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The clock is ticking down in the Texas Legislature as tensions between House and Senate leadership and Gov. Greg Abbott appear to mount.
Lawmakers have until May 31 to get bills to Abbott’s desk, but the House and Senate have signaled frustrations with the opposite chamber in the final days of the regular session.
The failure of three of Lt. Dan Patrick’s top bills on Tuesday in the House prompted the lieutenant governor to ask Abbott for a special session. Abbott responded with a sports analogy: “Some are trying to end the game before the time clock has run out,” he said in a statement that didn’t directly mention Patrick, but called on the House and Senate to work together in the final days.
“There’s still time remaining for the House and Senate to work together to get important conservative legislation to my desk,” Abbott said. “Members in both chambers need to be spending every minute of every day to accomplish that mission.”
Abbott was asked about Patrick’s call for a special session during his visit Thursday in Fort Worth.
“That’s pretty goofy, because everybody knows there’s only one person with the authority to call a special session and that’s the governor,” Abbott said. “Only I have that ability and only I will execute that authority.”
A spokesperson for Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, declined to comment on Abbott’s remarks at the press conference and the calls for a special session. An interview request left with Patrick’s office was not immediately returned, but Patrick responded to Abbott’s news conference remarks in an interview with KDFW Channel 4.
“It’s not goofy to ask the governor for a special session and he said this week ‘Well, the two teams they can get together the last few days.’ Well, the rules say on Tuesday in the House those bills were dead,” Patrick said, according to a tweet from one of the station’s reporters. “They can’t be revived so the only way we can pass them is to request a special session.”
Calls for a special session
Tension between the two chambers have been apparent in recent days as the final days are filled with deadlines. The passing of each creates another hurdle on a bill’s path to becoming law.
After spending hours debating Senate bills on Tuesday, the clock struck midnight in the House before three of Patrick’s priorities were heard. One would prohibit transgender student athletes from participating on a team that matches their gender identities, another bars some local governments from contracting with lobbyists and a third addresses “social media censorship.”
On the floor Wednesday night, Patrick condemned the House for not taking action.
“They killed key bills of yours last night because they weren’t here Friday and Saturday and all House members and chairmen need to hear that, clearly,” Patrick said.
The remarks come after the House took a two day break last week to pressure the Senate to move on some of its priority legislation.
“There are either two chambers or there are no chambers,” Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, tweeted at the time. “If the TX Senate wants to kill or sit on important bills sent over by the House, they can expect the same in return.”
North Texas Rep. Jeff Cason, R-Bedford, has joined Patrick in his special session request. His wish list: “Ban tax-payer lobbying, school choice for all, monument protection, protecting our young children from gender modification, and true religious freedoms.”
In a Twitter post, he said, “I am extremely disappointed in my fellow Republicans for not standing up to the Texas Democrats and their radical leftist agenda that will bring social and economic ruin to our great state.”
Could Texas be forced to have a special session?
The Senate adjourned early Thursday morning without passing Senate Bill 1600, the sunset safety net bill that extends the sunset date for several state agencies. Sunset review is the process by which the need for an agency to exist is assessed.
Without the bill passing, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is set to be abolished Sept. 1, a move that could force a special session, according to the Texas Tribune. The Legislature is already expected to return for a special session in the fall to address redistricting and the allocation of federal COVID-19 relief dollars.
Patrick maintained in the interview with KDFW he is not trying to force a special session. Another bill relating to the sunset review scheduling will be handled in a conference committee.
Abbott has options were a special session forced, said Rice University Political Science Professor Mark Jones. He pointed to 2019 when the Legislature adjourned without extending Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners. Many feared plumbers would go unlicensed and unregulated without a special session, but that was avoided when Abbott issued an executive order that citied Hurricane Harvey recovery as a reason for keeping the board in tact through executive action.
“Abbott does have some wiggle room,” Jones said.
A special session is undesirable to governors, as ultimately someone’s priority issue will be left out of the conversation, Jones said.
“It’s the issue of, you can never please every constituency,” he said.
If a special session is called, Abbott made clear during the Fort Worth news conference that one issue will be taken up at a time, and that he’ll be setting the agenda.
“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, or whatever,” Abbott said, adding, “We’re going to go one item at a time. There will be one item placed on the agenda. Not until they pass that item, will we move on to another item.”
Asked if he had concerns that Texans may not see state leadership as unified, Abbott said “this is kind of how it happens always at the end of the session,” returning again to Texans’ shared language of sports analogies.
“It’s like the last two minutes of a football game or a basketball game,” he said. “It’s where all the action takes place. What I do know is, 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.”