Last Week in the Legislature

By Kenneth Besserman
Director of Government Affairs and Special Counsel

August 27, 2021 

Special Session Take Two (More to Follow?)

While the Texas summer has heated up, the temperatures inside the Capitol have likewise been rising. At the end of the regular session in May, House Democrats broke the legislative quorum over some last-minute conference committee additions that were added to Senate Bill 7 – the voter integrity legislation. House Democrats felt that the late additions were too burdensome and onerous and were vastly different than the House-passed version that was negotiated toward the end of session. The legislative walkout, for all intents and purposes, ended the regular session, causing Republicans and state leadership to be angry and not in the mood for further compromise.

In July, Governor Greg Abbott called the first special session, which included many issues. Among the most controversial was the voter integrity legislation that caused the walkout at the end of the regular session. Immediately after the session started, over 50 House Democrats decamped the state for Washington, D.C., to protest the voting legislation and put pressure on Congress to pass meaningful voter protection legislation.

The 30-day session ended on August 6 without a legislative quorum in the House. None of the governor’s items on the special session call were passed. Immediately thereafter, on August 7, the governor called the second special session to order with the same items on the agenda, but also adding other items like legislative branch funding, gender issues relating to high school sports, federal COVID-19 funding and legislation to address legislative quorums.

As the second special session started, the Texas House still did not have a legislative quorum to conduct business. As the days passed, some House Democrats made their way back to Austin and began to show up at the Capitol, allowing House Speaker Dade Phelan to gavel in a legislative quorum on August 23.

The House immediately sent many of the governor’s items, many which have passed the Senate earlier in the second special session, to their respective committees. The House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights & Remedies quickly passed SB 1 – the voter integrity and security bill – and sent the bill to the House floor for debate. House floor debate is now set for August 26.

The bill largely resembles the bill that forced the first legislative walkout, but does remove the prohibition on the “souls to the polls” hours and the section that allowed for judges to overturn election results more easily. What amendments will be proposed, debated, voted on, and agreed upon in the House are still up in the air in light of frayed relationships, distrust and acrimony that permeates the House.

What we do know this summer is that a redistricting special session is on the horizon. The 2020 Census numbers were delivered to Texas in mid-August and now the legislature, mapmakers and redistricting experts can get to work. Census numbers do show that the Texas minority population grew quite a lot as did a migration to the urban centers. This will put a lot of pressure on the legislature to draw Congressional and state legislative maps that follow the new Census numbers.

The Constitution requires that the legislature draw new maps during the first regular session after the Census numbers are received, but since that did not happen in the regular session, there is some debate as to whether it is required in a special session or can be pushed off into 2023. Any maps drawn in a special session in late 2021 or early 2022 will likely take many months, if not years, to be finalized in court. This means that primaries set for the spring will probably be pushed off into the summer months. Stay tuned for lots of ups and downs in the redistricting process and the court fights to follow.

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