending plan after a lengthy meeting in which council members proposed nearly 100 amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s budget.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox voted against the budget. At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer later said she intended to vote no and tried to get the council to reconsider the vote, but her motion failed.

The body met in person for the first time in a year, with the members — most of whom are vaccinated — discussing the budget unmasked around the dais in City Hall chambers.

[…]

Most district council members joined forces to raise the amount their offices receive in a program that lets them spend money on neighborhood priorities. The 11 districts currently receive $750,000, and the council voted to hike that to $1 million each, at a total cost of $2.75 million. District J Councilmember Edward Pollard proposed the amendment, ultimately using money from the city’s reserve funds, prompting visible disappointment from the mayor.

The amendment passed, 10-7, with the mayor opposed. Turner said it could take money from city services like Solid Waste and risked depleting reserves ahead of an uncertain year.

“I was going to insist on a roll call vote, because you’re going to have to justify it,” Turner said before members cast their votes. Those supporting the amendment were Pollard, Amy Peck (District A), Tarsha Jackson (District B), Abbie Kamin (District C), Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D), Tiffany Thomas (District F), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K), and Michael Kubosh (At-Large).

It is exceedingly rare in Houston’s strong mayor form of government for the mayor to lose a vote, though Wednesday’s motion marked the third time in seven years council members have aligned themselves to expand the district funds during a budget vote.

See here for the background. The “Council members add money to their budgets” thing has been done before, though as the story notes it may not actually result in that money going to them. This is money that is already being spent, it was just a matter of shifting it from one line item to another. I’d actually be in favor of Council members having some more funds at their discretion, though there’s not likely to be room for that most years. A chunk of the federal money available for this year’s budget was set aside for now, pending fuller guidance from the feds as to what it can and can’t be used on. Not much else to say here.

In related news, from earlier in the week:

People caught illegally dumping in Houston now will face a steeper fine, after City Council approved a measure doubling the penalty.

The council unanimously approved hiking the fine to $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

“This is to make people pay for illegally dumping,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “It makes things far, far worse, it’s unattractive, it’s not safe. It’s a public health problem.”

Turner, who characterized the city’s efforts against illegal dumping as an “all-out attack,” also encouraged judges to enforce the law sternly.

Illegal dumping can range from a Class C misdemeanor — akin to a parking ticket — to a state jail felony, depending on the weight of the trash and whether the person previously has been caught dumping. Most cases involve Class B misdemeanors, or between five and 500 pounds. Enforcement is somewhat rare as it is difficult to identify perpetrators if they are not caught on camera.

The measure received wide acclaim from council members, who have noted anecdotal increases in dumping of late.

“It should be more,” Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said of the fine hike.

Illegal dumpers are scum who deserve to be fined heavily, no doubt about it. The problem is catching them in the act, because that’s about the only way this ever gets enforced. The city has deployed more cameras at frequent dump sites and that has helped some, but there’s a lot more of it going on. We have a ways to go to really make a dent in this.

More on the post-quorum break fallout

This Trib story mostly centers on the perspective of the Black legislators during the SB7 fight, and it’s a good read for that, but I want to focus on this bit here:

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

While the legislation in the Senate partly targeted Harris County, SB 7 carried the potential to alter the voting process across the state. Beyond banning extended early voting hours, it enhanced the freedoms of partisan poll watchers, set new rules for removing people from the voter rolls and further tightened vote-by-mail rules. In early May, lawmakers in the House negotiated a significantly slimmed down version of the bill that was narrower in scope and included a series of Democratic amendments. In recent days, some Democrats have indicated that version wouldn’t have prompted a walkout, though they wouldn’t have supported it.

Tension around the bill escalated in its last 48 hours through the Capitol as Republicans ironed out the differences in both chamber’s versions, choosing to include significant portions of the Senate’s more expansive version and dropping in a series of new provisions behind closed doors. The bill doubled in size to include new ID requirements for absentee voters and a higher standard for who could qualify to vote by mail based on a disability. Much of Democrats’ ire fell on a new rule mandating that early voting on Sunday couldn’t start until 1 p.m., which they saw as an unjustified attack on “souls to the polls” efforts churches use to turn out Black voters.

Republicans defended the additions as a standard part of the negotiation process, noting that some of them were pulled from other bills passed by the Senate or generally discussed by the chamber.

But the changes were revealed to the full Senate and House less than 48 hours before the deadline to approve the bill, setting off frustrations among Democrats over the lack of time to fully review the legislation. To keep the bill out of range of a filibuster, Senate Republicans used their majority to suspend their own rules and take up the final bill a day earlier than the rules required. Democrats said a resolution laying out many of the last-minute additions to the bill wasn’t presented to them until just before they were supposed to take it up.

In the House, the final bill was so hastily put together that state Rep. Briscoe Cain, who was ushering it through the chamber, said it left out a Democratic initiative he had promised to keep in. The report also misspelled the word equal as “egual.”

“It seemed like the fix was in from the beginning,” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said at a press conference early Sunday. “From the beginning, there was no interest in hearing how these measures would impact people of color.”

The description of how things were so rushed raises again a point I made in this post, which is why it took SB7 so long to get to a final vote. Look at the legislative history. The conference committee was appointed on May 19, and it took until May 30 for the final bill to appear, which kicked off the Senate suspending their rules and the final showdown in the House. Why did it take so long? Maybe the House committee members were trying to defend the Democratic amendments, but if so they ultimately did a lousy job of it. A whole lot of new stuff was added, but it seems to me that was mostly language taken from other bills that didn’t come to a vote. None of this should have taken so long, and yet it did. My theory, which so far no one else has even brought up (that I know of), is that the Republicans wanted to do this at the last minute, over the holiday weekend, because it limited the amount of attention they’d face as it was happening. I could be wrong about this – maybe they really couldn’t get their act together in time – and it surely didn’t work out the way they wanted, but until someone demonstrates otherwise, this is the reason I believe for why things unfolded as they did.

Of related interest:

A last-minute addition to the final version of Senate Bill 7, negotiated behind closed doors, set a new window for early voting on Sundays, limiting it to 1 to 9 p.m. Democrats and voting rights advocates said GOP lawmakers were targeting “souls to the polls,” the longtime practice by Black congregations that encourages members to go vote after Sunday morning services.

In an interview Tuesday with NPR, one of the negotiators, Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, said the 1 p.m. start time was an error and that it should have been 11 a.m. Despite his claim, no Republicans raised an issue with the start time during final debate over the bill, and one of them even defended it.

Clardy told NPR that the Sunday start time was “one of the things I look forward to fixing the most” in a special session.

“That was not intended to be reduced,” Clardy said. “I think there was a — call it a mistake if you want to — what should have been 11 was actually printed up as 1.”

Lawmakers are set to revisit the legislation in a yet-to-be-called special session after Democrats staged a walkout late Sunday night that blocked passage of SB 7 in the regular session, which ended Monday. In a Texas Tribune interview later Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was unaware of the specific mistake that Clardy was referring to but that he had heard there “clerical errors” with the final version of SB 7 and that he would be open to “making modifications” to the Sunday voting rules.

After Clardy’s interview with NPR, another GOP negotiator and the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, said that what Clardy said was true and that lawmakers intended to fix the start time in a special session.

Despite the new claims that the 1 p.m. start time was a mistake, Republicans did not flag it as an error in debate over the final version of SB 7 this weekend. In the Senate, SB 7’s author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, stood by the start time under Democratic questioning late Saturday night.

“Those election workers want to go to church, too,” Hughes said. “And so that’s why it says 1 p.m. [and] no later than 9 p.m. You can make Sunday service and go after that.”

When Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, pressed Hughes on that justification, Hughes admitted it wasn’t based on conversations with election workers but suggested that “souls to the polls” efforts promoted voting after the lunch hour.

“You can correct me, but souls to the polls — I thought we went to church and ate lunch and then voted,” Hughes said.

When the House moved Sunday night to pass SB 7, Cain noted that it did not outlaw voting initiatives “such as souls at the polls.”

Asked about Clardy’s comments Tuesday, Hughes said the “intent was to extend the Sunday voting hours” and that lawmakers would “make this clear in the special session.”

I mean, come on. The Republicans fully intended to limit Sunday voting to after 1 PM. What they’re saying now is one part PR, one part making a minor concession to try to appear reasonable, and one part trying to make the inevitable lawsuit a little harder to prosecute. Come up with better rationalizations, guys.

And then there’s this.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said Tuesday he has concerns with Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent vow to veto a section of the state budget that funds the Legislature, citing how the move to block such pay could impact staffers and legislative agencies.

“I understand the frustration the governor has in [lawmakers] not passing those emergency items — they were priorities of the governor, they were priorities of mine, priorities of many members of the Legislature,” Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “My only concern is how it impacts staff, especially those who live here in Austin, which is not an inexpensive place to live and raise your family and children.”

[…]

Phelan also said he thinks that, under the Constitution, lawmakers would still have to be paid even if Abbott carried out his veto. Lawmakers are paid $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session, during both regular and special sessions.

In an interview with the Tribune later Tuesday, Abbott insisted he still plans to veto that part of the budget and said that if Phelan is “concerned about it, he needs to do something about it.”

“He has a role to play here,” Abbott said. “He’s not some outside viewer. He’s a participant, and he needs to step up and get the job done.”

The governor has said he will summon the Legislature back to Austin for an overtime round to pass the legislation, though he has not yet specified when he plans to do so. Lawmakers are already expected to return this fall for a special session to redraw the state’s political maps.

Phelan said if Abbott carries out the veto, which he has until June 20 to do, lawmakers could be back for an earlier-than-anticipated overtime round to deal with the issue, since the budget involved covers the fiscal year starting Sept. 1.

The speaker also said he had concerns about how the move could impact legislative agencies such as the Legislative Budget Board, which are also funded by Article X of the budget.

“They weren’t the ones who decided that we were going to break quorum,” Phelan said.

Ever watch a movie that has an evil overlord who expresses his displeasure at some hapless minion who has failed him by murdering some other hapless minion? (See item #45 on that list.) That’s what this reminds me of. A whole lot of innocent civil servants may have their pay cut off because Abbott has his nose out of joint. Is that leadership or what?

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Sylvester Turner painted a dire picture of the city’s finances as he laid out his plan to balance last year’s $5 billion city budget.

Like other cities across the country, Houston’s sales tax revenue had plunged as the public stayed home, and Turner was proposing to make up the loss by furloughing 3,000 municipal workers, deferring police cadet classes, cutting the library budget and draining the city’s emergency reserves.

“These are financially difficult times, and it’s simply unavoidable,” Turner said of the cuts.

One year later, the city is emerging from the worst of the pandemic with its finances largely unscathed. Thanks to a payout of more than $1 billion in federal aid, Turner and city finance officials avoided the projected furloughs, reinstated the police cadet classes and are heading into the next fiscal year with replenished emergency reserves and a rare budget surplus.

Still, as City Council prepares to consider Turner’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan Wednesday, not everyone agrees on how the city should use its newfound wealth. Since prior mayoral administrations, city officials have passed annual budgets that spend more than the city takes in through recurring revenue, such as taxes. They have made up the difference by selling city-owned land, deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance on city buildings, dipping into cash reserves and using other one-time fixes. Turner has attributed much of the budgetary struggles to the city’s revenue cap, which limits annual growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population, whichever is lower.

City Controller Chris Brown and a number of council members have urged the mayor to use the relief money to address the long-standing budget issues, warning that added costs will leave the city in a precarious position when the federal money runs out. Eventually, the thinking goes, the city will run out of land to sell, while city infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and demand for city services will keep rising faster than the revenue used to fund them.

“The challenge is when that money runs out, if we add too many of the wrong things, i.e. recurring expenditures, it’s only going to exacerbate this structural imbalance in the future and make it that much worse,” Brown said.

Houston received a $304 million haul this year from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress in March, and it is set to receive the same amount in 2022, on top of a $400 million allotment it received last year from the first round of COVID aid. Turner is asking city council on Wednesday to approve a spending plan that uses $188 million of the aid to close most of the city’s projected budget deficit, and a chunk of the remaining funds to increase pay for Houston firefighters by 6 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

See here for the previous entry. I tend to lean towards what Controller Brown is saying, but we’ll see what the details of this budget are, and go from there. I know that my calls to trim the police budget while we still can went unheeded, but I’d welcome an amendment to that effect from one or more Council members. We have two years to make good use of these federal funds. Let’s do what we can to get the most out of them and put the city on a stronger financial footing going forward.

So now what?

Well, Greg Abbott gets to have a little temper tantrum, which may or may not end up in an immediate special session.

The Texas Legislature closed out its regular 140-day session Monday with sniping among the state’s top political leaders and lawmakers already well aware they will be back this calendar year for an overtime round.

“We will be back — when, I don’t know, but we will be back,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told members from the speaker’s dais. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but I look forward to doing it with every single one of you.”

Talk of a special session — and questions about how soon one may happen or what additional issues Gov. Greg Abbott could task legislators with — has largely defined the last weekend of the Legislature’s 140-day stretch after lawmakers left unfinished a number of GOP priorities and tensions between the two chambers escalated.

That drama reached new highs Sunday night when House Democrats staged a walk out and broke quorum, making it impossible to give final approval Senate Bill 7, a massive GOP priority voting bill that would tighten the state’s election laws, before the midnight deadline.

Abbott quickly made clear that the bill, along with another other priority legislation that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash, “STILL must pass” — and said that the two issues “will be added to the special session agenda.”

The governor, who is the only official who holds the power to convene a special session, has not yet specified whether he plans to order one ahead of an overtime round already planned for the fall to handle the redrawing of the state’s political maps. An Abbott spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment earlier Monday.

Before lawmakers adjourned though, Abbott made clear he intends to reprimand the Legislature over its unfinished business by vetoing the section of the state budget that funds the legislative branch.

“No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” he tweeted. “Stay tuned.”

Shortly after lawmakers adjourned for the final time, Abbott released a lengthier statement in which he applauded the Legislature for pushing through a series of conservative victories, while doubling down on his demands that lawmakers pass voting and bail legislation. But the governor also left open the possibility that other topics could be added to the agenda for the special session.

Lots of takes on Twitter about that, but the one that caught my attention was a reminder that legislators’s pay and per diem are defined in the Constitution, so it seems clear Greg Abbott can’t just take their pay away. (Not that most legislators depend on the pittance they do get paid.) What he could do, in effect, is kill the funding for a bunch of legislative agencies, which seems to me like a bad way to run government and also mostly an attack on non-partisan staffers. My guess is that someone with better sense will quietly talk him into writing a cranky statement with his signature of the budget and leave it at that, but you never know with a galaxy brain like that.

House Democrats earlier this week successfully killed proposals that would’ve banned local governments from using taxpayer dollars to pay lobbyists, prohibited social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoints and barred transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity. Abbott had previously said he would sign those bills.

“I expect legislators to have worked out their differences prior to arriving back at the Capitol so that they can hit the ground running to pass legislation related to these emergency items and other priority legislation,” he said.

A whole lot of lousy bills were left for dead by the quorum breaking, which is fine by me. Any or all of these bills could get revived in one or more special sessions, but there’s no guarantee they’d fare any better in overtime. One might reasonably ask why these bills were left to the last minute like that if they were of such utmost importance to Abbott et al. The Chron, the Press, and the Texas Signal have more.

Paxton sues over revocation of Medicaid 1115 waiver

Someone please explain to me if this has any merit.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration Friday to reinstate an eight-year extension to a federal health care funding agreement, worth billions of dollars annually and set to expire next year, that the state uses to help pay for health care for uninsured Texans.

Last month, federal health officials rescinded the Trump-era extension to the 1115 waiver agreement — which Texas has had with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services since 2011 and is up for review every few years — and ordered Texas to collect public input, as the agreement requires, while it renegotiates a new extension beyond its current October 2022 expiration date.

The decision did not stop the funding in the current waiver, which will continue to provide $3.87 billion in annual funding for 2021 and 2022 to partly offset free care provided by Texas hospitals to the uninsured, and to pay for innovative health care projects that serve low-income Texans, often for mental health services.

The extension, granted in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, would have continued hospital reimbursements until September 2030 but allowed the innovation fund to expire.

In his lawsuit filed Friday, Paxton said the decision was a political move by President Joe Biden that was meant to force Texas to expand its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Forcing Texas back to the drawing board on negotiations over the extension, which Paxton said would have amounted to $30 billion in federal funding through 2030, threatens to “destabilize” the programs the state funds through the waiver, he said.

[…]

The 1115 waiver was originally granted to Texas as a temporary funding bridge while the state developed its plan to expand its Medicaid program, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the ACA could not require states to do so — and Texas has since leaned on the 1115 waiver to help pay for care for the uninsured.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion have said that the state should utilize both 1115 waiver funding and expanded Medicaid eligibility, and have expressed confidence that the state would be able to negotiate the extension — with the required public input — before it expires.

“We have an attorney general and other state leaders who have made crystal clear the last few months and last few years that they have little interest in health care for working Texans — although they do have an obsession with filing lawsuits against the White House,” said Patrick Bresette, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. “This misguided lawsuit is the cherry on top of a legislative session in which state leaders shot down all attempts to give an affordable health insurance option to janitors, cooks, grocery store clerks, and other Texans.”

“This would be a disaster for our state, and yet President Biden seems intent on thrusting his bloated model of government on everyone — including Texas,” he said in a statement Friday.

See here and here for some background, and here for a reminder that the Republicans have once again passed on the opportunity to fully expand Medicaid and make this issue moot. Let’s put aside the irony of a guy who is the lead attorney on a still-active case that would entirely kill the Affordable Care Act if he wins suing to keep federal funds flowing into Texas and ask the key question: This is a federal program, which requires federal approval. Doesn’t that mean that the federal government has some discretion here? If one accepts the premise that this move by the feds was purely capricious and driven by partisan motives, then sure, a lawsuit would be an appropriate remedy. On the other hand, if the feds reasonably believe that the extension, granted in the waning days of a President that gave little care to details and openly favored Republican states, was done in error, well, don’t they have the authority to correct that? I’m asking because I have no idea what the fine points of the law are here, and I have no reason to believe anything Ken Paxton says. That by itself doesn’t mean that the law couldn’t be on his side, though. I welcome any informed feedback on this. The Chron has more.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

Better cut your police budget now while you still can

That’s one possible takeaway from this.

The Texas House on Friday passed a bill to financially penalize the state’s largest cities if they cut their police budgets. The measure was sent to the Senate after two days of heated debate and emotional speeches, with the bill authors calling to “back the blue” and the opposition decrying the bill as political propaganda.

House Bill 1900 comes after a year of civil rights advocates calling on cities to reduce what they spend on policing and to reform police behavior. Those calls were spurred by high-profile deaths at the hands of police like George Floyd’s in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos’ in Austin.

Among Texas’ largest cities, only Austin cut its law enforcement funding last year, though almost all of that decrease came from an accounting shift of money that still allows traditional police duties to remain funded, but potentially in different city departments. Still, the city’s response to some activists’ calls to “defund the police” prompted harsh and immediate backlash from Republican state leaders, who have pointed to fast-rising homicide rates throughout the state and country as a reason to maintain police funding levels.

Gov. Greg Abbott became laser-focused on Austin’s budget and “backing the blue,” making legislation to punish cities that decrease police funding one of his emergency items this year.

After initial passage Thursday, HB 1900 was finally approved on a 90-49 vote Friday and sent to the upper chamber. The Senate’s related bill, which would require an election before cities could decrease police funding, passed out of the upper chamber last month. It’s unclear how either chamber will react to their counterpart’s proposal.

HB 1900 was authored by Republican state Reps. Craig Goldman, Will Metcalf, Greg Bonnen and Angie Chen Button and Democrat Richard Peña Raymond. If a city with more than 250,000 residents was determined by the governor’s office to have cut police funding, the bill would allow the state to appropriate part of a city’s sales taxes and use that money to pay expenses for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Such cities would also be banned from increasing property taxes or utility rates, which could have been used to compensate for the reapportioned sales taxes.

The bill does allow cities to cut police department budgets if such a decrease is proportionally equal to an overall city budget decrease. Cities can also get approval to cut police budgets if expenses for one year were higher because of capital expenditures or disaster response. The bill would also let neighborhoods annexed in the last 30 years to vote to deannex themselves from a city that has decreased funding to its police department.

[…]

Several other Democrats offered amendments Thursday to add exceptions for when a city could cut police department funding. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio offered leniency so city council members wouldn’t opt against a necessary increase in police funding for fear they could not turn it back the next year. And state Rep. Jarvis Johnson of Houston filed multiple amendments, including one to not punish cities for cutting civilian positions within law enforcement agencies. He said the Houston Police Department has more than 1,200 civilian jobs, including janitors and other positions he listed off.

“At any given time that Houston Police Department decides we no longer need a car attendant, we no longer need a car attendant supervisor, we no longer need a truck driver, we no longer need a typist, that does not mean that the city of Houston has decided to defund the police,” he said.

The amendments failed, as the Democrats denounced what they called partisan rhetoric and a move for state control over large cities.

On Friday, state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, offered up amendments to first eliminate the 250,000 population cap which Democrats argued only punished larger, more liberal cities. When that failed, he attempted to set the population cap at 50,000, then 200,000. Both amendments failed. His argument that the 250,000 limit was an arbitrary number and goes against the legislative intent of public safety for all Texans could buttress potential legal challenges if the bill is signed into law.

“If we’re true to our word to say why we are doing this … then we should accept this amendment to apply to all 30 million Texans,” he said.

Well, the real reason they’re doing this is because Greg Abbott was mad at Austin, but it’s not polite to bring that up. And not having a significant minimum population requirement means the law might have to apply to places that Republicans represent (*), and we can’t have that. So here we are. By the way, law enforcement agencies from the cities that this bill targets opposed it, and got the same result they got in opposing permitless carry. We have a strange definition of “backing the blue”, it seems.

Anyway. My suggestion in the title is not original to me, I got it from Grits for Breakfast post.

The Legislature gets to write the laws, but even they are not immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences. I don’t think legislators have considered the incentives they’re putting in place in HB 1900 punishing cities that “defund” police department (by which in Austin’s case they mean delaying cadet classes by one year). Going forward, cities that increase police spending can never again lower it. But they often need to do so. Now, cities will decline to spend more, knowing they won’t be allowed to spend less. Bill authors even rejected amendments so that overtime for one-off special events – like a Super Bowl weekend in Houston – would be counted against them the following year. If I’m right about the new incentives facing city councils under this legislation, the result will be to suppress police spending instead of bolster it. I predict that if HB 1900 becomes law, when we look back five years from now the growth rate in police budgets will have flattened, not rallied.

Indeed, the most delicious irony may well come if HB 1900 ends up itself defunding the police!

Note that this is the same logic that led to Harris County Commissioner’s Court proposing a property tax rate increase in 2019 as a way to hedge against the revenue cap law that the Lege passed that year, which would essentially prevent them from ever raising rates in the future regardless of situation or need. (This was only defeated because of an anti-majoritarian quirk in the law that allowed a minority of Commissioners to prevent the vote by breaking quorum.) I don’t actually think any city will take this action for the simple reason that it turns the heat on them in an uncomfortable way, but the incentive is there. I do think Grits is correct that the future effect will be to introduce extreme reluctance to approve any increase in police budgets, because it’s a one-way ratchet that can only have negative effects elsewhere. Indeed, it’s likely just a matter of time before city controllers and city managers start releasing five-year budget projections that warn of various consequences from this bill. Among other things – and I expect this is why the big city police departments opposed this – this will put downward pressure on wages and benefits for police officers, as well as a strong disincentive to approve overtime. Cities are going to do what they need to do. If you don’t like it, go yell at Greg Abbott.

(*) – Technically not true, though the large majority of State Reps from the cities this will apply to are Democrats. That may change in the near future, as places outside the big urban counties like Frisco, Grand Prairie, and McKinney become covered by HB1900. Maybe that will make their Republican representatives more receptive to the idea of modifying or repealing that law in the future, or maybe these cities will follow in the footsteps of places like Garland and Irving and just become Democratic cities themselves. The list on unintended consequences here could wind up being very long indeed.

State finally releases most federal stimulus funds for schools

About damn time.

Texas’s top state leaders announced Wednesday they are releasing $11.2 billion out of nearly $18 billion available in federal pandemic relief funding that has been dedicated for the state’s public schools.

The announcement comes as education advocates and Democratic lawmakers have been urging officials in recent weeks to release the money that was set aside by Congress for Texas’ public schools to address learning loss and cover pandemic-related education expenses.

It’s unclear how the state plans to spend the remaining $7 billion in stimulus money, which was allocated through multiple aid packages in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That funding could not be immediately released due to federal requirements, state officials said.

[…]

State officials had previously argued the reason they hadn’t allocated the one-time funding to the schools was because they were awaiting federal government guidance about whether the state would need to increase funding for higher education to make the K-12 funding available.

Last week, the federal government weighed in and clarified the state must maintain both higher education and public education funding at the same proportion to the budget as it was in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to tap into those dollars. Effectively, that means Texas would have to increase higher education spending by $1.2 billion to unlock the K-12 stimulus dollars.

Abbott has applied for a federal waiver that would allow Texas to bypass increasing higher education spending, but no decision has been announced on whether the waiver was granted. His office did not respond to questions about what this announcement means for higher education funding or why the public school funding was released. The announcement said legislative leaders will work to address outstanding issues about distributing the rest of the federal funding by the end of the legislative session.

K-12 and higher education advocates argue increasing funding for higher education is worth it to receive the nearly $18 billion in relief funds for K-12 schools.

“The state is seeking a federal waiver to avoid this additional spending, but that is the wrong thing to do, especially at a time when our institutions of higher education need the additional funding to cover extra expenses incurred during the pandemic,” said Texas Faculty Association President Pat Heintzelman in a press release this week.

School districts also called the state to release the money because they need to know how much money schools will receive as they develop budgets for next year. While the funding can be used for a variety of resources, including extra mental health support, counselors and more staff, school leaders were growing concerned they would run out of time to hire the necessary staff without access to more money.

“This is a positive first step in getting the funds our schools need,” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that it took nearly two months of pushing the governor to get to this point. Many districts that have been contemplating cuts related to pandemic expenses can now implement plans to help students catch up.”

See here for the background. One reason for the increasing concern is that school districts have to be planning their budgets for next academic year, and there will surely need to be a lot of summer instruction as well. It’s so much better to have the funds in place and know what you’re getting rather than guess how much and when. The Chron adds a few details.

Houston-area district leaders have not yet detailed precise plans for stimulus money, largely because they did not know how much they will receive or when funding would arrive. However, several superintendents have identified top priorities, such as hiring more staff, extending the school day or year, upgrading ventilation systems and providing retention bonuses.

TEA officials released each district’s share of the $11 billion on Wednesday, cautioning that only two-thirds of the money will be available immediately. The remaining one-third will arrive once the U.S. Department of Education approves Texas’ written plan for the money.

The funds will flow in proportions similar to federal Title I money, meaning public school districts with a higher percentage of students from lower-income families will receive a greater share of the cash.

Houston ISD will receive about $800 million, equal to roughly 40 percent of its annual general fund operating costs. The more affluent Cy-Fair ISD will secure about $190 million, slightly less than 20 percent of its annual operating costs. The even-more affluent Katy ISD will net about $67 million, just under 10 percent of its annual operating costs.

This money will do a lot of good. It’s frustrating we had to wait as long as we did to get it, but at least it’s finally here, with more to come.

House passes its budget

The rites of spring in Texas: The start of baseball season, the first 90-degree day, and in odd-numbered years, the House Budget Amendment-Palooza.

The Texas House on Thursday night unanimously passed its proposed two-year, $246 billion state budget after members spent hours deliberating which tweaks to make to the massive spending plan.

The House’s proposed budget includes measures that would ban school vouchers, empty the governor’s economic development fund and cap some attorney general spending. But such amendments are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan. The proposal now heads back to the Senate, where the legislation will all but certainly then head to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.

In a statement after Thursday’s vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the chamber passed “a balanced budget that keeps spending in check while addressing the multitude of challenges that our state experiences, especially those experienced over the past year.”

One of the more notable votes happened Thursday afternoon when state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced an amendment that aimed to expand state and federal health care coverage for uninsured Texans. After a brief debate though, the amendment failed 68-80, with one Republican — state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — voting for it.

Later Thursday, House members also tackled another point of contention that’s emerged in recent weeks at the Legislature: What to do with tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus relief. The chamber unanimously adopted an amendment by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, to require a special legislative session to appropriate billions in funds that may come in after the Legislature adjourns from its regular session in May.

Before the vote, Morrison said “it is clear … that our founding fathers intended for appropriations to be handled by the Texas Legislature.”

House members also signed off Thursday on a supplemental budget to cover expenses from the current budget. The vote on that legislation, House Bill 2, was also unanimous.

See here for a bit of background. One sign that the ground on which we fight the big culture wars these days has shifted is that I hadn’t given a single thought to school vouchers this session. That great bugaboo from the early to mid-2000’s has lost its luster as a divisive force. Even Dan Patrick had bigger fish to fry this session. I’m perfectly happy to give vouchers a kick in the nads every other year, but I do wish some of the newer culture war hot button issues were as beatable.

Of interest.

The Texas House moved Thursday to rein in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s spending on outside attorneys that are costing taxpayers up to $3,800 an hour.

A state budget amendment brought Thursday by Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, caps the amount that Paxton’s office can pay for outside legal expenses at $500 an hour. The amendment passed the House 73-64.

The House version of the budget, once finalized, will still need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version.

Paxton found himself in hot water with Texas lawmakers this budgeting cycle after he requested more than $43 million for an antitrust lawsuit he launched against Google and hired attorneys at a rate that could cost the state as much as $3,780 an hour for the most senior attorneys, according to their contract.

González, who is an attorney, said her bill is aimed at avoiding such costs in the future.

“Think about all the good we could do with that money,” she said. “How many lives could we improve by spending this money on public education or health care? While our indicted attorney general is dealing with scandal in his own agency, we as legislators need to ensure our constituents’ tax dollars are being used to help people, and not being wasted on exorbitant legal fees.”

During a tense hearing in February, the Texas Senate’s Finance Committee chastised Paxton for his spending on outside counsel in that suit. Paxton had argued that the lawyers were necessary because the case involves a specialized area of law, and the body ultimately did not slash his budget.

See here for some background on that. It’s not clear to me what effect this amendment would have, assuming it survives in the Senate and the conference committee. Maybe Paxton will still be able to pay those fancy outside lawyers as much as he agreed to pay them, they’ll just have to bill for more hours in order to be able to claim all of it. My guess is that this is a symbolic slap on the wrist, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

Today is not the day we expand Medicaid

Tomorrow isn’t looking so good either.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Texas House on Thursday rejected an attempt to direct the governor and state health officials to use billions in federal dollars to expand health care coverage for uninsured Texans, including working poor who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford their own health insurance.

On a vote of 80-68, lawmakers voted down the proposal, which was floated as a two-page amendment to the state budget on Thursday.

The debate, which was highly anticipated by advocates of expanding coverage for uninsured Texans, was expected to be heated and drawn out. It lasted less than 20 minutes.

[…]

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who sponsored the amendment, said it wouldn’t force the state to expand traditional Medicaid but would direct Abbott and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to negotiate a federal funding agreement, known as a 1115 demonstration waiver, to create a plan that would cover more uninsured Texans, including those who would qualify for coverage under a traditional Medicaid expansion plan.

The resulting plan could have been a traditional expansion of Medicaid to cover adults who earn up to a certain amount, or a “look-alike” that combines state and federal funds to create a state program that accomplishes a similar goal, Coleman said.

Such state-crafted plans have been passed in several states, mainly conservative states like Indiana and Ohio.

“I would like for us to expand traditional Medicaid in the optional way that the ACA says you can do it,” Coleman said on the House floor. “But we can’t do that. And we know that … That is not what this amendment does.”

Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, said the idea “puts Texas in the driver’s seat, and really Gov. Abbott in the driver’s seat” instead of forcing their hand or pushing through a program unpopular with conservatives.

But Republican state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, the only House member to speak against the bill during Thursday’s debate, said that creating a new health care program — Medicaid or otherwise — is far too complicated an endeavor to tackle in a two-page amendment and cautioned that it in fact looked like a way to expand Medicaid without a public hearing or extended floor debate.

“This topic is incredibly important, it’s complex, and frankly, it’s not appropriately handled in this amendment,” Capriglione said.

House Democrats, a handful of Republicans, and health care advocates, as well as nearly 200 groups and community leaders across Texas, still have some hope for House Bill 3871 by state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton. That bill creates the “Live Well Texas” plan that uses a 1115 waiver to capture the federal dollars and expand Medicaid eligibility, and it includes incentives for people to continue working as well as increases in Medicaid reimbursements to attract more doctors to the program.

The bill has 76 House sponsors, nine of whom are Republicans, giving it enough support to pass the House. But it has been stuck in the GOP-led House Human Services Committee since March, waiting on a hearing that becomes increasingly less likely as the Texas Legislature barrels toward its final days at the end of May.

Only one of the Republican sponsors of HB 3871 voted for the Coleman amendment.

See here and here for the background. In a vacuum, I can accept Rep. Capriglione’s explanation for why this was the wrong vehicle to handle a complex health care topic, but given that the Lege has refused to consider Medicaid expansion for a decade, and as Rep. Coleman notes we’re only trying to do this the hard way because Republicans refuse to do it the easy way, I’m less sympathetic. Even if this amendment had been adopted, there would be no guarantee it would be in the final budget – as Scott Braddock notes, what matters is the conference committee. In theory, that means this could be revived there, but let’s just say one should not bet on that outcome. All respect to Reps. Coleman and Johnson, but we’ve seen this movie before, and I don’t expect it to end any differently this time around.