Looking Ahead to First Special Legislative Session in Texas
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the first of two special legislative sessions will commence on Thursday, July 8, but the full list of agenda items will be set solely at Abbott’s discretion.
The two big-ticket items expected to be brought up in Texas’ summer session are the controversial election reform bill and bail system reform bill. Texas Democrats quashed the passage of Republican-backed voting legislation by conceding the floor and breaking quorum during final debate on the second-to-last day of the regular session, TWN previously reported, but also killed a number of other conservative legislative priority items in doing so.
Abbott announced the split format of the upcoming special sessions in a radio interview but declined to specify what other bills might be revived before all is said and done. Although Republican lawmakers framed the enactment of the sweeping changes to the state’s voting system as a matter of “election integrity,” analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice characterized the efforts as attempts at voter suppression.
“Senate Bill 7 would burden voters in large Texas cities in a number of different ways,” Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, wrote in an analysis of the legislation. “It requires an equal number of voting machines at countywide polling locations, which is a backdoor way of eliminating large voting centers that could be used by large numbers of city residents.”
Pérez continued, “The bill also makes it illegal to offer 24-hour and drive-through voting, no doubt in response to the innovations Harris County used in response to the pandemic. All of these voting methods allow election administrators to provide good customer service to their voters, and they help to prevent longer lines in heavily populated urban areas during voting.”
Should Democrats stage another quorum-breaking walkout as they did in May, it could come at the cost of staffers’ salaries after Abbott vetoed a portion of the state budget that funded the legislative branch. The vetoed portion of the budget can be restored in the special session, but only at Abbott’s behest.
Texas Democrats are challenging the budget veto in court by issuing a petition for a writ of mandamus in hopes the Texas Supreme Court will override Abbott’s decision. Sixty House Democrats, along with the House Democratic Caucus, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, four state employees and the Texas AFL-CIO, all signed on in support of the petition.
“The governor’s veto power is granted by the Texas Constitution, and the Texas Supreme Court has recognized that ‘the Governor has power to disapprove any bill,’” Office of the Governor Press Secretary Renae Eze said in a written statement. “More to the point, [the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals] also ruled that ‘the governor’s power to exercise a veto may not be circumscribed by the Legislature [or] by the courts.’ This is not the first time, and undoubtedly will not be the last time, that a governor vetoes funding for government positions and salaries. Any limitation on that authority directly contradicts the Constitution and decades of vetoes by governors.”
The statement continued, “The Democrats’ claims about the governor’s veto ‘canceling’ the legislative branch are misleading and misguided. The Constitution protects the legislative branch, and as the Democrats well know, their positions, their powers and their salaries are protected by the Constitution. They can continue to legislate despite the veto.”
The final version of the bail system reform bill that failed to pass before its deadline would have banned individuals’ release from jail on personal bonds if they are accused of violent or sexual crimes and prevented charitable organizations from bailing out protesters accused or previously convicted of violent crimes. Further, other provisions pushed by Republicans would have required courts to consider the criminal history of defendants prior to setting bail.
Many bail reform advocates had taken issue with the bill, arguing that banning cashless release for individuals accused of low-level assault against police officers would unfairly harm people afflicted by mental health issues who tend to resist physical contact by law enforcement. In these cases, advocates contend that the proposed changes requiring cash bail would overwhelmingly result in poorer individuals with mental illnesses being incarcerated.
“The defeat of Texas’ dangerous bail bill is a win for all Texans,” Nick Hudson, policy and advocacy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a written statement. “H.B. 20 would have enriched the bail industry while undermining public safety and punishing the poor. It solved nothing. We are grateful to the many organizations, lawmakers, and concerned Texans who advocated against this terrible legislation.”
Hudson continued, “Now, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and pass a bill that will actually reform the bail system. We look forward to working with lawmakers and partners to create a strong, fair justice system for the benefit and wellbeing of all Texans.”
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