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Texas governor to call Legislature back to Austin after controversial session

Texas State Capitol Building

The official 87th legislative session of Texas came to a dramatic end Memorial Day weekend, leaving several of Gov. Greg Abbott’s high-priority items on the table. The governor declared he would call legislators back into a special session to address those items and threatened to veto the part of the budget that pays their salaries.

Going into session in January, Abbott declared election and bail reform as “must-pass emergency items,” but neither made it through the process in time.

Senate Bill 7, which would limit early voting hours, add more restrictions to vote-by-mail, and possibly curb some local options for casting ballots, failed to come up for a final vote when Senate Democrats walked out of the Capitol building last Sunday night, May 30. With no quorum, no vote could be taken.

Republicans hailed the legislation as a way to reduce the possibility of voter fraud. Democrats called the proposed voting legislation an attempt to restrict voting, particularly for minorities.

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, nonprofit civic organization, called the governor’s threat to defund the Legislature “unethical and anti-democratic.”

The bill would have made Texas the state with the most restrictive voting laws in the country if approved.

Also on the agenda for a special session is House Bill 20, which would make it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash.

A fall special session was already planned to take up redistricting, a decennial process delayed when COVID-19 restrictions shut down the 2020 U.S. Census count for several months last spring. According to preliminary counts recently released, Texas earned three new congressional seats based on population growth over the past 10 years.

The governor could add the voting and bail bond issues to the fall redistricting session or call legislators back this summer.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Galveston) hopes to get it all done with one session this fall.

“Let’s just have a restful, peaceful summer and, hopefully, be back here in the fall,” he said. “But that’s not my decision. That’s someone else’s decision.”

Only the governor can call a special session, and, as of Tuesday, June 1, Abbott was focused on showing his displeasure with the outcome of the regular session. In a Monday morning tweet from his personal Twitter account, he threatened to withhold legislative pay.

“I will veto Article 10 of the budget passed by the Legislature. Article 10 funds the legislative branch,” Abbott tweeted. “No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities. Stay tuned.”

Under Texas law, the governor can veto parts of legislation. If Abbott carried out this threat, it could cut funding for the Legislature starting Sept. 1, 2021.

Texas legislators earn about $7,200 per year but also get a per diem of $221 for every day the Legislature is in session — both regular and special.

In an official statement, Abbott laid out his expectations for a special session.

“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,” Abbott said.

daniel@thepicayune.com