The regular session of the 87th Texas Legislature began Jan. 12 as COVID-19's second wave in Texas was peaking above 20,000 new cases a day and about a month before a winter storm would shut off power and water to millions of Texans and leave at least 210 dead from its effects. The pandemic and storm kept lawmakers adjourned and largely away from Austin for weeks, but by late February the Legislature was showing signs of hitting a normal pace.
When it was all over 140 days after it began, the House and Senate had sent 1,073 bills to Gov. Greg Abbott for his consideration out of 6,927 that had been filed (3,072 resolutions were also proposed). Abbott vetoed 21 bills, including his line-item veto of funding for the legislative branch in the two-year state budget that begins Sept. 1. The rest he either signed into law or allowed to become law without his signature.
Abbott's legislative budget veto underscored the acrimonious finish to the regular session, which saw House Democrats break quorum to defeat Republican efforts to change state election law — a move that prompted Abbott to threaten the line-item veto he would make reality on June 18. The proposed election changes included provisions that would ban 24-hour voting locations, drive-thru voting and drop boxes for mail-in ballots and empower partisan poll watchers. Democrats called the proposals "voter suppression"; Republicans said they are an attempt to enhance "election integrity."
Tensions didn't flare up only between partisans. Several Republican priorities were left pending when the regular session ended May 31. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate, and rookie House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) publicly expressed frustration with each other's management of their respective chambers.
So it was inevitable that Abbott would call the Legislature back into special session. The first called special session began July 8. In addition to remaking the state's election laws, other items of interest to counties on the special session agenda, which only the governor can set, included bail reform, border security, property tax relief, enhancing protections for children in foster care and improving cybersecurity defenses.
Less than a week after the first special session began, Democratic members of the Texas House left Austin to deny the Republican majority the quorum it needs to pass voting changes, echoing the end of the regular session. A special session can't last more than 30 days. Without a quorum, the first special session never even got the chance to end with a whimper, much less a bang.
Abbott immediately called a second special session, which began Aug. 7 with an expanded agenda. The governor has said he'll keep calling special sessions until the Legislature passes his agenda. Republican majorities in the House and Senate pretty much guarantee an election bill will pass. Exactly in what form and when are unknown as of this article's deadline.
Members of the Legislature always knew they would be back in special session at least once in late summer or early fall to work on redistricting after the pandemic delayed the U.S. Census Bureau's release of data until Aug. 12. They also put off deciding how to spend $15.8 billion the state received from the federal government courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act, setting up another special session agenda item.
Keeping members informed
The Texas Association of Counties' (TAC) legislative consultants and analysts and members of county official associations tracked thousands of bills affecting law enforcement, emergency management and other aspects of county government during the regular session. In addition, TAC kept its members on top of the latest developments through its weekly Tuesday Morning Breakfast meetings (held virtually this year because of the pandemic), "TAC on the Lege" video series and County Issues newsletter.
Top of mind for county leaders throughout the regular session was an attempt to make it harder for local officials to effectively participate in the state policymaking process. The effort, which fit within a larger trend over the past several sessions to weaken local control, ultimately failed. It didn't make it onto Abbott's first special session agenda, but county officials remain vigilant, wary of its reemergence.
Election changes weren't the only contentious issue. Several gun bills passed, the most notable of which allows Texans 21 and older who don't have a criminal record to carry a handgun without a permit. Banning so-called critical race theory from Texas public school classrooms and requiring students to compete on sports teams that match the sex on their birth certificate continue to generate their share of discord.
But there was bipartisan agreement, too. Named an emergency item for the session by Abbott, expanding broadband internet access to rural and underserved areas enjoyed wide support. The use of remote learning and telehealth conferencing during the pandemic made the importance of broadband expansion clearer than ever.
COVID-19 spawned several proposals to check the governor's emergency powers during a pandemic and, more successfully in the end, protect businesses from pandemic-related liabilities. The regular session of the 87th Legislature began with the pandemic as the dominant news event, followed by February's power failures, which led to debates about how to winterize the state's electrical grid and avoid future statewide outages during freezing weather. It concluded with the pushing of hot buttons and a Democratic walkout.
And it isn't over. But there is one certainty: No matter what happens, TAC's Legislative Services team will be monitoring and reporting on developments to keep you informed and engaged.
|Details? TAC's Legislative Analysis Report has them
TAC's 2021 Legislative Analysis Report summarizes newly enacted and signed laws that affect county government and county operations. The report also distills the 2022-2023 state budget into a concise version reflecting budget areas and programs of interest to counties.
Read the 2021 Legislative Analysis Report at www.county.org/legislative, where you can also find the latest legislative news from TAC's County Issues newsletter.