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One of the nearly 60 Democrats who fled the state of Texas and traveled to Washington, D.C., this month to stonewall a pair of GOP-backed voting bills has returned to Austin to engage in "good faith dialogue" on the legislation.
Lone Star State Rep. Philip Cortez announced his decision in a Wednesday statement after he said colleagues at the Capitol requested his presence to oppose one of the two bills floating through the Texas Legislature.
"I proudly stood with my Democratic colleagues and left Texas to ensure House Bill 3 would not be approved as introduced," he said. "A small working group of Democrats decided to begin active discussions here in Austin on improving HB 3 and asked that I return to establish open communication lines."
"I returned to Texas to try to engage in good faith dialogue about the aspects of the bill that I, and others, think are harmful," he added.
Cortez's departure marks the second time a lawmaker left the district after state Rep. Harold Dutton returned to Texas over family matters, namely over concerns that he would expose his sister, who is undergoing chemotherapy, to the coronavirus after at least six of his colleagues tested positive for COVID-19 since they initially fled Austin. Neither of the two has been arrested despite statements from Gov. Greg Abbott that the intentionally absent legislators would be apprehended upon their return.
The Democrats' move began earlier in the month after Abbott called a special session to deliberate on Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, a pair of legislation that would ban drive-thru voting, implement more comprehensive voter identification requirements for mail-in ballots, and prohibit officials from sending voting applications to those who did not request them. S.B. 1 was passed by the Senate amid the lawmaker's departure, but H.B. 3 has been stalled as the House lacks the two-thirds quorum necessary to vote on the legislation.
The trip has paralyzed the state's House and stripped the chamber of the necessary quorum to do business. On Monday, state Rep. Armando Walle projected that the cost of the excursion will top $1.5 million by the time it ends, as he indicated that the chartered private flights to Washington cost $100,000 alone.
A wire transfer from the House Democratic Caucus paid for the jets, and one House member put a block of hotel rooms on a personal American Express card. It is unclear whether taxpayers will end up paying partially or wholly for the Democrats' trip.
Democrats have insisted that no taxpayer funds are being used in the excursion, but their Republican counterparts have posited that upward of $1 million will be paid by residents due to the prolonging of a special session. If Democrats do not return in a timely manner, the special session could last for nearly one month, with legislators being paid per diem rates during the process.
Last Wednesday, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan requested the Democrats to return their $221-per-day wages if they are outside of the Lone Star State.
"Under the Texas Constitution ... per diem must be paid to each member for each day of a special session, regardless of whether the member is actually present," Phelan wrote in a memorandum. "I am requesting all members who are intentionally absent for the purpose of preventing the House from conducting business during the special session to return your constitutional per diem to the state's treasury immediately upon receipt."
A day prior, House Republicans voted to send law enforcement to hunt down the lawmakers "under warrant of arrest if necessary" after the leaders discovered they lacked a two-thirds quorum when they tried to bring one of the bills to a vote with only 80 members of the normal 150-member government body present. Two motions to initiate the move passed by an overwhelming 76-4 margin, with Democrats who chose not to vacate the state as the only "no" votes.
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Original Author: Jake Dima