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Dade Phelan

Day 13 quorum busting post: Just a reminder, the voter suppression bill still sucks

I’ll get to that in a minute, but first there’s this bit of business.

Rep. Philip Cortez

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, signed a civil warrant for the arrest of state Rep. Philip Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat who rejoined his colleagues in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to help prevent the passage of a GOP-backed election bill.

The warrant is not likely to have impact since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction outside the state. It is the first one signed by the speaker since more than 50 House Democrats left the state to block Republicans from having the quorum needed to pass legislation during the special legislative session that began earlier this month.

Last week, Cortez returned to Austin from Washington in what he said was an attempt to engage in “good faith dialogue” about House Bill 3, the election legislation. Other Democrats criticized Cortez’s move, saying the lawmaker did not first consult with them before returning to Austin.

By Sunday though, Cortez was back in Washington, saying in a statement that talks with lawmakers in Austin on negotiating the legislation “have not produced progress.”

In a statement Monday, Phelan said that Cortez “has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber” after the lawmaker “represented to me and his fellow members that he wanted to work on policy and find solutions to bring his colleagues back to Texas.”

“As a condition of being granted permission to temporarily leave the House floor, Rep. Cortez promised his House colleagues that he would return,” the speaker said. “Instead, he fled the state.”

Cortez, who chairs the House Urban Affairs Committee, did not directly address the warrant in a statement Monday that said he owes “a duty to my constituents to do everything I can to stop this harmful legislation.”

I didn’t blog about the Cortez situation at the time. There were conflicting reactions from different House Dems, with some being quite pointed in their criticism of his actions, saying he was not representing them. It seems clear from the Chron story that some but not all of that has been cleared up.

Cortez said in a Monday morning interview that he decided to rejoin his Democratic colleagues in the nation’s capital after three unsuccessful meetings last week with state Rep. Andrew Murr of Junction, the GOP sponsor of the elections measure.

He and Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, one of the few Democrats who decided not to flee the state, had gone into negotiations with “six or seven pressure points” that they’d hoped to address — mostly concerning provisions in the bill that deal with the role of partisan poll watchers. But Cortez said Murr wouldn’t budge until Democrats came back to Texas.

“There was not any positive progress in terms of being able to move forward and improve the bill or improve the language of the bill, and upon seeing that, I decided to return back to D.C. and join my colleagues,” he said.

[…]

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie and the head of the Texas Democratic Caucus, issued a statement Sunday night lauding Cortez as a “valued member of our caucus” who colleagues welcomed back to D.C. “with open arms.”

It was a de-escalation of a bitter back-and-forth that at times played out over social media last week as Democrats expressed frustration over Cortez’s departure, which he did not discuss with the delegation beforehand. Abhi Rahman, a Democratic aide, called Cortez a “gutless coward who has earned himself a primary challenge.”

Rahman said in an interview Monday that public pressure likely pushed Cortez to return.

“This isn’t the time for negotiations on voting,” Rahman said.

No one ever said this was for the faint of heart.

I don’t know enough about what Cortez thought he was doing, or whether he had sufficient buy-in to do what he did, but I do know that this bill continues to suck, and while it will never be worthwhile from our perspective, it could be made to be less actively harmful.

Amid all the fighting, most lawmakers have apparently overlooked a provision that would force counties to automatically reject some mail-in ballot applications. Here’s why: The Republican-authored legislation would require voters to submit either their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number when applying to vote by mail. That number would then be cross-checked with the state’s voter-registration database. Most applicants would be fine, because almost 90 percent of all registered Texas voters have both their Social Security number and driver’s license number in the database. However, 1.9 million voters—about 11 percent of the total—have only one of the two numbers on file with the state.

During late-night testimony to a committee of the Texas House on July 10, Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County, explained that most of the voters with only one number on file wouldn’t remember which number they filed, often many years earlier, and would have to guess. “You have a 50 percent chance of the voter guessing wrong,” said Davis. Guess wrong and your application would be rejected, even if it’s been twenty years since you used your Social Security or driver’s license number to register to vote. “I challenge any person on the committee: do you remember what you filled out when you got your voter registration? I certainly don’t. And I’m in the business of this. And if [the numbers] don’t match, we’re rejecting.”

[…]

First during the regular session and then again in the ongoing special session, the authors of the “election integrity” legislation increasingly weakened crucial guardrails protecting the security of mail ballots. In addition to the new ID-matching requirements, it now contains a flawed way for voters to “cure,” or fix, a rejected mail-in ballot.

Enrique Marquez, spokesperson for House Speaker Dade Phelan, declined to answer questions about why the House moved the bill forward without addressing the ID-matching and curing issues, nor would he say whether there was any specific plan for addressing these issues if the House Democrats return to Austin. “There are no bills that can be considered on the floor until Democrats return home,” Marquez wrote in an email. “However, House Bill 3 author Andrew Murr has repeatedly stated he will work with all his colleagues to make the best bill possible.” (Murr’s chief of staff said Murr was aware of the problem and “looked forward to working with colleagues about remedying concerns about how differing numbers could result in a ballot not being counted.”)

Davis said many Republicans have failed to listen to the complaints of election officials, ignoring suggestions for improvements to nonpartisan, process-related issues. “It’s just like ‘Who is steering this bus?’” Davis told me. “They are following the pattern of only listening to their ‘the steal is real’ base and not consulting with any county elections officers.”

Davis said that while he decided to testify before the House, he chose not to give testimony before the Senate because Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who chairs the State Affairs Committee, had brushed him off so many times before. Davis said he reached out to Hughes’s office about the ID-matching problem multiple times, but never received confirmation that a fix was in the works. Two legislative staffers, one working for a Republican and one for a Democrat, confirmed that the Texas secretary of state’s office had also advised legislators that the ID-matching provision needed to contain a failsafe for voters who do not have both numbers in the registration system, but the changes were never made. The staffers requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about negotiations. “Why are [election administrators] going to waste our time testifying?” asked Davis, who was appointed to his nonpartisan job by the Williamson County Commissioners’ Court. “They don’t care what we have to say. They haven’t from the beginning.”

County election administrators say the ID-matching provision imposes significant burdens on their offices, and they are unclear how to enforce it. Under the new language, the ID number—either a partial Social Security number or a driver’s license number—would have to be written on the envelope, forcing counties to spend thousands of dollars redesigning envelopes in order to accommodate a privacy flap that poll workers would peek under to check the number. “We’ve joked about whether it should be a scratch-off,” Davis said. If poll workers make an error or if voters, for example, transpose two numbers by accident, the application would be rejected with little opportunity for the voter to address the problem. “We don’t have time for that,” Davis said. “We’re getting down to registration deadlines by the time we receive a lot of these. There’s no time for the voter to mail another one.”

You should read the rest to learn more about the “curing” issue, in which untrained partisans get to review mail ballots and determine whether the signature on the (unopened) envelope matches the signature that’s on file from when you registered to vote. As the bill stands now, there’s no way to appeal if your ballot is rejected, and no opportunity to fix it, even though this kind of “curing” is standard and easily done in many states. This would also be redundant if the driver’s license or Social Security number matches, since the point of that is to verify identity. There are simple fixes, and the Republicans in the Lege have been aware of them for months, yet here we still are. There might be room to get the Dems back if dumb stuff like this were taken out or fixed, but the Republicans say they can’t or won’t do any of that until the Dems return on their own. That ain’t gonna happen, at least not in this session.

One thing that will happen:

Texas House Democrats who left the state to block GOP-backed efforts to enact new voting restrictions will testify on those proposals before a U.S. House subcommittee this week.

State Reps. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, Nicole Collier of Fort Worth and Diego Bernal of San Antonio are expected to make appearances on Thursday before the civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform in a specially called hearing on contentious Texas legislation that would rewrite state election laws. The hearing will come in the middle of Texas Democrats’ third week in Washington, D.C., offering them a more formal stage on which to make their case against the legislation that prompted them to decamp to the U.S. capital.

“America is facing the most sweeping assault on the voting rights of the people since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement. “Texas is now Ground Zero in this battle, and we are honored to have these Texas lawmakers come to testify before our subcommittee about the struggle to defend basic democracy in their state.”

Again, the House isn’t really the problem, the Senate is, and it’s the ridiculous fidelity to the filibuster that’s at the heart of it. I refuse to give up hope, but time is not on our side. But at least our people in DC will get to be heard.

Day 4 quorum busting post: You may have won a free trip home!

I don’t think the Dems are going to claim this prize.

The push to bring fugitive Texas Democrats back to Austin could be reaching new heights.

House Speaker Dade Phelan on Thursday said he will charter a plane Saturday from Washington D.C. to Austin to retrieve the Democrats who fled to the nation’s capital to avoid voting on an elections bill that they say would restrict voting rights.

“I am demanding all of our colleagues in D.C. to contact my staff immediately in order to secure their seat on the plane and return to Austin in order to do the state’s business,” Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said in a statement. “The State of Texas is waiting.”

The decamped Democrats, however, said they won’t be riding.

“The Speaker should save his money. We won’t be needing a plane anytime soon as our work to save democracy from Trump Republicans is just getting started,” they said in a shared statement. “We’re not going anywhere and suggest instead the speaker end this charade of a session, which is nothing more than a monthlong campaign for Gov. Abbott’s re-election. The speaker should adjourn the House Sine Die.”

May need to work on the marketing pitch. I don’t know that there’s anything Speaker Phelan would be empowered to offer the Dems as an incentive to return, given the shit sandwich that is the special session agenda, but that’s about the only approach I can think of that might have a chance, at least at this time. Just waiting it out and hoping/expecting that circumstances will eventually compel enough of them to return is the most likely play.

Of course, Speaker Phelan can continue applying the stick and hope for the best.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody was stripped of his position as speaker pro tem of the Texas House on Thursday in the first major backlash for a Democrat who left the chamber to prevent a vote on a GOP priority elections bill.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, announced the removal of Moody as speaker pro tem in a memo Thursday morning before the House was set to return Thursday. He gave no statement but said the removal was effective immediately.

“The most important titles in my life will never change: Dad, Husband, El Pasoan,” Moody said in a statement. “Nothing political has ever even cracked the top three, so nothing has changed about who I am or what my values are.”

Moody has served as speaker pro tem for two sessions under two speakers. He is one Phelan’s top allies in the Democratic party, and the two have worked together to push bills aimed at making fixes to the state’s criminal justice system.

The speaker pro tem performs the duties of the speaker in their absence. Moody’s appointment to the position was seen as an olive branch by Republicans and raised the El Paso Democrat’s profile and stature in the chamber.

Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, blasted Phelan’s decision in a statement on social media.

“The smartest decision Dade Phelan has made as speaker was to appoint Joe Moody Speaker Pro Tem,” he said. “Joe works tirelessly to help lead the House and is respected by [Democrat] & [Republican] members. That’s why the Speaker’s decision to remove Joe is so short-sighted and so dumb.”

Turner also issued another joint statement with Democratic caucus leaders Rafael Anchía of Dallas, Garnet Coleman of Houston and Nicole Collier of Fort Worth.

“We know first hand that Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody has done more than any other member on the House Floor to protect our Chamber and the institution of the Texas House. It’s unfortunate that Speaker Phelan has been unable to do the same,” the statement read.

It also issued a warning shot to Phelan about his next speaker race.

““We are a coequal branch of government. When Governor Abbott decided to defund the whole legislature, Speaker Phelan was silent. There needs to be 76 members who decide who our next Speaker is, and more than 60 are not there.”

I get it. Phelan is undoubtedly under a lot of pressure from Republicans to Do Something about the Dems in his chamber. This is an obvious move, but it’s unlikely to have any effect. It may also have its own cost to Phelan, as noted. We’ll see if it works out for him.

I don’t have anything else today, but in case you missed it yesterday, there was good ol’ Ted Cruz flapping his gums about people leaving the state at inappropriate times. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next.

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.

Here are your new SB7s

We start with the House.

The Texas House is starting off on a new foot on the contentious elections proposal that blew up the regular legislative session.

As a special session reviving the Republican-priority bill got underway Thursday, there were ample signs that the lower chamber was taking a fresh approach to the legislation, at least procedurally. The bill has a new author who is moving early to get colleagues’ input, and it is going through a new committee that House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, says he created to bring more diverse perspectives to the issue.

[…]

The House’s revised approach to the voting legislation is in contrast to the Senate. In that chamber, Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican, is again carrying the omnibus election proposal, which for a second time will be considered before the upper chamber’s State Affairs Committee, which Hughes chairs. The committee is set to consider the legislation Saturday.

One of the starkest changes to the elections bill in the House for the special session was its author. Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Deer Park Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, carried the bill in the regular session, but Phelan tapped Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, to take the lead on it during the special session. Murr currently chairs the House Corrections Committee.

On Wednesday, Murr sent a letter to House colleagues announcing he had filed House Bill 3 and was soliciting their feedback.

“Because this subject is important to all Members and their constituents, and given the compressed time frame of the special session, I welcome any questions, discussions or comments you may have,” Murr wrote, inviting members to call him or come by his office.

[…]

Phelan did not put Cain on the new panel, nor did he tap Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Elections Committee. But he did tap Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, a member of the Elections Committee who had helped Cain with the elections bill during the regular session.

On Thursday, the main elections bill for the special session — HB 3 — as well as other voting-related proposals were referred to the select committee instead of the Elections Committee. The election bill was set for a hearing set to start 8 a.m. Saturday.

During Democrats’ news conference Thursday, Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said that the legislation, despite any changes that may be made to it, “is inherently flawed.”

“The bottom line on HB 3 is, just like SB 7, it’s based on a lie,” Turner told reporters. “It’s based on a lie that there’s rampant problems in our elections and the big lie that Donald Trump actually won the last election.”

As noted, the Senate will also have a hearing on Saturday. Tomorrow will be a busy day.

This story covers the differences between the House and Senate bills, and how the differ from what had been done in the regular session. It’s nice that some of the more egregious things like the restriction on Sunday early voting hours and the lessening of legal standards to challenge an election were removed, but there are still some truly bad things in these bills, and they’re not getting enough attention. For example:

SB 1 strays from the House’s legislation by setting up monthly reviews of the state’s voter rolls to identify noncitizens — harkening back to the state’s botched 2019 voter rolls review. The bill would require the Texas secretary of state’s office to compare the massive statewide voter registration list with data from the Department of Public Safety to pinpoint individuals who told the department they were not citizens when they obtained or renewed their driver’s license or ID card.

That sort of review landed the state in federal court over concerns it targeted naturalized citizens who were classified as “possible non-U.S citizens” and set up to review notices from their local voter registrar demanding they prove their citizenship that their registrations are safe.

State election officials ultimately ended that effort as part of an agreement to settle three legal challenges and agreed to rework their methodology to only flag voters who provided DPS with documentation showing they were not citizens after they were registered to vote. But they do not appear to have ever taken up the effort after that debacle.

While the Senate bill does not reference that agreement, it indicates that the secretary of state’s office would be responsible for setting up rules to implement the review.

I guarantee you, the implementation of this will be a disaster. This provision is heavy-handed, the mandated frequency will make it error prone, and the end result will be many people thrown off the rolls incorrectly. I don’t care how the Secretary of State sets up the rules, there is no reason to trust this process.

Both bills include language to strengthen the autonomy of partisan poll watchers at polling places by granting them “free movement” within a polling place, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out their ballot. Both chambers also want to make it a criminal offense to obstruct their view or distance the watcher “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”

Currently, poll watchers are entitled to sit or stand “conveniently near” election workers, and it is a criminal offense to prevent them from observing.

What this will lead to is some Republican knucklehead uploading a video of something he will claim is “proof” of “voter fraud”, when it will be nothing of the sort. But because he will have been there, at the scene, acting in an “official” capacity, people will believe him. Nothing good can come of this. We need more protection from partisan poll watchers, not protections for them.

Anyway. Watch the hearing if you can, register to leave written feedback if you can, and then work like hell to boot the people pushing this crap out of office in 2022. It’s all we can do.

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.

UT/Trib poll: Abbott has the best of a bunch of weak approval numbers

Same story, new chapter,

Texas voters are split over whether they approve of Gov. Greg Abbott’s job performance, though he remains popular with Republicans and more popular among Texans than President Joe Biden, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The June 2021 poll shows that 44% of Texans approve of Abbott’s job as governor, while 44% disapprove. That leaves him with an overall approval rating from Texas voters that’s better than those of Biden, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and House Speaker Dade Phelan. Abbott enjoys the approval of 77% of his own party’s voters, with 43% of Republicans saying they “strongly approve” of his performance.

Democratic disapproval for Abbott remains potent. Eighty-two percent of Democrats disapprove of Abbott, with 75% of those Democrats saying they “strongly disapprove” of his performance.

“What we’re seeing now is that Democrats are registering as much disapproval with him as they are with really any kind of national Republican figure,” said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project.

Abbott earned higher marks among Texas voters regarding his COVID-19 response at the start of the pandemic, Blank pointed out. In April 2020, 56% of Texans approved of Abbott’s response to the pandemic, but that slipped to 44% in the latest June poll.

“One of the things that benefited Greg Abbott was Donald Trump,” Blank said. “So Donald Trump’s inability to appear to be seriously dealing with the pandemic made Abbott’s attempts early on — even if they were criticized — much much more serious-looking, both to Republicans and Democrats, and I think that’s why his numbers were so high.”

As the pandemic drew on, Democratic disapproval of Abbott increased steadily. In the last poll, 81% of Democrats disapproved of Abbott’s COVID-19 response, with 67% saying they strongly disagree. Meanwhile, 74% of Republicans approve and 45% strongly approve.

[…]

Biden’s ratings have remained steady among both Democrats and Republicans since the February UT/TT Poll. His overall job approval with Texan voters is at 43% who approve and 47% who disapprove. When filtered by partisanship, 88% of Democrats approve of the job he’s doing, including 53% who strongly approve. As for Republicans, 84% disapprove of the job he’s doing with 77% strongly disapproving.

Texans see Biden’s COVID-19 response as a strength, while border security remains a weak point.

Overall, 49% of Texas voters approved of the president’s COVID-19 response, while 36% disapprove. Of those, 91% of Democrats approve, while 64% of Republicans disapprove.

See here for the February UT/Trib poll, which had Biden at 45 approve, 44 disapprove. There was also a May end-of-session poll that had him at 44/46. While it is true (and we have discussed before) that Abbott’s approval numbers had been bolstered in the past to some extent by him not being completely despised by Democrats, that moment has passed. It’s hard to compare his numbers to almost anyone else in the state because the “don’t know” response for them is so much higher – Ken Paxton has 32/36 approval, for instance, and for Dan Patrick it’s 36/37. My tentative conclusion is that there will likely be less of a gap between Abbott’s numbers next November and those of Patrick and Paxton (if he’s on the ballot), but that’s not set in stone. Who the Dems get to pick matters, too.

In reading this story, I got curious about how Biden was comparing to President Obama in Texas. I have mentioned that a decent approval rating for Biden next year would help Democrats on the ballot, and while it’s still early and the overall political environment is different, I thought it might be useful to have a bit of context. So I poked around in the UT Politics polling archive, and this is what I came up with:

June 2009 – 43 approve, 46 disapprove

October 2009 – 41 approve, 52 disapprove

February 2010 – 41 approve, 50 disapprove

May 2010 – 35 approve, 58 disapprove

September 2010 – 34 approve, 58 disapprove

May 2012 – 36 approve, 54 disapprove

February 2013 – 39 approve, 53 disapprove

June 2013 – 43 approve, 50 disapprove

October 2013 – 37 approve, 54 disapprove

February 2014 – 34 approve, 55 disapprove

June 2014 – 37 approve, 56 disapprove

October 2014 – 36 approve, 57 disapprove

Obama was pretty much in the same place at this point in 2009, and boy howdy did it go south from there. I’m pretty sure his overall approval numbers were better than Biden’s are now – again, the overall climate is much different – but the infamous Rick Santelli “tea party” rant had already occurred, and we know what happened next. Note that other than an outlier in June of 2013, the numbers were pretty stable and generally lousy through the first two years of each term. I included the May 2012 numbers because I came across them in my own post, but as you can see they still fit the pattern.

Obviously, if Biden is sporting similar approval numbers next year, we’re almost certainly doomed. I don’t think that will happen, but I don’t have anything solid to go on for that, so all we can do is watch and see. At least we have something to compare Biden to now.

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.

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.

No limits imposed on Governor’s powers in an emergency

So much for that.

The state Legislature won’t curtail Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic powers, after members of the House and the Senate failed to hash out their differences over it.

The measure, House Bill 3, was priority legislation in the lower chamber, and variations of the bill had passed both the House and the Senate. But representatives appointed to find a compromise missed a key deadline late Saturday to release new bill text, killing the measure.

It was not immediately clear why the bill died. Representatives for House Speaker Dade Phelan, and the two members who led negotiations, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

Phelan previously said the measure was “the House’s blueprint for pandemic response.” His office has also said the speaker believes the Legislature should have a “seat at the table” when determining how the state would handle future public health crises.

The bill’s failure was somewhat surprising given bipartisan support for scaling the governor’s powers during the pandemic. Abbott faced criticism from both sides of the aisle last year for his near-unilateral decision-making in the state’s COVID-19 response, as he issued monthly emergency declarations and changed rules at will.

The governor faced especially harsh pushback from right-wing members of his party, who called him “King Abbott” and lambasted his decision to implement business restrictions and mandate that Texans wear masks. Some challenged him, unsuccessfully, in court.

See here for the previous update. Conference committee negotiations are done in private, so we don’t know what the sticking points were, though perhaps we’ll hear something from one or more of the disgruntled parties. As you know, I was ambivalent about this, so I have no particular reason to mourn the demise of this proposal. Honestly, if we had just had a governor who made better decisions and was more collaborative we probably could have avoided a lot of the fuss. Not all of it by any means – the wingnut faction that completely lost their shit during lockdown was always going to seethe and try to do something in the session, but that would have been less likely to succeed. This has no chance of coming back in a special session because Abbott has no reason to put it on the agenda, so it’s a matter of what things look like in 2023 as to whether the issue comes up again. For now, barring anything unexpected, you can bury this one.

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?

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.

Are we headed for a June special session or not?

Too soon to tell. Right now this is just the usual end-of-session venting and frustration.

With the future of the power grid and voting laws in Texas hanging in the balance, tensions among the top political leaders in the Legislature are fueling a round of political gamesmanship that has even the future of the Texas Holocaust & Genocide Commission caught in the crossfire, one of many pawns in a larger battle over GOP priorities.

There are just four days left in the legislative session, which must end by midnight Monday. Yet with so much still unresolved, top Republican leaders in the Texas House and Senate are publicly accusing one another of torpedoing important legislation.

[…]

Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the Republican infighting during a news conference in Fort Worth on Thursday.

“If the leaders in the Legislature will stop fighting with each other and start working together, we can get all of this across the finish line,” Abbott said.

End-of-session drama is almost a given in Texas, where top leaders often clash in the closing days. But this year it is different as the Senate appears ready to take important political hostages in an attempt to force Abbott to call a special session in June, whether he wants to or not.

Just past midnight Thursday morning, the Senate appeared to try to force Abbott’s hand by refusing to take up House Bill 1600, which, if passed, would have assured the continued operation of 18 state agencies — including the Holocaust & Genocide Commission, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and the Racing Commission. There are other bills to keep those agencies operating, but HB 1600 is considered a backup to make sure those agencies are not placed in jeopardy unintentionally.

In Fort Worth, Abbott sent a public message back to Austin that he will not be pushed around.

“Not only am I the only one with the authority to call a special session, I get to decide when, and I get to decide what will be on that special session,” Abbott said. “And here’s what I would do if, if anybody tries to force this: It’s not going to be like it has been in the past, where we’ll have 40 items on a special session.”

Abbott said that if there is a special session, “the only thing that we’ll be putting on there are things that I want to see passed.”

Patrick, a Republican from Montgomery County, went on Spectrum News 1 on Thursday afternoon to deny he’s threatening state agencies to pressure Abbott or the House.

“I’m not holding anything hostage,” Patrick told host Karina Kling.

Instead, Patrick says the special session is necessary after the House refused to advance a bill to ban transgender girls from playing on girls scholastic sports teams.

Patrick has a long history of fighting for measures to restrict or regulate transgender Texans. In 2017, a similar bill to stop transgender children from using the bathrooms they are most comfortable with also triggered calls for a special session after the House refused to take it up. Abbott did call a special session, and the so-called bathroom bill still didn’t pass.

Patrick on social media listed other failed bills — a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbyists by city governments and legislation to stop social media companies from “censorship” — as important measures the House has blocked.

See here for the background. As the Trib notes, Abbott supports the things that Patrick is whining about, so this may be just a little show of dominance, or it may be Abbott’s usual fecklessness, or it may be that he had indigestion after ordering the burrito supreme platter for lunch on Thursday. As I said, he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and he may telegraph it or he may not. He’s the guy with the power, and he wants to make sure we know that.

One more thing:

All of this is happening as lawmakers still have not reached a final deal on a plan to require electricity grid suppliers and operators to winterize their facilities to prevent a repeat of the mass power outages that left millions of Texas freezing in the dark in February.

The House and Senate passed different bills, but despite that legislation being listed as a priority of nearly every elected official, lawmakers still have not announced a compromise on it.

Eh, who cares about the grid.

The Republican leaders and majorities in both chambers, though, did exactly what I feared they would do. None of the bills heading for Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature address core problems, such as the wholesale market design or the $9,000 price cap. Nothing they did will prevent another blackout of equal scale.

They did agree on more than $9 billion in bailouts for the electric utility industry that Texans will pay off over the next 20 or 30 years through mandatory charges on their utility bills. The goal is to spread the cost of the disaster to all Texans and make the monthly fee so low we do not complain.

This will bail out electricity providers who guarantee customers a set monthly rate, even though electricity is sold on a wholesale market where the price changes every 15 minutes between free and $9,000 a megawatt-hour.

When the February freeze hit and prices maxed out, many retail providers went bankrupt and left behind $2.5 billion in unpaid bills. House Bill 4492 allows the state to issue bonds to pay off those bills and charge customers a monthly fee to repay them.

Electricity co-ops also ran up huge bills for electricity used to power critical facilities. Senate Bill 1580 allows them to issue bonds estimated to total $2 billion. Again, the co-op’s customers will repay those bonds through their monthly bills.

Winter Storm Uri also triggered a 700 percent spike in natural gas prices, creating all kinds of financial pain for another sector that typically guarantees a set price. To help natural gas utilities, the Legislature authorized them to issue $4.5 billion in bonds. We will repay these on our gas bills.

“Considering the extraordinary costs incurred in the recent winter storm, customers could see a dramatic increase in their monthly bills,” Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, wrote as his intent for the bond authorizations. “This financing mechanism will provide rate relief to customers by extending the time frame over which the extraordinary costs are recovered.”

Magic of the free market, baby. Socialize that debt, and focus on the important things. It’s what they do. Reform Austin and the Trib have more.

Anti-trans sports bill dies

Good news, with the usual caveats.

A controversial Texas bill that would restrict the participation of transgender student athletes in school sports ran out of time for consideration in the House as the lower chamber hit a crucial deadline Tuesday night for passing all Senate bills.

Senate Bill 29 would have mandated that transgender student athletes play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. The bill’s proponents said it was necessary to protect girls’ sports, arguing that allowing transgender girls to play on school sports teams gave them an unfair advantage because they have higher levels of testosterone.

LGBTQ advocates said the legislation was harmful and discriminatory against transgender Texans. It is among a slate of Texas bills aimed at transgender people this legislative session and the latest to miss a House deadline that needed to be met so they could advance and eventually become law. No legislative measure can be considered dead, though, until the session ends Monday.

No matter the success of the legislation, LGBTQ advocates say the mere specter that such measures could become law has already damaged the mental health of transgender people.

Debate on SB 29 was delayed until 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night, leaving only half an hour for the chamber to pass the bill. Then several other delayed bills ahead of it ran down the clock until there was no time left for the imperiled bill.

House Democrats spent much of Tuesday’s marathon session using delay tactics to keep several GOP-backed bills, including SB 29, from coming up in time to be debated. With less than 10 minutes until the deadline Tuesday, Democrats offered an amendment to an unrelated bill and then asked each other clarifying questions about it as a way to run out the clock.

As the deadline crept closer, representatives circulated transgender pride flags on the floor in an obvious nod to their tactic and target. Austin Democrat Gina Hinojosa smiled and waved the flag alongside members of the House LGBTQ Caucus as the clock hit midnight.

“Democrats had a long, aggressive floor strategy to keep a number of bills, most notably SB 29, from affecting the people of Texas,” said state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, treasurer of the caucus, told The Texas Tribune. “I’m really happy we were able to end the session by preserving the dignity and rights of the children of Texas to be free of discrimination.”

See here for the background and here for one of the celebratory photos. The tactic involved is called chubbing, and it has been used to some extent or another in most recent sessions. I’ll return to that in a minute, but first we should note that as is always the case, other bills met their demise as well on deadline day.

In the final 14 hours before the final midnight deadline for advancing Senate bills in the Texas House, Democrats pulled out all the stops Tuesday to keep the body from considering GOP-backed legislation they opposed, spelling death for some of the Senate’s priority bills.

The House had on its calendar several of the Senate’s priorities, including a bill banning social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoint or their location within Texas, another that would ban local governments from using public funds to pay for lobbyists, and another that would force transgender student athletes to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity.

Republicans control all branches of Texas government, and Democrats have been trying to fight back these bills since the beginning of the legislative session in January. The midnight deadline to pass the bills was the minority party’s last hope. And though they ended the night with hoarse voices, House Democrats landed a rare victory this session, killing all three of those bills, and only ceding one other Senate priority bill that banned cities and counties from requiring companies to pay workers more than the federal minimum wage or provide them with benefits like paid sick leave.

Dan Patrick took these defeats about as well we you might imagine.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Wednesday is asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature in June to advance three pieces of GOP-backed legislation that died in the Texas House at midnight on Tuesday.

The bills sought to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity, prohibit local governments from using taxpayer funds to pay for lobbyists and punish social media companies for “censoring” Texans based on their political viewpoints.

In a statement Abbott said the call was premature and instead urged lawmakers to “work together to get important conservative legislation to my desk.”

“Some are trying to end the game before the time clock has run out,” Abbott wrote. “Members in both chambers need to be spending every minute of every day to accomplish that mission.”

In his call to bring back the Legislature, Patrick said the bills in question have widespread support.

“The TxHouse killed these conservative bills that majority of Texans in both parties support,” Patrick tweeted, without evidence. A Patrick spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question about evidence of such support.

If Dan Patrick says that everybody supports these things, who are we to argue? We know there will be a special session in the fall for redistricting and appropriating federal COVID relief funds, but that’s a lot already for thirty days. Would Greg Abbott accommodate Patrick’s request for an immediate special session for these undone bills? On the one hand, they were on the “emergency items” list, so for sure Abbott supports them. On the other hand, the fact that these bills, which had more time to get passed than any others, couldn’t make it to the floor until the very end, when they were susceptible to this well-known tactic, should tell you something. It is more than a little likely that some number of Republican legislators would have preferred to not have to vote on them. The first job of the Speaker is to protect the members, after all.

Look, Abbott’s gonna do what Abbott’s gonna do, and we should know soon enough what he intends. In the meantime, celebrate the wins that we got. Lord knows, there were plenty of losses. The Chron has more.

Might permitless carry actually fail?

I don’t want to allow myself to hope, but there are some sticking points, and apparently some hard lines being drawn.

Both the Texas House and Senate have agreed in large part to the concept of so-called “constitutional carry” legislation to allow most Texans to carry a handgun without a permit.

But there has been a split in the two chambers over amendments added into the bill by the Senate to ease opposition from law enforcement groups and win more support from lawmakers.

“We are so close to getting this done,” said Andi Turner, legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association.

While the differences have yet to be settled, Turner said his group is “fully behind” the legislation and is encouraging its members to talk to lawmakers to get the bill to the finish line.

None of the changes has diminished the fierce opposition to House Bill 1927 from most Democrats and gun control advocacy groups who have been largely powerless in stopping the bill so far. Many in law enforcement also continue to oppose the bill.

“The Texas Police Chiefs Association remains strongly opposed to the unlicensed carry of handguns,” a letter from the group to lawmakers stated.

But which of the Senate amendments are causing the most trouble in GOP circles is largely a mystery given the debate over it in conference committee is happening in closed-door sessions away from public view.

See here and here for some background. As a reminder, law enforcement really doesn’t like permitless carry, though at least one law enforcement group gave a blessing to the Senate version with the amendments that this story details. The Republicans have positioned themselves as all in on backing the blue, which makes their (mostly in the House) intransigence on these law enforcement-desired amendments both puzzling and more than a little dicey for them. Of course, they also have the gun lobby to satisfy, so that’s a problem for them.

Also a problem: We are now at the time of the season when the House and the Senate hate each other.

With time dwindling on the legislative session, the Texas House is breaking until Sunday, in an attempt to send the Senate a clear message: Pass our priority bills or see your own legislation die slowly in our chamber.

House lawmakers expressed frustration on Thursday that some of their priority legislation had not moved in the upper chamber, including a package of health care and criminal justice reform bills pushed by House Speaker Dade Phelan.

“If the [Texas] Senate wants to kill or sit on important bills sent over by the House, they can expect the same in return. Starting today,” Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, tweeted Thursday morning. “As a wise House colleague once said, ‘The Senate can respect us. Or expect us.’”

The House is approaching tight deadlines, starting this Sunday, for moving forward Senate bills. But in a surprise move, the House recessed on Thursday despite having already set its agenda, or calendar, for both Friday and Saturday. Bills that were scheduled for those days will be picked up when the House reconvenes Sunday afternoon, but by recessing early with less than two weeks left in the session, House lawmakers have placed many of the Senate’s remaining bills in danger of not passing.

The deadline to set Senate bills on the House daily calendar is Sunday by 10 p.m. All Senate bills, except those on what’s known as the “local and consent calendar” — reserved for bills that aren’t expected to generate debate — must receive initial approval from the House by the end of Tuesday.

Several of the Senate’s priority bills still need the House’s approval, including that chamber’s response to massive power outages in the state this winter, and bills that would restrict transgender student athletes to playing on school sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity and require any professional sports team with contracts with the state government to play the national anthem before the start of a game.

There are some decent bills that have died in the Senate, and some bills that started out well but were then made less good by the Senate. And then there’s trash like the anti-trans sports bill. The legislative grim reaper isn’t particularly discerning, but on balance, and especially this session, the chaos and dysfunction mostly work in our favor. Failure is always an option, guys. I’ll believe it when I see it with permitless carry, but I sure want to believe it.

Trying to make the sausage less bad

RG Ratcliffe walsk us through some bipartisan negotiations on HB6, the House version of the big Senate voter suppression bill, as three Democrats who want to make this bad bill slightly less bad work with a couple of Republicans who want to avoid an all-nighter and make defending this sucker in court a little easier.

[Rep. Joe] Moody says he went into the meeting feeling haunted by a similarly contentious fight over a bill in 2017. That year, Republicans had drafted SB 4, which was set to outlaw sanctuary cities, which decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities who seek to deport undocumented immigrants who are held in county jails. Democrats had prepared more than 150 amendments and planned to spend the night of debate shaming Republicans on the floor, even if they knew they didn’t have the votes to pass the amendments. In retribution, Republicans filed an amendment of their own, to add a provision giving police the power to demand proof of legal residency from suspected undocumented immigrants. It was a provision many believed would lead to racial profiling. The “show me your papers” amendment promptly passed, as did the bill at large. Democrats couldn’t even claim a moral victory. “I was in all those rooms on SB 4, and I remember the feeling when it fell apart,” Moody recalled for me. “You got to learn the lessons from mistakes like that.”

Moody saw the same potential debacle approaching in the voting-restriction bill this year. Even though the House version was less onerous than its counterpart in the Senate, the bill still would have enhanced jail penalties for voting crimes that are most often committed through ignorance of the rules. And it would have made it a state jail felony for any local election official to distribute a vote-by-mail application to a voter who did not request it, as Chris Hollins, then the Harris County clerk, tried to do last year. It wasn’t legislation Democrats could support.

[…]

The Republicans wanted to avoid a divisive floor fight, and a demonstration of cooperation could work to their advantage in court. (There are already at least six challenges to the election bill Georgia passed in March, and the Harris County commissioners voted last week to file a lawsuit over any restrictive legislation the Lege passes.) The GOP representatives were joined by an attorney, Elizabeth Alvarez Bingham, the former vice chair of the Dallas County Republican Party. Bingham sits on the board of the American Civil Rights Project (formerly known as the Equal Voting Rights Institute), which unsuccessfully sued Dallas county commissioners in 2015, alleging that they discriminated against white voters by gerrymandering municipal districts to favor minorities. But Bingham, an election law litigator, was instrumental in urging the Republican negotiators to accept most of the proposed changes to the bill, Democratic negotiators told me.

The negotiations had made progress by a quarter past eight, but the leaders needed time to continue without the bill actually being debated further on the floor. Under guidance from his caucus, freshman Dallas Democrat John Turner called a point of order, arguing that the bill violated an obscure House rule. Members in the meeting knew the legislative maneuver was unlikely to kill the bill, but it would provide the needed delay for negotiations to keep going.

Over the course of the negotiation, which lasted well past midnight, Democrats earned concessions on about three quarters of their requests to water down the bill. They ensured that the mere act of violating a voting rule would not be regarded as a crime unless the person who committed the infraction knew he or she was breaking the law. (This could retroactively cover the case of Crystal Mason, a Fort Worth woman sentenced to five years in prison for casting a ballot while on supervised release on a tax fraud charge, even though she didn’t know she was not eligible to vote.) Democrats also negotiated the inclusion of a clause allowing election judges to remove poll watchers who violate state law by intimidating voters. And they added language barring poll watchers from obstructing a voter, while also making it a criminal offense for someone to give a voter false information with the intent of preventing them from casting a ballot.

I appreciate the behind-the-scenes view, and I appreciate the efforts of Reps. Moody, Canales, and Bucy to try to do harm reduction. There’s only so much you can do when you’re outnumbered, and the experience from 2017 certainly colored their perspective. This may all wind up being for naught, as the bill has now gone to a conference committee, but at least they can say they did the best they could have done under the circumstances.

In the meantime, the House passed SB155 yesterday, which is not specifically an elections bill but will almost certainly have an effect on the elections process. The caption reads simply, “relating to the use of information from the lists of noncitizens and nonresidents excused or disqualified from jury service.” The point of the bill is to have registered voters removed from the rolls if they are excused or disqualified from jury duty for lack of residence in the county. That may sound sensible, but there are a couple of glaring issues. One is that you have a 30 day deadline to update your address on your driver’s license, but have until the next registration deadline (which may be more than a year away) to update your voter registration. If you get called to jury duty in the interim, and you tell them you can’t serve because you’ve moved out of county, you could wind up getting prosecuted for having an invalid voter registration, because all of this information will be sent to the Attorney General’s office on a quarterly basis. What could possibly go wrong from there? Dems made multiple attempts to amend this bill to make it more of an administrative fix – which is what it should be – and less of a potential criminal liability, but they were all shot down, on partisan votes. See here for the discussion and record votes on the amendments. This is the kind of thing that gets a lot less attention than the big headline bills, but could have a real negative effect on people down the line. And it’s on its way to the Governor’s desk.

There’s lots of room to improve sexual harassment training at the Lege

They’re starting from a really low point.

You could miss both questions about sexual harassment and still pass the preventative training required every two years for Texas House staffers.

The online training, a roughly 15-minute lecture on sexual harassment sandwiched between lessons on anti-discrimination and workplace violence, mostly dwells on definitions, with a narrator explaining different types of sexual harassment. But it offers no real-life examples or hypothetical situations — both of which are key to an effective sexual harassment training, three experts who reviewed the video said.

At the end, staffers only need a 70 percent to pass the 10-question quiz. They can take it as many times as needed to pass.

“It felt like it was the very bare minimum that they could afford, and I just kind of viewed it as a box I needed to check,” said one staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they’d be punished for speaking out without authorization. “Did I feel that it was helpful and gave me resources and equipped me to be able to respond if I felt harassed or discriminated against? No. I did not feel that way.”

The online training is also emblematic of past efforts to address complaints of rampant sexual harassment and “predatory behavior” toward women who work at the Capitol — symptoms of what House Speaker Dade Phelan called “a culture that has been festering in this building far too long.”

Concerns were heightened by reports late last month that a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on a Capitol staffer during an off-site incident.

Phelan has said he is already working to revamp the training and make it an in-person class in the future. The first-year speaker has also established a new email for members, staffers and Capitol visitors to report misconduct anonymously: [email protected]

Late Tuesday, the House passed a bill mandating sexual harassment training for all elected officials and lobbyists; it now heads to the Senate for approval.

See here for some background on the date rape drug incident. The bill passed in the House is HB4661. A similar bill – SB2233 – was passed last week by the Senate, which also closes the lobbyist loophole. I expect at least one of these will make it to Greg Abbott’s desk.

As to how they could actually do better at the Lege, at least from a training perspective:

Three experts who reviewed the House’s online training said it only covers basic legal principles, leaving much room for improvement. Good training, they said, may prepare staffers for uncomfortable situations and give them resources to report misconduct. But the most important part of weeding out sexual harassment in the workplace is buy-in from leaders who hold bad actors accountable and treat survivors with respect and dignity.

“Training is one component, but if you don’t address the culture and all of the underlying issues, it’s almost a waste of time,” said Kelsey Medeiros, an assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who has spent years researching workplace ethics and sexual harassment. “If you don’t have this environment around it that is going to support what people have just learned, it’s not going to work. It needs to be a culture change.”

Medeiros said the training is especially important in a place like the Legislature, a historically male-dominated work environment that could be conducive to harassment, especially of women.

The experts specialize in ethics and sexual harassment and reviewed the training at the request of Hearst Newspapers, which obtained the video through a public records request.

A switch to in-person training could also help with engagement, since the online format makes it easy for people to turn their attention elsewhere while a video plays, said Jessica Ramey Stender, senior counsel for workplace justice and public policy at Equal Rights Advocates, an activism group that focuses on gender-based issues in the workplace.

It also doesn’t help that some people don’t take the training at all: In some legislative offices, one employee will take the training and print out multiple certificates of completion for their colleagues, staffers said.

“One of the main reasons why sexual harassment trainings aren’t successful is that they can be pretty boring and dry and don’t hit home for people,” Stender said. “In this training, they launch right into the law, without talking about the kind of specific power dynamics that really play into and contribute to sexual harassment occurring in this context and make it more likely to occur.”

In the next iteration of the training, House leadership would do well to include more information about the ways a person experiencing harassment is affected by it, said Amy Averett, the director of the SAFE Institute program, the training and services arm of the Austin-based nonprofit SAFE that works to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct.

“It doesn’t give any context for how difficult it is and why people don’t speak up,” she said. “There wasn’t that kind of invitation or offering of support, kind of thinking about it from the survivor’s perspective.”

Best practices are pretty well known here, so there’s no excuse for getting this wrong. And again, while providing a robust education regimen and a safe way to report incidents is important, nothing will really change until the overall culture changes. It will take a lot more than better training to accomplish that.

House passes its bill to limit Governor’s emergency powers

Not sure if this is going to make it through the Senate.

The Texas House on Monday gave preliminary approval to a sweeping bill that would reform the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and involve the Legislature during such instances.

House members voted 92-45 for House Bill 3, which will need another vote in the lower chamber before it heads over to the Senate for consideration.

“We must now take what we have learned in dealing with the pandemic and set a different framework for future pandemics,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and author of the proposal, told House members as he laid out the legislation. “As a baseline, you will not government your way out of it.”

HB 3 as advanced Monday would give lawmakers more oversight of the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and specifically carves out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. One amendment added Monday, for example, would require the Legislature to convene for a special session if a disaster declaration lasts longer than 120 days.

The wide-ranging legislation would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws during a pandemic and allow for overriding local orders issued by county judges or mayors if they’re inconsistent with state orders.

Members drastically changed the legislation Monday with a number of amendments during the floor debate, including one that would create the Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. That entity would make recommendations to a 12-member legislative oversight committee that also would be created if HB 3 became law. The committee, which would consist of the lieutenant governor and speaker — who would serve as joint chairs — and a number of committee chairs from both chambers, could in certain cases terminate pandemic disaster declarations, orders or other rules issued by the governor or local governments. It would only be able to act though when the Legislature is not convened for a regular or special session.

Ahead of Monday’s debate, the legislation was tweaked by Burrows to allow the Legislature to intervene on certain executive orders or proclamations issued by the governor. The governor would need permission from the Legislature to extend beyond 30 days an order or proclamation related to requiring face masks, limiting certain medical procedures or closing or capping business operating capacity. If the Legislature wasn’t already in session, the governor would be required to convene a special legislative session for lawmakers to consider modifying or terminating that order. If the Legislature was already in session, the governor would still need to ask state lawmakers for input to modify or terminate an order.

See here, here, and here for some background. You know how I feel about this – I generally agree with giving the Legislature a broader say in these matters, but I recognize that there can be logistical challenges with that, not to mention concern about speed of response. I also have serious concerns with the philosophy embedded in this bill – to say “you’re not going to government your way out” of a pandemic is, to put it mildly, wildly misinformed. I also have great concerns about the neutering of local officials, which the Chron story goes into.

The bill prohibits local governments from closing businesses or limiting their maximum occupancy, plus any local government deemed by the governor to have required a business to close would be prohibited from levying certain tax increases.

The bill also includes protections for most businesses from civil suits related to the pandemic.

Some of the more recent additions to the bill have helped it win the favor of conservative legislators who were skeptical, such as Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who commended the bill’s author, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, for addressing his concerns.

Texas House Democratic Party Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said the deal breaker for many members of his party came down to limits on local control.

“There were some positive things in the bill, but a lot of us were not comfortable with restrictions on local officials,” Turner said. “Local officials led our state through the pandemic and the Legislature should not limit their ability to do so in the future.”

I will admit to mixed feelings on this as well. We saw last year that the response to the pandemic varied greatly between urban counties and their neighbors. Harris County was serious about masking and social distancing and limiting gatherings, which meant putting more restrictions on businesses, while Montgomery County was the exact opposite. Which is all well and good until you remember that viruses don’t respect borders, and Montgomery’s laxness had a negative effect on Harris. That’s the argument for limiting what local officials can do, which sounds great until those limits are on actions you approve of. This bill ratchets that debate in the Republican direction, which at least clarifies the ambivalence I feel. The Senate bill is more limited in its approach. I have no idea which bill will win out. There’s only so much time left for a compromise. Reform Austin has more.

Anti-transgender sports bill revived

Screw you, Harold Dutton.

Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton on Friday revived and helped advance a bill that would restrict transgender students from participating in school sports, in what appears to be a retaliatory effort directed at members of his own party for sinking one of his bills.

Senate Bill 29, abhorred by fellow Democrats, would require the University Interscholastic League to force students to play on the sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity.

The bill, which already passed in the Senate, is a priority of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Dutton, who chairs the House Public Education committee, brought the legislation up for a committee vote on Tuesday, where it failed to advance, in large part, because Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty was absent that day and because Dutton himself abstained from voting for or against the bill.

On Thursday night, Dutton, who is from Houston, presented his own bill to the House floor that would give Texas Education Commissioner Michael Morath the ability to take over a district that fails to meet various academic standards and remove school board members. The bill is largely in response to a current legal battle between the Texas Education Agency and Houston ISD after the agency attempted to take over the district in 2019, but was blocked from moving forward by a temporary injunction that’s been upheld by the state’s Third Court of Appeals. Dutton’s alma mater in Houston ISD, Wheatley High School, has received an F rating for multiple years.

That bill, which is largely unpopular among Democrats, was blocked from being voted on after a fellow Houston Democrat Rep. Alma Allen sank it on a procedural technicality. Dutton and Allen sparred over the bill’s intent on the House floor with Allen arguing the bill would provide the TEA with too much latitude to take over an independent school district without providing any recourse for a district.

“When the school goes down, the community goes down and the developers move in,” she said as Dutton repeatedly rejected her assessment. “That’s the long effect of this bill passing.”

Dutton made several references to his bill’s failure on Friday morning in the House Public Education committee as he brought the transgender student athlete bill up for another vote.

“The bill that was killed last night affected far more children than this bill ever will. So as a consequence, the chair moves that Senate Bill 29 as substituted be reported favorably to the full House with the recommendation that it do pass,” he said.

He and Huberty, who is vice chair of the committee, then joined with the previous yes votes, giving SB 29 an 8-5 majority and advancing it out of committee. The bill must still be approved by the House before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

See here for the previous update about HB29, and here for Dutton’s TEA takeover bill. “Petty” and “vindictive” are the words that come to my mind about this; I’m sure others can think of more. I hadn’t even considered this scenario as a possible route to this bill getting revived, but here we are. That doesn’t mean it will pass – it still has to come to the House floor, and if Speaker Dade Phelan is true to his earlier words about not wanting to bash LGBTQ+ people anymore, then it can get lost on its way to the Calendars committee. We’ll see about that. In the meantime, let’s start gathering support for the next primary challenge to Dutton, hopefully without any ghost candidates this time. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Trib polling roundup, part 3

Once more, with approval ratings.

President Joe Biden

Texas Democrats think Joe Biden is doing a good job as president, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Texas Republicans don’t.

Overall, the president gets good grades from 44% of Texas voters and bad grades from 46% — numbers that are better or roughly the same as the state’s most popular Republican leaders. Underneath Biden’s overall numbers, as with other officeholders in Texas, are starker partisan grades: 88% of Democrats said Biden is doing a good job, and 86% of Republicans disapprove of the work he’s doing.

Biden does a little better — but still poorly — with Republicans on how he’s handled the response to the pandemic; 14% approve, and 67% disapprove. But 92% of Democrats approve. And overall, 49% of Texas voters give Biden good grades on the pandemic, while 35% think he’s done a bad job.

Overall, 38% approve of Biden’s handling of the economy and 46% disapprove. Only 23% of voters approve of his response to immigration and border security, while 59% disapprove.

See here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. I had noted that 49-35 rating in Part 1 and was surprised by how positive it was. This makes more sense. It’s still good, and likely has boosted his overall rating, and it may make it harder for Greg Abbott et al to claim all the credit as COVID (hopefully) continues to retreat in Texas. Hard to know if it will have any effect on how people will vote – we know that Trump overperformed his approval rating in 2020 in part because people had a higher approval of him on economic matters. Biden lags a bit there, but that question is now mostly a proxy for partisan identification. We’ll see if that changes as the economy continues to recover.

As for the rest of the politicians polled, let’s make a table:


Name     App  Dis  None
=======================
Biden      44   46   11
Cruz       43   48    9
Cornyn     31   43   25
Abbott     43   45   13
Patrick    35   39   26
Paxton     32   36   31
Phelan     20   22   57

Congratulations to Ted Cruz for being the politician most people have an opinion about. I’m not sure he has anything further to aspire to. Maybe this is why John Cornyn is tweeting so much now, so he can close that gap.

The gaudy approval levels Greg Abbott had last year during the Summer of COVID are officially over. As noted before, his high approvals were mostly a function of him doing OK with Democratic respondents, who did not have the visceral dislike that others generated. Not any more. What this tentatively suggests to me is that there will be less separation in 2022 between Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, who along with Sid Miller ran several points behind Abbott in the 2018 election. If this holds, and all else being equal, I’d still expect Abbott to outperform Patrick and Paxton, but not by much, maybe a point or two.

It’s interesting to me that everyone has a net negative rating. Even before his COVID boost, Abbott was usually in the black on this. I looked in the crosstabs for the three Republicans that are up for re-election next year, and they tell the story of why they’re under water:


Name       Dem     Rep     Ind
==============================
Abbott    7-83   77-13   34-37
Patrick   5-75   63-10   24-33
Paxton    5-68   59-11   23-26

I’d have to do some more research, but I feel confident saying that Abbott was received less negatively by Dems in the past. Again, this might change as we move away from the legislative session – Rick Perry always seemed to be in worse shape at this point in the cycle than he was headed into an election – but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Businesses finally offer some real resistance to voter suppression

About time.

With less than a month left in the legislative session — and Texas Republicans split on which package of proposals might cross the finish line — Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Unilever, Patagonia and two dozen other companies are urging state lawmakers not to pass new restrictions on voting.

In the biggest pushback so far by business against the GOP’s legislative bid to ratchet up the state’s already restrictive voting rules, national companies joined in a statement voicing their opposition Tuesday with local businesses and several local chambers of commerce representing LGBTQ, Hispanic and Black members of the business community.

“We stand together, as a nonpartisan coalition, calling on all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot,” the businesses wrote in their letter. “We urge business and civic leaders to join us as we call upon lawmakers to uphold our ever elusive core democratic principle: equality. By supporting a stronger trustworthy democracy, we will elevate our economy.”

The statement does not address specific legislation, but comes as Texas Republicans press forward with bills in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud and warnings from voting rights advocates and lawyers that many of them would be disproportionately harmful to voters of color.

Following the recent passage of new restrictions in Georgia, major corporations began responding to criticism about staying out of that fight by largely coalescing around joint statements that generally stated their opposition to election changes that make it harder to vote.

[…]

As the fight over new restrictions moved from Georgia to Texas, the state’s Republican leadership moved to quickly condemn businesses scrutinizing the proposals under consideration during the 2021 legislative session.

Gov. Greg Abbott — who declared “election integrity” a legislative priority — backed out of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opening game and said he would boycott any other Major League Baseball events over its decision to pull the All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there. Calling it “absolutely ridiculous” for the MLB to take a position on the Georgia law, Abbott in a Fox News television interview indicated he was sending a message to Texas-based companies and others eyeing a move to the state — and the financial incentives that are often used to lure them.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick angrily targeted American Airlines during a press conference in which he described those raising concerns of voter suppression a “nest of liars.”

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said in a separate statement responding to American Airlines’ opposition to SB 7.

In the Texas House, the possible retribution for companies that have come out against the bills has been mostly symbolic so far. Republicans sought to inject the dispute into the chamber’s consideration of the state’s massive budget bill last month, offering amendments to withhold state funds from businesses that publicly opposed legislation “related to election integrity.” Those proposals were ultimately kept off the budget.

Those threats — coupled with Republican demands for corporations to stay out of policy disputes outside of their business realm — did not deter the companies that signed onto the letter. Patagonia has even been sharing its own analysis of “voter suppression legislation,” which includes SB 7, HB 6 and several other bills, with other companies considering opposing proposed restrictions.

“Companies need to do more than solely focus on profit … and empowering their communities can be really good for business and thats something we’re seeing that’s a good trend,” said Corley Kenna, a spokesperson for Patagonia. “I hope more companies speak out on these issues, mostly because I think its important to have companies step up where government seems to be falling short.”

I certainly approve of that. See here for the previous update, here for a copy of the letter, and here for the Fair Elections Texas website, which is pretty bare-bones for now. I very much appreciate their stance, and I hope that they get a lot of reinforcements soon.

Case in point

A group of 175 business leaders sent a letter to House Speaker Dade Phelan on Tuesday morning opposing several key provisions of the voting bills being debated in the Texas Legislature, which they said would add unacceptable barriers for Houston residents to cast a ballot.

They included 10 members of the Greater Houston Partnership board, whose efforts to push the region’s largest chamber of commerce to condemn the bills were rebuffed by the group’s president. With the partnership silent on legislation Harris County leaders say will make voting more difficult for everyone and discriminate against people of color, the members said they could not stomach sitting on the sidelines.

“When you have an organization that is supposed to reflect the diversity and inclusion, and has taken steps on its website to discuss racial equality but does not have the spine to bring forth to a vote an issue that is as important as this, we felt we had no choice but to bring it in a public forum,” said Gerald Smith, who also sits on the partnership’s executive committee.

The letter takes Phelan up on the speaker’s invitation last month for business leaders to flag provisions in the bills, including House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, that could add obstacles to voting.

It raises alarm over provisions that would move polling sites away from Houston’s urban core, limit voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, remove restrictions on poll watchers, streamline voter roll purges and add a host of criminal penalties for poll workers and local election officials found in violation of the Texas Election Code.

“These provisions, among others, will inevitably damage our competitiveness in attracting businesses and workers to Houston,” the letter states. “Especially as we aim to attract major conferences and sporting events, including the FIFA World Cup, voter suppression is a stain on our reputation that could cost our region millions of dollars.”

[…]

The influential Greater Houston Partnership, founded in 1840, seeks to speak for the 12-county region’s business community. It regularly lobbies the Legislature on policy issues, and in the past has bucked state leaders on controversial issues, including the group’s opposition to the so-called bathroom bill in 2017 that helped torpedo a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The partnership also made a commitment last summer to opposing racial injustice, issuing a statement recognizing its members “have an opportunity as Houstonians to lead the way in reforming broken systems, building up communities, offering support and removing barriers.”

For some GHP members, the organization’s inaction on SB 7 and HB 6 calls into question how serious that commitment was. A proposal that would require a roughly equal number of polling sites per state House district, the Harris County election administrator estimates, would result in fewer sites in urban areas with higher Black and Latino populations and more in suburban communities with a higher share of white voters.

As the bills began to take shape in Austin, several board members wished to revise the partnership’s April 1 broad statement on voting rights, which called on the Legislature to balance election security with ensuring equal ballot access.

GHP President Bob Harvey allotted 15 minutes to the topic at the group’s April 21 regular meeting, though the discussion ran much longer, said board member Gerald Smith. He said Harvey pledged to schedule a special board meeting to resolve the issue.

See here for some background on that, and Zach Despart’s Twitter thread for a copy of the letter. These GHP members think the organization is dragging its feet, which at this point seems self-evident. In the end, I still think that at least one of SB7 or HB6 passes, or some combination of them. These are Greg Abbott “emergency” bills, and the seething hordes of the Republican primary electorate will not tolerate anything they perceive to be failure. (Which is one of the reasons we’re in this spot to begin with.) At the very least, time is running out to get on the right side of this issue while it still matters. Do the right thing here, GHP. NBC News and the Texas Signal have more.

UPDATE: I drafted this on Tuesday, didn’t run it on Wednesday, then Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo announced they would no longer hold events at the GHP in response to that organization’s pusillanimous response. I’ll have a separate post on that tomorrow. Too much news, y’all.

More on the Capitol date rape drug allegation

Good for Speaker Dade Phelan for forthrightly calling this out, but the underlying issue is a matter of culture, it’s been this way for a long, long time, and it’s going to be a slog to change it.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber’s policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core,” the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, “and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.”

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials though have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their Capitol offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, with one co-founder of the firm later telling The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been “tipped off” that one of its employees “is a person of interest” in the investigation.

Phelan said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.

The speaker also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to change the chamber’s required sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually.

See here for the background. Again, I commend Speaker Phelan for taking this seriously – we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people in similar positions of leadership who have done much worse. But let’s be honest, there’s only so much that an email hotline and in-person sexual harassment prevention training can do. The problem is cultural, it’s deeply rooted, it’s not tied to a party or ideology, and it adapts to changing circumstances. It’s going to take the collective action of the entire Capitol community to make this stop – not just not tolerating the behaviors that have existed for decades, but calling them out and imposing consequences, even on friends and ideological allies. I don’t have to tell you that this won’t be easy – just look at how the “Me Too” movement has played out in society at large – and it won’t be quick. It’s just that there’s no other choice.

I’m going to end with a few more tweets, and the hope that the staffer who was victimized by this predator finds the justice she deserves. There’s video of Rep. Phelan’s speech at KVUE, and the Chron and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Welp…

Whoever was at the center of this was always going to defend himself. This tells me that his defense will be quite vigorous. It could get a lot more contentious from here.

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.

Another anti-trans bill advances

This just makes me angry.

Transgender Texas children, their parents, medical groups and businesses have vocally opposed many of the bills lawmakers are pursuing. Equality Texas CEO Ricardo Martinez said Texas has filed more anti-LGBTQ bills this session than any other state legislature.

“It’s insulting,” Indigo said. “These lawmakers think that we don’t know what we want with our own bodies and we’re not able to say what we want and mean it.”

House Bill 1399 would prohibit health care providers and physicians from performing gender confirmation surgery or prescribing, administering or supplying puberty blockers or hormone treatment to anyone under the age of 18. The House Public Health Committee advanced the bill Friday.

Senate Bill 1311 by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, would revoke the medical license of health care providers and physicians who perform such procedures or prescribe such drugs or hormones to people younger than 18. The Senate State Affairs Committee advanced that bill Monday.

The Senate last week passed Senate Bill 29, which would prevent public school students from participating in sports teams unless their sex assigned at birth aligns with the team’s designation. While that bill would only affect students in K-12 schools, two similar bills in the House would include colleges and universities in that mandate.

SB 29 has been referred to the House Public Education Committee, which is slated to meet Tuesday and hear testimony on identical legislation that was introduced in the lower chamber.

It’s unclear, though, whether any of this year’s measures targeting transgender Texans have a chance at getting through both chambers. Last session, Dade Phelan, the Beaumont Republican who is now House Speaker, demonstrated a lack of appetite for bills restricting rights for LGBTQ Texans.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said at the time. “This is 2019.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Unfortunately, it’s not 2019 anymore, and it’s clear what the Republicans in the Legislature as well as Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott want. I missed SB1311’s advancement on Monday, authored by a guy who thinks that every one of these trans kids that have told him and the rest of the Lege in no uncertain terms how these bills are directly harmful to them is “just going through a phase”. This article leads off with the experience of Indigo Giles, whose mom is my friend Mandy Giles. I honestly don’t know how you can hear what people like Indigo have to say about their lives and themselves and conclude that they must be confused or deluded or lying, but then I’m familiar with the concept of “empathy”. What I do know is that Indigo and everyone like Indigo needs more than weak reassurances and the biennial need to make a road trip to Austin to defend their humanity to the likes of Bob Hall. The one way they’re going to get that is electing more Democrats in Texas. Say it with me now: Nothing is going to change until our state government changes.

NCAA warns Texas about anti-transgender bills

It’s not just the voter suppression bills that will do great harm to the state of Texas and its people if the Republicans ram them through.

Amid all the talk of boycotts and corporate criticism of election bills going through the Texas Legislature, major resistance is also shaping up to another top priority of the Republican state lawmakers.

With the Texas Senate cued up to debate a bill this week that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls’ interscholastic sports, the NCAA recently issued a stern warning that they are watching the legislation.

“The NCAA continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation,” NCAA officials said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. “The NCAA believes in fair and respectful student-athlete participation at all levels of sport. The association’s transgender student-athlete participation policy and other diversity policies are designed to facilitate and support inclusion.”

The NCAA policies allow transgender athletes to participate without limitations.

It is very similar to the statements the NCAA put out just before Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a transgender bill similar to the one Texas is considering and one that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem backed away from while warning of an unwinnable showdown with the college sports association.

SB 29, sponsored by Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry would ban a student from participating in a sport “opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth…”

[…]

Critics of the Texas legislation and others like it say it’s all part of a wave of bills in statehouses around the nation that are not only discriminatory against transgender children, but dangerous to them.

“This is a moment of national crisis where the rights and the very existence of transgender young people are under attack,” said Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Council, a national group that fights violence, discrimination and fear of LGBTQ people. “Like the bathroom bills and the bills targeting marriage equality before them, these bills are nothing more than a coordinated effort by anti-LGBTQ extremists spreading fear and misinformation about transgender people in order to score cheap political points.”

[…]

The NCAA has been a notable voice against anti-transgender legislation. In 2017, it pulled major sporting events out of North Carolina because of that state passing a version of the bathroom bill. Eventually, North Carolina lawmakers amended the legislation to end the boycott.

The NCAA has major financial commitments in Texas. The men’s basketball Final Four is scheduled to be in Houston in 2023 and then in San Antonio again in 2025. Dallas hosts the women’s Final Four in 2023, and the College Football Championship is set for Houston in 2024.

In 2017, studies suggested Texas could lose nearly $250 million if the Final Four was taken away then. With three Final Fours and the football championships, Texas would be looking at more than $1 billion in economic impact.

“The NCAA believes diversity and inclusion improve the learning environment and it encourages its member colleges and universities to support the well-being of all student-athletes,” the NCAA said in its recent statement to Hearst Newspapers about Texas’ transgender legislation.

That was an early story. The Trib filed a little later, and the NCAA was a bit more specific this time.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Board of Governors said it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination. The Monday warning sets the stage for a political fight with multiple states, including Texas, that are considering bills in their legislatures that would require students to play sports with only teammates who align with their biological sex.

“Inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport,” the NCAA statement said. “Our clear expectation as the Association’s top governing body is that all student-athletes will be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them.”

See here for the preview. I for one would very much like these sporting events to be in our cities in those years. But if the Lege follows through on these terrible, harmful bills then the NCAA absolutely should follow through and pull them all until such time as these bills are repealed.

While the legislation has seen some traction in the upper chamber, it’s unclear whether there will be support in the House, where similar bills have yet to get assigned a committee hearing.

In the past, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has pushed back against bills that would weaken protections for LGBTQ people. After the Senate passed a bill in 2019 that removed nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, the House State Affairs Committee, which Phelan chaired, had the language reinstated.

Phelan said in an interview at the time that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “This is 2019.”

I would have thought we’d learned this lesson in 2017, but apparently some lessons need to be learned the hard way. We still have a chance to escape that fate, but if we don’t it’s 100% on the Republicans. I hope Dade Phelan meant what he said, but it remains to be seen. To learn more and hear from the advocates of the transgender children who are being targeted by our Legislature, you can follow Rebecca Marques, Jessica Shortall, Equality Texas (the woman you see testifying in that video is my friend Mandy Giles), Kimberly Shappley, and Amber Briggle on Twitter. USA Today, the Texas Signal, and Mother Jones have more.

House committee passes its voter suppression bill

I remain pessimistic about this, but we have no choice but to fight.

A Texas House committee on Thursday advanced an elections bill that would make it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute an application to vote by mail to a voter who didn’t request one.

House Bill 6 is part of a broader Republican effort this year to enact wide-ranging changes to elections in Texas that would ratchet up the state’s already restrictive election rules in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud. The legislation was approved by the House Elections Committee on a party line vote with only Republicans voting in favor of it.

Like other Republican proposals, the measure would target Harris County’s initiatives from the 2020 general election, including a shift to proactively send out vote-by-mail applications. Various counties sent unsolicited applications to voters who were 65 years and older, who automatically qualify to vote by mail in Texas. But Republicans’ ire fell on Harris County officials when they attempted to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

HB 6, by Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, would also set up new rules for people assisting voters — like those with disabilities or those who speak languages other than English — in casting their ballots. Voters can select anyone to help them through the voting process as long as they’re not an employer or a union leader. But the bill would require those helping voters to disclose the reason they need help.

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote.

[…]

The bill also picked up opposition from civil rights groups who raised the prospect that the legislation violates federal safeguards for voters of color who would be treated differently for being more likely to need assistance and concerns about the punitive nature of the bill against election workers. Advocates for people with disabilities worried it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and cautioned against complicating the voting process for voters with disabilities by creating new requirements for the individuals they select to help them.

“You can’t any longer help an elderly constituent by providing them with a mail in ballot application — this is truly incredible,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of Texas NAACP. “There’s only one reason to create criminal laws and that is to dissuade minority voters and [minority] voting officials.”

See here for the previous update. I’m going to spare myself a little work by pointing you to some other people who have done the work of highlighting how and why HB6 is just as dangerous as SB7. For example, the latest defensive maneuver by Dan Patrick and now Speaker Dade Phelan is to claim that the critics of these bills just haven’t read them, and to double-dog-dare them to point out any restictionist provisions they allegedly contain. Well, challenge accepted:

I presume she’ll follow with a thread for HB6, but give her a little time. Also, as a historical note, Jamelle Bouie reminds us that the Jim Crow laws of the old South never actually said they were intended to keep Black Americans from voting. They were just restrictions on voting that technically affected everyone but which the lawmakers knew and intended would have a much greater effect on Black voters (and which they could ensure via enforcement). Ignorance of history (real or feigned) is no excuse for trying to repeat it.

The real danger in these bills has to do with their elevating poll watchers into some kind of protected group. Why is that a problem? Because poll watchers are unvetted partisans, and in Texas their main role is making voters of color feel harassed:

What could possibly go wrong? This video has already generated some national coverage. One hopes that’s just the beginning.

Finally, while HB6 and SB7 are the big headliner voter-suppression bills, there are a lot of smaller, more targeted voter-suppression bills to watch out for as well:

So now you know. The Texas Signal and Popular Information, which goes deep on Dan Patrick, have more.

The opening bid on power outage response

Not bad, but there’s a long way to go and not a lot of detail just yet.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on Monday announced seven priority bills responding to the winter weather crisis last month that left millions of Texans without power.

The proposals include overhauling the governance of the state’s electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas; mandating “weatherization” of power facilities and establishing a statewide disaster alert system. There is also legislation to ban variable-rate electricity pricing plans such as were offered by the company Griddy, which was recently effectively shut down in the state after customers were hit with bills in the thousands of dollars.

Phelan’s office called the proposals the “first phase” of the House’s proposed reforms in the wake of the winter storm. Not all the bills have been filed yet, so the specifics of some proposals have not yet been made public.

“We must take accountability, close critical gaps in our system, and prevent these breakdowns from ever happening again,” Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement.

[…]

House Bill 10, for instance, aims to reform ERCOT by restructuring its board. The legislation would replace the board’s “unaffiliated” members with members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker. The bill would also mandate that all board members live in Texas. And it would add a new board member to “represent consumer interests,” according to Phelan’s office.

Some other ideas could prove challenging. House Bill 11, for instance, would order the Public Utilities Commission to require power generators to implement measures to avoid service outages during extreme weather events, including winter storms and heat waves. But retroactively equipping power plants and the state’s energy system to withstand cold temperatures is likely to be difficult and costly, energy experts have said. Building energy infrastructure that from the start is designed to perform in winter conditions is easier and cheaper, they have said.

Phelan’s office described another bill, House Bill 14, which hasn’t yet been filed, that would require the Railroad Commission of Texas to require pipeline operators to update their equipment to ensure reliability during extreme weather. It’s unclear how much either bill would cost the state or the power generators. Abbott has indicated in the past that he is interested in funding at least some of the weatherization.

These fall under the emergency items declared by Abbott, so they can be taken up ahead of other legislation. Once they’re written and filed, of course. I don’t have any immediate complaints – the general direction is good, and they seem to have hit the high points – but it’s very early in the process, and there will be plenty of opportunity for shenanigans and just plan resistance, so as always we will have to keep an eye on it. The pushback from the energy industry seems to be that the power outages themselves were the main driver of the natural gas shortage, not the wells and pipes freezing up. There’s probably something to that, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I decline to take their word for it. At least three of the bills will be carried by Democrats – Reps. Richard Raymond, Ana Hernandez, and Joe Deshotel. We’ll see what we get, and we should very much remember that a lot of this is about undoing or at least mitigating the effects of Republican deregulation, but this is a decent start.

Again with defining the Governor’s powers in an emergency

The legislative process has begun, and I feel like we’ve already lost the plot.

For roughly the past year, Republicans and Democrats have picked apart the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — and particularly how Gov. Greg Abbott has wielded his power along the way.

Now, with less than 90 days left in the 2021 regular legislative session and as Abbott has moved to lift most of the restrictions he imposed, the Texas Legislature is setting its sights on addressing the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic. And while many differences remain on the approach, members of both parties and both chambers of the Legislature appear intent on doing something.

In the House, a top lieutenant of GOP Speaker Dade Phelan has filed a wide-ranging bill that would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic, among other things. The measure has been designated House Bill 3, indicating it’s a top priority for the new speaker, behind the lower chamber’s proposed state and supplemental budgets in House Bills 1 and 2, respectively.

The author of House Bill 3, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, has said the proposal can serve as a starting point for lawmakers to begin to map out what the state’s response should look like in the event of another pandemic.

“After going through the last year of a pandemic and the government reaction to it, we owe Texans a healthy and robust debate about what we agree and disagree with,” Burrows said in a statement to The Texas Tribune for this story. “I filed HB3 so we could have a holistic review of state governance and to make sure we protect our liberties during a state emergency.”

The Senate, meanwhile, is appearing to take a more piecemeal approach. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has included several pandemic-related proposals as part of his 31 legislative priorities for the session, including a “First Responders Pandemic Care Act” and a “Family Nursing Home Visitation Rights” bill. Patrick’s office has remained tight-lipped so far about the substance of those proposals — many of which have not yet been filed — or his chamber’s contrasting approach. A Patrick spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

“Things are off to a slow start, and I think we’re probably in wait-and-see mode” when it comes to reforming emergency powers, said Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “There seems to be more going on on the Republican side of that, but as far as doing something like an HB 3 goes, I’m not sure.”

There are broad areas of agreement between the two chambers on issues like protecting businesses from certain lawsuits related to COVID-19, which is among Patrick’s and Abbott’s priorities and is included in the House’s omnibus proposal. But the more tricky territory could be reforming the parameters of a state pandemic response.

[…]

As filed, House Bill 3 would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. For roughly the past year throughout the pandemic, the state has been operating under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which Abbott has used to issue statewide guidelines. Some have argued that the disaster statute did not fit the circumstances brought on by the unprecedented pandemic and that tweaks would be needed should a similar crisis happen in the future.

The bill would also require local jurisdictions to receive approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic — an attempt to avoid the headlines and confusion that defined much of the 2020 general election, such as court battles over mail-in ballot applications and drive-thru voting.

“All of these jurisdictions, especially in [Harris and Dallas counties], the more blue areas, we’re not going to let them use a pandemic excuse to change the rules of the game to try to get more Democrats out to vote,” Burrows said last week on the Lubbock-based Chad Hasty radio show, noting that the Republican Party of Texas has named “election integrity” a top priority this legislative session.

Among its other provisions, the bill would affirm existing protections for places of worship remaining open during a pandemic, and for the sale or transportation of firearms and ammunition.

See here for the background. Keeping churches and gun stores open, while making it harder to vote – you have to hand it to these guys, they never miss an opportunity to follow their zealous little hearts. Kind of quaint to think that the heart of the matter would be about the relative roles of the Governor and the Legislature, or that a lightweight like Steve Toth would have the more serious and constructive proposal, but here we are. Speaking of which, the Chron adds a few details.

Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed a bill that would give the Legislature the power to intervene midpandemic if voters approved a constitutional amendment. Toth’s bill, House Joint Resolution 42, was one of at least eight that have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on the subject.

Last year, Toth and other conservative lawmakers were also party to lawsuits against the governor claiming Abbott abused his emergency powers when he extended the early voting period and when he signed off on a deal with a contact tracing company.

But Toth said Wednesday that he felt confident that Phelan and Burrows are listening to feedback and willing to make changes that other members deem necessary to strengthen the bill. Whether that will include a requirement for a special session, however, remains to be seen.

“I’d be seriously disappointed if they weren’t welcoming input,” Toth said. “I’d be disappointed if they weren’t saying how can we change to make it better, but they are, enthusiastically.”

Phelan, for his part, has supported Abbott taking charge during disasters, something he’s said helped his community of Beaumont during Hurricane Harvey. In a statement Thursday, Phelan called HB 3 “the House’s initial blueprint for our pandemic response.”

“Our chamber welcomes healthy debate over the best way to defend our liberties, create predictability in times of crisis and safeguard our economy,” he said.

Rep. Chris Turner, House Democratic Caucus chair, said in a statement that while the bill will likely go through many changes as the session goes on, “there is broad interest in addressing how future governors respond to future emergencies, given Gov. Abbott’s confusing, slow and often inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic — not to mention last month’s winter storm.”

He added that he hopes the legislation will give local leaders the chance to make rules for their own communities without being preempted by the governor. As of now, the law does the opposite, affirming a clause that most of Abbott’s orders have included stating that a governor’s emergency orders supersede local ones.

“Beyond that, we need to prioritize fixing our broken data reporting systems so we can make decisions based on science rather than politics,” said Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

I mean, I don’t really want Steve Toth to be happy, but he did have one halfway decent idea, and I do like to encourage that sort of thing. The Senate still has to weigh in, not that they’re likely to do anything to improve matters. As the Chron story notes, limiting the Governor’s powers was not something Dan Patrick considered to be a priority. He has more important things on his mind.

Biden starts with decent approval numbers in Texas

Keep it up.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, who today is making his first visit to Texas since his January inauguration, starts his term with about the same numbers of voters giving him good and bad marks for job performance, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Among registered Texas voters, 45% approve of the job he’s doing and 44% disapprove. Those results include 30% who said they strongly approve of his performance and 39% who strongly disapprove. The partisan lines are strong: 80% of Republicans disapprove, while 89% of Democrats approve.

“Election season always hardens partisan attitudes. That didn’t end with the election,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “I don’t know that we ever got out of election mode.”

Biden’s grades for responding to COVID-19 are better, with 49% approving what he’s doing and 36% saying they disapprove. That’s an improvement over his predecessor: In the October 2020 UT/TT Poll, 45% of voters approved Donald Trump’s coronavirus response, while 48% did not — including 43% who disapproved strongly.

“He’s starting out, in a Republican state, with fairly respectable numbers,” Daron Shaw, a government professor at UT-Austin and co-director of the poll, said of Biden.

The assessment of Gov. Greg Abbott’s COVID-19 response has improved a bit since October. In both polls, 44% said the governor is doing a good job, and the number who giving him bad marks has fallen 5 percentage points, to 41% from 46%. Public approval for Abbott’s handling of the pandemic peaked at the beginning; in the April 2020 UT/TT Poll, 56% of Texas voters approved of his responses and 29% disapproved.

[…]

The governor’s numbers held steady, with 46% of Texas voters giving him an approving job review and 39% giving him a disapproving one. In October, his results were 47% – 40% — virtually the same.

The same was true for [Sen. Ted] Cruz: 45% positive and 43% negative in this poll, compared to 46% – 42% in October.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn got positive marks from 32% of voters, and negative marks from 42% — a more negative showing than either Cruz or Abbott. In October, right before he was reelected, Cornyn’s job performance was rated positively by 39% and negatively by the same percentage.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s job review was flat: 37% of voters say he’s doing a good job and 36% saying they disapprove of his work. The state’s newest legislative leader, House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, elevated to that post by his peers just a few weeks ago, still hasn’t made an impression on most Texas voters; 60% said either that they have a neutral or no assessment of how he’s doing his job, while 22% gave him positive grades and 18% were negative.

As the story notes, the poll was in the field during the freeze week, almost entirely before Ted Cruz’s excellent adventure in Cancun. It’s likely his numbers would have dipped if the poll had been done a week later. It’s possible the same is true for Abbott, though that’s harder to say for sure. Even a modest decline for him would still be decent, and this is where I remind you again that his UH Hobby School poll numbers were not in fact bad.

There is one person of interest whose numbers are not noted, but we do have them in this story.

Texas voters are almost evenly split on the question of whether Donald Trump should be allowed to mount a comeback, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Asked whether “Trump took actions as president that justify preventing him from holding future elected office,” 45% said he did and 48% said he did not. Not surprisingly, 84% of voters who identified themselves as Democrats say he did, and 81% of Republican voters say he didn’t. Among independent voters, 38% said barring Trump would be justified, and 47% said it would not be justified.

“Almost all of the Democrats say he should be barred, along with 13% of Republicans,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

[…]

Trump is viewed about as favorably now in the state as he was in the UT/TT Poll in October 2020, right before the election: 46% of Texas voters view him favorably and 46% have an unfavorable opinion of the former president. In October, his favorable/unfavorable numbers were 49%-46%. And Trump remains in better light than he did right before his election four years ago. In an October 2016 UT/TT Poll, 31% of Texans had a positive opinion of him while 58% had a negative one.

“He has completely consolidated his Republican base in Texas,” Shaw said.

Well, he lost three points of favorability while his unfavorable rating remained the same. He’s a net zero, while Biden is a net plus one on his approval ratings. It could be worse, that’s all I can say. Note that we’re comparing “favorable/unfavorable” to “approve/disapprove” here, which isn’t quite the same thing but will have to do for these purposes.

Have Texas Republicans finally damaged themselves?

Some of them have. How much remains to be seen.

The brutal winter storm that turned Texas roads to ice, burst pipes across the state and left millions of residents shivering and without power has also damaged the reputations of three of the state’s leading Republicans.

Sen. Ted Cruz was discovered to have slipped off to Mexico on Wednesday night, only to announce his return when he was caught in the act. Gov. Greg Abbott came under fire over his leadership and misleading claims about the causes of the power outages. And former Gov. Rick Perry suggested Texans preferred power failures to federal regulation, a callous note in a moment of widespread suffering.

It’s more than just a public relations crisis for the three politicians. The storm has also battered the swaggering, Texas brand of free-market governance that’s central to the state’s political identity on the national stage.

“Texans are angry and they have every right to be. Failed power, water and communications surely took some lives,” JoAnn Fleming, a Texas conservative activist and executive director of a group called Grassroots America, said in a text message exchange with POLITICO.

“The Texas electric grid is not secure,” said Fleming, pointing out that lawmakers “have been talking about shoring up/protecting the Texas electric grid for THREE legislative sessions (6 yrs),” but “every session special energy interests kill the bills with Republicans in charge … Our politicians spend too much time listening to monied lobbyists & political consultants. Not enough time actually listening to real people.”

[…]

Democrats sought to heighten the contrast between Cruz and his 2018 Senate opponent, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, by pointing out that the senator went to Cancun and tweeted about the death of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh while his former rival stayed in El Paso and tried to marshal his social media followers to help fellow Texans.

“It’s extremely important in governing and politics to be seen doing things,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist. “It’s important to be seen leading.”

Steinhauser said Abbott established himself as a leader in previous crises but took longer after the storm because he “had to find his footing. At first, he probably didn’t think the blackouts would last as long as they did.”

We’re at peak bad news for these guys – and now you can add State Rep. Gary Gates to that list – but who knows how long it will last. It’s also hard to take anything JoAnn Fleming says seriously, as she’s one of the major wingnut power brokers in North Texas. It’s one thing for someone like her to be mad at these guys, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to vote for a Democrat against them.

And that’s ultimately what this comes down to. Greg Abbott doesn’t have an opponent yet (though hold on, we’ll get back to that in a minute), Ted Cruz isn’t on any ballot until 2024, and Rick Perry is a Dancing with the Stars has-been. If there’s anger at them for their words and deeds and lack of action, that’s great, but it only goes so far. What if anything will this be channeled into?

One possible vehicle until such time as there’s a candidate running against Greg Abbott is President Biden. He’s done all the Presidential things to help Texas recover, and he’s coming for a visit next week, both of which have the chance to make people like him a little bit more. This is an opportunity for him as an example of good leadership, and also for future legislative proposals. If that translates into better approval/favorability numbers for Biden in Texas, that should help the Democratic slate next year. The longer the national GOP remains in disarray as well, the better.

The leadership example, if it can stand as a contrast to what Abbott et al have been doing, can serve as the baseline argument in 2022 and beyond for change in our state government.

What happened over the last four or five days, as the state became the subject of national and international pity and head-shaking, could undo years of economic development promotion, corporate relocation work and tourism campaigns.

It makes it a lot easier on the competition. Who wants to go to a failed state? Sure, there is no income tax. But we’re rationing gas, turning off electricity for millions of households and boiling water so it doesn’t poison us. Austin even closed a hospital and moved the patients when they couldn’t rely on heat or water.

In a hospital.

The light regulation here has been a key part of the business pitch. But the dark side was showing this week in the failures of our basic infrastructure.

Electricity here is cheaper than many other places, and it works, most of the time. But at some point, the corners we cut to keep electricity prices low turn into reliability problems. The cost-cutting shows up in the quality of the product. And the product, when it comes to infrastructure, is critical to the quality of life and the economy.

It’s a great state with a faltering state government. The political people running things too often worry more about their popularity than about their work. Too many of them are better at politics than they are at governing. And governing is the only real reason any of the rest of us have any interest in them.

Putting that another way:

Fixing ERCOT will require actual governance, as opposed to performative governance, and that is something the state’s leadership has struggled with of late. Rather than address the challenges associated with rapid growth, the state’s elected leaders have preferred to focus on various lib-owning initiatives such as the menace of transgender athletes, whether or not NBA games feature the national anthem, and—in a triumph of a certain brand of contemporary “conservatism”—legislating how local municipalities can allocate their own funds.

I’m anxious to see how our governor, in particular, will respond to this crisis, because I have never witnessed a more cowardly politician. When Abbott faces a challenge—and he has faced several in the past year alone—you can always depend on him to take the shape of water, forever finding the path of least resistance. I have no idea why the man became a politician, as I can discern no animating motive behind his acts beyond just staying in office.

During the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of 41,000 Texans so far, the governor first delegated as much responsibility—and political risk—as possible to the state’s mayors and county judges. When those same local officials decided that things like mask mandates and restaurant closures might be good ideas, which became unpopular with the governor’s donors, he overruled them. But when deaths spiked, Abbot decided that—surprise!—local leaders had retained the power to enforce mask mandates all along and that it was their fault for not solving his coronavirus riddle.

I am anxious to see how the governor weasels his way out of responsibility for what happens next. I wouldn’t want to be Texas’s new speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, to whom the governor will likely attempt to shift all the blame.

This is an opportunity for someone to say “It doesn’t have to be like this” and maybe get heard in a way that’s been nigh-impossible for Texas Democrats in recent years, Beto in 2018 semi-excepted. Even if the main effect is to make normal Republican voters less excited about supporting their team in 2022, that helps too.

But first we need someone to step up and make that argument. We know Beto is thinking about it, and at last report, Julian Castro was not inclined to run. But that Politico story also has this tidbit:

“Whether it’s Abbott’s failed response or Cruz’s abandoning of our state, we shouldn’t put people in charge of government who don’t believe in government. They fail us every time,” said former federal Housing Secretary Julián Castro, a Democrat who’s considering a bid against Abbott or Cruz.

Emphasis mine. Who knows what that means, or how it’s sourced. I mean, despite that earlier story about Castro, he’s a potential candidate until he’s not. Who even knows if Ted Cruz will run for re-election in 2024 – we all know he wants to run for President again, however ridiculous that may sound now – so considering a bid against Abbott is the only one that makes sense. I’d like to hear him say those words himself before I believe it, but I feel duty-bound to note that paragraph. We can hope from there.

What should the Governor’s powers be in a future emergency?

He admits there could maybe be some limits, but as is often the case has no great idea what they might be.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday he is open to reconsidering his executive powers during state emergencies, a point of contention among some fellow Republicans during the coronavirus pandemic, and that his office is “offering up some legislation ourselves on ways to address this going forward.”

“What we are working on — and we’ve already begun working with legislators — is approaches to make sure we can pre-plan how a response would be done, but it has to be done in a way that leaves flexibility to move swiftly,” Abbott said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

Abbott spoke with The Tribune the day after his State of the State speech in which he laid out his agenda for the 2021 legislative session, which started last month. As the pandemic has dragged on, some GOP lawmakers have grown uneasy with how aggressively Abbott has used his executive authority, particularly when it comes to business shutdowns and mask mandates. In the speech, Abbott promised to “continue working with the Legislature to find ways to navigate a pandemic while also allowing businesses to remain open.”

Abbott said in the interview that he still wants the governor to have the ability to do things like cut regulations in the time of a disaster, saying there is an “absolute need for speed” in such instances that the legislative process cannot provide. That is especially true, he added, “during a pandemic, when sometimes it’s hours that matters, especially sometimes in responding to demands that are coming from the White House where you basically have a 24-hour time period to respond to it.”

“We need to create a structure that will work that accommodates the need for a 24-hour turnaround,” Abbott said.

Abbott issued a monthlong shutdown of nonessential businesses last spring as the virus was bearing down on Texas. He has since relaxed restrictions and now business operations are based on the proportion of a region’s hospital patients being treated for COVID-19. Along the way, some in his party have argued the Legislature should have had more of a say in decisions that affect so many Texans. Some Republicans blasted him for going too far with his executive orders, while many Democrats and local officials criticized him for not going far enough to curb infections.

I brought this subject up a bunch of times in the earlier days of the pandemic, when Abbott showed some actual interest in doing something about it. A lot of the pushback came in the form of clownish lawsuits from Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill, which was absolutely the worst way to have this discussion. Woodfill is quoted in this Chron story that includes some input from legislators, but screw him, he’s a waste of space. Let’s see what members of the House think.

Lawmakers in the state House, which is controlled by Republicans, have yet to coalesce around any specific bills. Some members have called for requiring the governor to get legislative approval before renewing emergency orders.

“When you have to make split-second decisions on how to operate under a pandemic, it’s very difficult,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in an interview last month with the Tribune’s Evan Smith. “It’s a lose-lose situation. I thought he did as best he could.”

A spokesman for the speaker added in an email Wednesday that Phelan, whose district has received help from the governor’s office during hurricanes, “believes the Texas Legislature should have a seat at the table when developing a framework for how Texas addresses future public health emergencies.”

The Woodlands Republican Rep. Steve Toth, who was involved in and supported multiple suits against the governor over pandemic-related executive orders and has filed a bill to limit those powers, said Abbott’s comments were “very welcome.”

“I have to agree with him 100 percent: The ability to adjust regulations and ease regulations was critical in the face of this shutdown to give retailers and small business owners the ability to survive,” Toth said. “The big question is when it’s something this big, a shutdown statewide for multiple months … I just think it’s imperative that a decision of that magnitude that we bear that burden together, that it falls on all our shoulders to come up with a solution.”

Toth’s bill, HJR 42, would give voters in November the choice to decide whether to require the governor to call a special session of the Texas Legislature if he wishes to extend a state of emergency past 30 days.

Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio on Wednesday filed a similar bill, HB 1557, that would amend the law immediately without a need for an election. Martinez Fischer called it “the most seamless proposal that’s been offered.”

“In times of pandemic, we need a quarterback,” Martinez Fischer said. “But that quarterback also needs a team. And the Legislature’s the team. (The bill) gives the governor the ability to be that decision-maker, if you will, but then bring us in session so that we can provide our expertise and be part of the solution.”

Steve Toth is generally a lousy member of the House, but in this case I agree with what he’s suggesting, though I prefer Rep. Martinez Fischer’s approach of making any changes statutory rather than constitutional. For one thing, that will be easier to do, and for another it will be easier to modify or undo if those changes are more obstructive than constructive. I like the basic idea that the Governor can impose emergency orders, but beyond a certain point the Legislature needs to be brought in to extend them. I think that’s a decent balance, though of course it could fall prey to politics, especially if we ever get to a situation of divided partisan rule. I very much want to avoid the ridiculous shenanigans that Republican legislatures in states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania and North Carolina have done to overrule and neuter their Democratic governors, often in ways that were harmful and politically motivated. I think the Republican legislature here is unlikely to over-correct on a Republican governor, though there will be a wingnut faction that will want to do that. For now at least, I’m cautiously optimistic that something reasonable can be put forward. We’ll see how that goes.

On a completely tangential note: Remember the days when people could assert with a straight face that the Governor of Texas was maybe the fifth or sixth most powerful office in the state? It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that old chestnut, and the last time I did a few years ago I snorted out loud. I don’t know exactly when that stopped being true, but it sure hasn’t been in awhile. Just thought I’d make note of it here.

It’ll be awhile before redistricting happens

They’re waiting on Census data.

The U.S. Census Bureau has again pushed back the release of the 2020 census results — a delay that will almost certainly force Texas lawmakers into legislative overtime this summer to redraw the state’s political maps.

During an online presentation Wednesday, a bureau official revealed that the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats are apportioned to each state are expected to be released by April 30. The bureau has not finalized a timeline for the release of more detailed census results lawmakers need to actually redraw districts so they’re roughly equal in population, but the data likely won’t be available until after July.

“We hope to have a date in the near future that we can provide for when the redistricting data will come out. I cannot see that it would be before July 30 is how I would put this,” said Kathleen Styles, the bureau’s chief for decennial communications and stakeholder relations.

The 2021 legislative session ends May 31, but congressional and state House and Senate districts will need to be reconfigured ahead of the 2022 elections. Under the Census Bureau’s projected timeline, Gov. Greg Abbott would need to call lawmakers back for a special legislative session in the summer.

[…]

However, the delay announced Wednesday is likely to further fan questions among some Democrats over whether the redrawing of legislative maps can legally begin in a special session.

The state Constitution says state House and Senate seats must be redrawn by the Legislature during the first regular legislative session after the census is published. If they “fail” to do so, the Legislative Redistricting Board — a panel made up by the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the attorney general, the state comptroller and the state land commissioner — takes over the drawing.

With Republicans in control of both chambers, the delay in census data could provide a legal opening for Democrats to try to kick the legislative redistricting work out of Republicans’ hands and into the courts.

See here for the background. As I said, I figured this was going to be late, so I’m not surprised. The question of whether redistricting can begin in a special session is a legal technicality, and I’m not qualified to answer it. I am qualified to observe that a lot of the questions that were litigated in Texas during the 2020 election hinged on various technicalities, and overwhelmingly the courts ruled in favor of the state of Texas on those questions. Let’s just say that while I’m fine with pursuing a strategy of getting at least the Congressional map-drawing into the hands of federal judges (who by and large would rather gargle antifreeze than draw Congressional districts), I would not put a lot of hope and faith into the outcome of that strategy. To be fair, the outcome of having the Legislature do the map-drawing ain’t gonna be great either. I’m just trying to provide some perspective here.

An ancillary question is whether the delay in drawing the districts could force the primaries to be moved back as well. This is what happened in 2012, you may recall. The filing deadline for the 2022 primaries is December 15, and filing opens on November 15. I presume everyone will want a little time to figure out their options before filing for anything, so there’s likely to be a break between when the maps are ratified and when filing opens. Let’s say another 30 days for that, so that makes October 15 a functional deadline for getting them done without affecting the primary schedule. If the data is received on August 1 or so as suggested, then there’s probably enough time, though it will be close. In this DMN article, Speaker Dade Phelan says the special session could be called “as early as September”. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to get it done before filing season begins. Slip even a little, and I’d begin to assume we’ll have May primaries like we did in 2012. Let’s hope there isn’t another Ted Cruz out there to take advantage of that. NPR and the Brennan Center have more.

Maybe this is the year we get rid of Confederate Heroes Day

I know it shouldn’t boggle my mind that we even still have such a thing as “Confederate Heroes Day” in Texas in the year of our Lord 2021, but we do and it does. And so, some lawmakers will try, try again to make that a thing of the not-nearly-distant-enough past.

Rep. Nicole Collier

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring a leader of the American civil rights movement, some Texas employees will also take a paid day off this Tuesday for Confederate Heroes Day — a state holiday falling on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, intended to celebrate him, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate soldiers.

For years, a handful of Texas lawmakers have tried in vain to pass legislation that would remove or replace the holiday celebrating leaders of the Confederate army.

But they say this year feels different.

Demonstrators across the nation spent months over the summer protesting police brutality and racial injustice, leading many states to initiate mass removals of Confederate memorials.

“The killing of George Floyd, a Texan, and the killing of Atatiana Jefferson, another Texan, at the hands of law enforcement, certainly do underscore the importance of removing a day of remembrance that brings to the mind slavery and oppression,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, chairperson of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Texas isn’t alone in its recognition of the controversial holiday. Eight other states have similar Confederate memorial days throughout the year: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia. Mississippi and Alabama also have a joint Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day.

The birthdays of Lee and Davis used to be separate Texas holidays, but lawmakers consolidated them in 1973 to create Confederate Heroes Day.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, filed one of two bills for this session attempting to remove the holiday from the state’s calendar. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed the other in support.

“This is an opportunity for us to bring and shine light on social injustice, how Black people across this country have been demonized and have been treated unfairly by the judicial system, the criminal justice system,” Johnson said. “I think this is another way that we have to wipe away and erase harmful, hurtful imagery that continues to remind us of our horrible past.”

Johnson filed the same bill to abolish the holiday during the 2019 legislative session, but it never got a vote in the State Affairs Committee, which House Speaker Dade Phelan chaired at the time.

Phelan will ensure lawmakers have a “level playing field to advocate for legislation important to them and their communities” this session, said Enrique Marquez, spokesperson for the speaker.

We’ll see about that. I mean, it was just two years ago that we were finally able to get a Confederate plaque removed at the Capitol, though later in that same session the Senate approved a bill that would make it virtually impossible to remove any other Confederate monuments around the state. (That bill did not come to a vote in the House, so at least there was that.) I would hope that seeing an actual insurrectionist carrying an actual Confederate flag inside the actual US Capitol earlier this month, a thing that the Confederate Army itself failed to do, might shock some people out of whatever it is that made them not be reviled by this sort of thing, but I would not bet on it. But as someone once said, it’s always the right time to do the right thing.

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

The Texas House on Tuesday elected state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next House speaker, ushering into office a new leader who will oversee a chamber facing its toughest set of legislative challenges in years against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The House voted 143-2 for Phelan, with four members not voting. The two members who voted against Phelan were GOP freshmen Bryan Slaton and Jeff Cason.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, replaced former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who retired from office thanks to a secret recording scandal that fractured relationships in the 150-member lower chamber. Phelan has billed himself as a figure who has earned the trust of his colleagues and who wants to lead the House by letting members drive the business of it.

Phelan’s election to the gavel was one of the House’s first orders of business Tuesday, when the Legislature gaveled in for the 2021 legislative session.

Best of luck in the new session. My advice is to never, ever speak to anyone associated with Michael Quinn Sullivan if you can avoid it, and if you can’t avoid it remember that they are almost certainly recording you in the hope that you will say something dumb and they can torpedo you over it. Learn from the mistakes of your overly self-confident predecessor. And don’t let anyone get away with sedition, insurrection, or not wearing a mask. Good luck, we’re all counting on you.

There was also this.

The Texas Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for its biennial session with a heavy security presence after the U.S. Capitol insurrection last week and rampant reminders of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

The state House and Senate met in the early afternoon without incident, and there was only a small protest outside the Capitol beforehand. Still, the sight of state troopers clustered around the building’s entrances and lining the halls inside was striking, especially after the unrest in the nation’s capital on Wednesday that left five people dead and has led to dozens of arrests.

“This is my 19th session, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I felt today when I recognized that we had to have all this security,” Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said in the minutes before the session began. “And my first question to myself was, How far have we come? I mean, have we come forward or have we gone backward?”

“I told the DPS officers and the military I felt safe,” Dutton added, “but I didn’t know I needed them to feel safe.”

[…]

Nothing remotely close to what happened in Washington, D.C., unfolded Tuesday in Austin. There was a small protest — appearing to number less than a dozen people — outside the Capitol’s north entrance, at least partly related to vaccines, about an hour before the session began, and a wall of DPS officers were lined up on the perimeter of it.

After the chambers let out around 1:30 p.m., DPS troopers were still in place on the outdoor perimeter of the Capitol, but there were no protests in sight.

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

Even as members of both parties came together for the opening remarks and swearing in of new members, they remained visibly at odds over proper health precautions amid the pandemic. In the Senate, masks were not required and at least half of lawmakers declined to wear them while seated at their desks.

Plexiglass barriers lined administrative desks at the front of the room, but only Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, had a protective shield around his desk.

“We’re here to do the people’s business,” said Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate and has been a vocal opponent of mandated restrictions. “We want our Capitol open this session, unlike many states,” he added. “We want the public to be here and have your voice heard in committee, to be able to visit your representative.”

Members and their guests were required to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the Capitol.

The new session arrives as infections in Austin have reached all-time highs. On Tuesday, state and local emergency officials opened a temporary facility for overflow hospital patients as the city’s hospitals continued to be overrun with coronavirus patients.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was among those who declined to wear a mask in the chamber. His spokesman said “everyone was tested prior to coming into the Capitol this morning, including all senators and guests that were sitting in the gallery today.”

Yeah, no one’s ever heard of a false negative test result. What do you think is the over/under on legislators who get COVID? Not counting the two (Drew Darby and Tracy King) who were not present because they already had a positive test. I’m at least as worried about the staffers and folks who work at the Capitol, but we’re much less likely to hear it when they get sick. Just please, let’s try not to turn this session into a superspreader event.