What You Need to Know About the Texas Legislature’s Special Session

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We are over a week into a special session, and it’s clear now it never should have happened. The state’s worst-in-the-nation ranking in the number of uninsured residents might have warranted the Legislature coming back, especially with billions of federal dollars available to pay for expanding health care coverage and numerous studies showing a financial windfall or at least a net benefit for the state economy and budget. Another case could be made if the special session aimed to address food access — 1 in 7 Texans experience food insecurity, which is 1.4 million households and over 4 million individuals. Texas is one of just 15 states with higher food insecurity than the national average. Some could also argue that STAAR testing results during the pandemic showing disparities among low-income, Latino, and Black students could necessitate additional funding needs for schools as an extraordinary cause needing legislation. But alas, none of these issues will be addressed in the special session. Instead, issues like white-washing history, wasting more state money on border security, and making it harder to vote will be taken up instead. 

House Democrats and some Senate Democrats decided that more harm than good would come from participating in legislative proceedings and broke quorum to head to Washington D.C. to push for federal voting rights reform that will uniformly modernize our election laws. Assuming Democrats stay out of Texas through the 30-day deadline, the session is all but over, but the Lt. Governor is making the Senate go through the motions and move legislation that will inevitably die in the House. Our friends at Progress Texas have laid out some potential outcomes here, including one where Republicans actually negotiate in good faith with the Democrats for the betterment of democracy. This process would require leadership to put the good of Texans ahead of party politics. If that happens, the next special session could look a lot different from this one — if it doesn’t, we could be in a never-ending cycle of escalating partisan fights where everyone loses. 

In the meantime, Every Texan will continue to monitor and share key legislative developments.   

What You Need to Know About This Special Session

What’s on the agenda?

The only policy issues the Texas Legislature can take up in a special session must be on the call issued by the Governor. Unfortunately, he used his wide discretion to largely take up conservative issues, including voter suppression bills, further limitations on critical race theory, border security, and abortion. In all, he included 11 issues, including taking up the funding of the Legislative Branch of government. This is required because he vetoed the Legislative Branch’s budget during the regular session and, unless that funding is restored, there will be no funds available for any sessions after September 1, 2021. This will also not be the only special session, because it is widely expected that a special session will be called in late September or October to address redistricting and the use of federal funding. The Governor did not address the failure of ERCOT and the power grid, expanding Medicaid to address our state’s abysmal health insurance coverage rates, or the widening educational gaps from the year of remote learning as demonstrated from STAAR tests.

How are special sessions different from regular sessions? 

A special session is only 30 days long as opposed to the 140-day length of a regular session. The regular session starts off very slowly as members wait for committee assignments and for bills to get filed — non-priority bills cannot even get passed out of a chamber until after 60 days. Special sessions should not be viewed as overtime periods of a regular session because the entire process for a bill starts over rather than maintaining its status from the end of the last regular session. As a result, special sessions have to move very quickly. A legislator can file any bill she or he wants, but if it does not fit within the call of the Governor, it is likely to face a point of order to prevent it from being considered any further. In the Senate, former Lt. Governor David Dewhurst began the tradition of removing the traditional blocker bill for special sessions in 2013, meaning bills moving in the Senate can be heard on the floor without suspending the rules in the regular order of business with a simple majority vote. This means the opposition has limited tools to kill bills by running out the clock.  

What’s happened so far?

The session began on July 8th. Most of the House Democrats and some Senate Democrats left the state on July 12th, utilizing the one tool they have to kill voter suppression bills SB 1 and HB 3: breaking quorum. Without a quorum present, the House cannot vote on any bills or take up most motions. This move effectively ends the session, since no bills can get approved by both chambers and, therefore, won’t make it to the governor’s desk. The Senate and House already passed SB 1 and HB 3 out of committee last weekend, and the Senate passed its version on the floor on July 13th. Other bills related to the call may continue to move in the Senate, but without a quorum in the House, the bills will die upon arrival. 

What can you do in a special session to get your voice heard?

The regular session was marred by a lack of participation and transparency, especially in the early months when advocates feared the spread of COVID-19. Hearings in the early part of session lacked any meaningful participation from everyday Texans, and special interests took advantage of this — especially in the Senate, which provided no options for virtual testimony, no public comment process, and in some cases, a requirement of paper registration to even oppose or support a bill. With vaccination rates much higher now, advocates are hopeful the voices of affected communities will be louder and more pronounced. Staffers were inundated with emails during the regular session from constituents and advocacy groups, and many of the emails ended up in spam folders. There is no real substitute for an in-person meeting with an elected official or their staff, where stakeholders can explain their concerns, share their stories, and express why something matters to them, their family, and their community. Every Texan is glad virtual testimony and the public comment process are here to stay in the House (when committee hearings resume), especially since traveling to Austin is cost-prohibitive. But we also know that for the community members that can travel to the Capitol safely, increased accessibility to lawmakers will make a world of difference, because it forces members to face the realities of their decisions from real people.    

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