Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

July 14th, 2021:

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.

Lawsuit filed against “heartbeat” abortion law

Normally, I’d say this has an excellent chance of success, given that all previous litigation over such bans have been wins for the plaintiffs. But we are in uncharted territory here.

Two months after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law banning abortion as early as six weeks, more than 20 abortion providers responded with a lawsuit against top Texas officials aimed at stopping one of the country’s strictest abortion measures to date.

The suit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Known as the “heartbeat bill,” Senate Bill 8 was heavily criticized because it limits abortion to two weeks after a missed menstrual cycle, a time when some women don’t yet know they’re pregnant. It aims to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which is considered a misnomer as a fetus doesn’t possess a heart at six weeks’ gestation.

Around 85% of those who obtain abortions in Texas are at least six weeks into their pregnancy, according to a press release from the Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, a lead plaintiff in the suit.

“We’ve beaten back these attacks before. We can and we will do it again,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, executive director of Whole Woman’s Health, said at a press conference. “These are dark days, and it’s easy to feel like the extremists in the Texas Legislature are running the table.”

A particularly controversial provision of the law allows private citizens to sue abortion providers and others who help someone get an abortion after six weeks.

Republican legislators removed responsibility for enforcement from state officials; instead, the law allows any Texan to sue providers they think are not complying with state abortion laws, thus pushing enforcement to the civil court system. This is intended to make the bill harder to block in courts.

Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights and lead attorney on the suit, said this provision could produce “endless lawsuits,” leave abortion clinics vunerable to harrassment and possible closure, intimidate pregnat women, and leave them with fewer avenues of help.

“It allows complete strangers, anti-abortion activists, to sue and interfere with the patient’s decision,” Hearron said. “Those people may try to essentially hijack the courts for their ideological agenda.”

Citizens who file such suits would not need to have a connection to an abortion provider or a person seeking an abortion or even reside in Texas. Those who win lawsuits would be awarded a minimum of $10,000 in damages, as well as attorney’s fees.

This isn’t the first time a private-citizen suit provision has been included in a Texas abortion law.

It was first tested in Lubbock, with a voter-approved city ordinance that outlaws abortions and empowers “the unborn child’s mother, father, grandparents, siblings and half-siblings” to sue for anyone who helps another person get an abortion. A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance last month, finding that Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the plaintiff, did not have standing to sue the city.

Hearron said that his organization hopes to overcome that obstacle in the suit against the state law by naming state officials as defendants. Eight state officials were sued in the new lawsuit, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, Texas Board of Nursing Executive Director Katherine A. Thomas, and Texas Health and Human Services Commission Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said they named officials who are not charged with directly enforcing Senate Bill 8 but still have authority to enforce related laws.

“If this is not blocked, if this is successful, it would set a truly dangerous precedent, because states could eviscerate their own citizens’ federal constitutional rights by creating a private lawsuit to do what their own officials couldn’t do,” Hearron said.

See here and here for more on that Lubbock situation. I don’t know if this approach will be any more successful, but I trust these folks know what they’re doing. It’s nuts to think there could be no proactive remedy against such a law, but who knows what the courts will do.

The Chron adds some details.

[Whole Woman’s President and Chief Executive Officer Amy] Hagstrom Miller said the Texas law has already impacted her facilities, making it harder to recruit new staff who worry about the near-term viability of the work and creating aggressive interactions between patients, employees and anti-abortion rights activists.

She described one scenario in which activists entered a clinic and began soliciting for whistleblowers who could provide information for future civil suits. The lawsuit names the director of Right to Life East Texas, Mark Lee Dickson, as a defendant in the case, and includes a letter purportedly distributed at one of the Whole Woman’s Health four clinics in the state.

[…]

The litigation filed Tuesday could face a difficult legal path.

Earlier this year Planned Parenthood, which has several clinics in the state, sued to block a new Lubbock ordinance that uses a similar enforcement strategy. The suit was dismissed after a judge ruled that the provider had not shown it was harmed yet by the measure. Planned Parenthood has since asked the court to reconsider, and says it has stopped providing abortions in Lubbock.

Hagstrom Miller said she and others involved in the suit, including fellow abortion providers, abortion funds, clinic staff and clergy, have been following the Lubbock case closely, and are preparing for all outcomes. While some legal scholars have suggested that providers could protest the law by continuing to perform post-six-week abortions come September, Hagstrom Miller said that would be logistically difficult, and she was not willing to ask her staff to defy a law that could leave them vulnerable to malpractice claims.

Like I said, I have no idea what to expect. I am fervently hoping for success for the plaintiffs, but to say the least it’s a tough road they have ahead of them. The Press has more.

Senate Republicans advance their anti-trans sports bill

There were enough of them on the committee to have a quorum by themselves, so they did the thing that they do.

Legislation that would limit transgender students’ participation in school sports advanced out of a Senate committee on Monday after similar legislation failed to pass during the regular session.

With no Democratic members present after dozens of Democrats fled the state, in an attempt to halt GOP-backed voting restrictions legislation, six Republicans on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee still had a quorum and held their first public hearing on two bills during the days-old special legislative session. Gov. Greg Abbott added the issue to lawmakers’ agenda when he called the special session.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who is also vice chair of the committee and who authored Senate Bill 2 and Senate Bill 32, said the bills would protect cisgender women’s rights to compete in their desired sports.

Both of the bills would require student athletes to participate on sports teams that correspond with the student’s sex assigned at birth or listed on their official birth certificate at or near the time of birth. SB 32 would impact sports at K-12 public schools, while SB 2 covers both K-12 and public colleges and universities.

“It reminds us that it’s not OK to destroy the dreams of one for the benefit of another,” Perry said during the committee hearing, arguing that transgender boys and men could take opportunities away from cisgender girls and women.

Advocates for transgender athletes and other opponents of the bill argued that there was little evidence that transgender athletes were joining sports teams.

Maddox Hilgers, who identifies as nonbinary and is a graduate student at the University of Houston, implored the committee to halt the legislation.

“This argument that transgender athletes will take over women’s sports is ridiculous, because there just not enough transgender girls to do that,” Hilgers said.

The University Interscholastic League of Texas — which oversees and governs high school athletics in Texas — currently requires the gender of students be “determined based on a student’s birth certificate.”

But the UIL recognizes changes made to a student’s birth certificate, including when a transgender person has the gender on their birth certificate changed to correspond with their gender identity, said Jamey Harrison, the UIL deputy director. But SB 2 and SB 32 would no longer allow that.

As the story notes, this is basically the same bill that was passed by the Senate in the regular session but eventually died on the House calendar despite the best efforts of Harold Dutton. At the time, the NCAA made some threatening noises about bills like this, but I don’t know how closely they’re paying attention now. Of course, as long as Dems in the House stay out of town, this bill and any others are dead in the water, but we all know the current situation will come to an end sooner or later. I don’t know how much something like this gets prioritized if we get into crunch time for redistricting, but I wouldn’t count on it disappearing. The Chron and Jessica Shortall, who live-tweeted the hearing, have more.

Lee Merritt officially joins the AG race

We now have a contested Democratic primary for Attorney General.

Lee Merritt

Lee Merritt, the nationally known civil rights attorney, is officially running for Texas attorney general as a Democrat.

Merritt is set to launch his campaign at a 9 a.m. news conference outside the Texas Capitol in Austin, with an emphasis on the voting rights battle that prompted state House Democrats to flee the state Monday.

“Texas Republicans have launched an all-out assault on voter rights and civil liberties,” Merritt said in a statement, adding that incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton and other GOP leaders are “blatantly attempting to turn back progress in the Lone Star State using the familiar tactics of voter suppression, divisive rhetoric and corporate money.”

“This campaign is a response from the people of Texas,” Merritt said.

[…]

In addition to voting rights, Merritt’s camapign said it would focus on “fixing Texas’ failing power grid, reigning in soaring property taxes, ending mass incarceration and challenging gubernatorial overreach.”

Merritt joins Joe Jaworski, a Galveston lawyer and former mayor of the city, in the Democratic primary against Paxton. The incumbent has his own competitive primary, featuring challenges from Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Eva Guzman, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court.

Merritt announced his intent to run in March, with a promise to make a formal announcement later. Joe Jaworski has been in the race for awhile, and of course there’s the Republican side of things. It will be interesting to see how Democratic interest groups line up for this one. I know Jaworski, I have not yet met Merritt, but he’s got a great resume and I’m eager to hear what he has to say. It’s good to have some contested primaries among good candidates on the Democratic side, as that will generate some much-needed attention. Good luck to Lee Merritt and Joe Jaworski, and may the best candidate win.