On the day the Eighty-seventh Legislature convened in January, 360 Texans died of COVID-19 and another 14,106 were hospitalized with the coronavirus. The House and Senate were in extreme pandemic lockdown. Lawmakers were required to wear masks and senators to take tests for the virus; reporters and lobbyists had limited access to the Capitol, and members of the public were excluded unless they were testifying before a committee. Lawmakers expected that the state budget—which must pass every session—and only a few other bills would be voted through. Then, a month later, the main Texas electric grid failed, leaving thousands freezing in the dark for days and as many as 700 dead.
If ever there were a Legislature with the opportunity to address the most pressing needs of Texans, this was it. Lawmakers could prepare for the next pandemic and make certain that widespread blackouts don’t happen again. Necessity could have made this Legislature historic.
But it didn’t.
In a normal year, the business of the Legislature would have been business: issues including public school finance and reining in property taxes. But the ice and snow had hardly melted on February 23 when Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released a list of 31 legislative priorities and turned the session into one of the most partisan that Texas has seen. He wanted a bill to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually at around six weeks gestation, before many women know they’re pregnant. He demanded sweeping new restrictions on voting, supposedly to prevent fraud, although there was no evidence of any significant fraud in Texas. Other priorities included allowing Texans to sue social media companies that banned political figures who spread conspiracy theories, requiring professional sports teams to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games, and prohibiting transgender girls from playing girls sports in Texas public schools (though, as with voting fraud, there is no evidence that this is actually happening).
This agenda left the important issues of the legislative session starved for time and attention. Responding to the pandemic never became a major focus. In part, this was because the state budget did not suffer from a large virus-induced shortfall after it was saved by about $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
On the blackouts, legislators were even more delinquent. Even as officials and statisticians continued to tally the dead from the February blackouts, legislators rushed forward with promises that they would make certain the grid never failed again. But the House and Senate could not agree on what measures to pursue. And both bodies were hamstrung by their deference to energy executives and investors, and especially natural gas producers. A slate of bills languished until the final Sunday of the session. The ones that passed would overhaul the state’s Public Utility Commission and require weatherization of power plants, transmission lines, and the natural gas facilities that provide the fuel to generate power—but they do not specify how to pay for it. Nor do they address how to pay for the financial losses power companies faced in the storm—losses that Texas households and businesses will likely be footing for years to come.
“I think there is an appetite in the state and among legislators to revisit the electricity issue, securitization, weatherization,” Speaker Dade Phelan told a small gaggle of reporters Monday, referring to the possibility of reopening discussion in a special session. “I think we have more work to do.”
In lieu of blackout and pandemic bills, social wedge issues, among them abortion and permitless carry of handguns, became the headliners of the session. Patrick, who declined a request for an interview, was emboldened by the skunking Republicans gave to Democrats in the 2020 elections. Texas House Republicans had expected to lose nine or more seats and control of the chamber. Instead, they held all their seats, elected a new Speaker, Dade Phelan, and felt the need to appeal to the Republican base in the 2022 primaries.
“This is just simply a session where Republicans ran the table in the elections. They looked at the issues that Republicans ran on and said, ‘The will of the people of Texas is to get these things done,’ ” said Republican Matt Schaefer, a representative from Tyler, who authored the legislation to allow Texans to carry a handgun without a license or training. “Show me a significant effort the Democrats won in the state of Texas at the ballot box. Didn’t happen. So what do you expect?”
Lawmakers passed the heartbeat abortion bill, and permitless carry, along with a slew of Patrick’s priorities. For some Republicans it still wasn’t enough. As the session closed, conservative House members and Patrick were angry that bills targeting transgender children died in the House. And the session ended with a dramatic House Democrat walkout right before the deadline for adjournment, killing the voter restrictions backed by Patrick and Abbott. The governor promised to call a special session for the elections bill and another piece of legislation making it more difficult for poor Texans to obtain bail when accused of a violent crime. He also responded to the failure of the election bill by promising to veto the article of the state budget that funds the Legislature. “No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” Abbott tweeted Monday morning. “Stay tuned.”
Such a veto could potentially shut down the Legislature on September 1. It would also close the state agency that manages the redistricting computers that will be used to redraw legislative and congressional district boundary lines once the state receives its full census data in the summer.
As a potential special session approaches, the knowledge that they control the redistricting process causes some Republicans to swell with confidence, said House Democratic Caucus chairman Chris Turner, a representative from Arlington. “They have governed accordingly, without fear of moderate suburban voters, without fear of the rising diverse electorate in Texas, because they think they can gerrymander themselves back into safe districts,” Turner said. “I don’t think they can, but I think that’s the mindset.”