Editors’ note: The following events have not actually happened. Yet.
March 24, 2021—Yesterday marked the halfway point of the eighty-seventh Texas Legislature, one of the wildest and most contentious we’ve ever seen. We’ve made it seventy days, and we can, with God’s grace and infinite forbearance, make it another seventy. Here’s your weekly roundup:
—On Friday, House Speaker Tracy O. King put an early end to his chamber’s proceedings to convene a weekend retreat for the House Democratic Caucus, at a ranch near his South Texas hometown of Uvalde. The confab did not go well, sources in the caucus say, and not merely because it is difficult to get 76 lawmakers to stay six feet apart from each other. Three months after King’s shock election as Speaker, House Democrats remain deeply divided. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In the November 2020 election, Democrats picked up 9 seats, winning control of the lower chamber of the Legislature, 76 seats to 74. A new day in Texas! Those modest hopes were dashed, however, when the session started and the bulk of House Republicans and a handful of conservative Democrats voted for King, a conservative rural Democrat who has been described as alternately “quietly confident” or “quiet.” (King, you may remember, switched his vote to himself mid-stream, feeding a rumor that he didn’t know about the plan to elevate him as Speaker.)
The Uvalde meetup repeatedly devolved into shouting matches, as lawmakers struggled to be heard over long distances. Progressive lawmakers took turns lashing out at Speaker pro tem Greg Bonnen, the Republican brother of disgraced former Speaker Dennis Bonnen, and House whip Ryan Guillen, whose main project this session has been protecting a tax break for yacht buyers that he helped pass last session.
There are a lot of fights left to come, particularly over the apocalyptic budget situation, but at least the long-awaited bloodbath over redistricting has been postponed, thanks to the delay in the release of census data. Democrats returned to Austin on Sunday very hoarse.
—Thursday saw one of the largest protests of the session so far. Usually, these events feature roving gangs of armed men, including state representative Briscoe Cain, who has taken to dressing in a buckskin outfit and carrying a muzzle-loading black powder rifle etched with “Beto, Come and Take It.” But the protest Thursday was organized by a group called the Patriot Mothers Against Future Vaccines, which aims to pressure the Lege to pass a law to prevent a potential COVID-19 vaccine from becoming mandatory.
Amid throngs of protesters with signs denouncing Bill Gates and George Soros and 5G, former state representative and PMAFV adviser Bill Zedler held forth with a gang of mothers. A reporter asked: What’s with the name? “Well,” Zedler replied, “the earliest vaccines were beneficial, and the vaccines we have now are dangerous,” coughing every few words. “If you plot that on a graph, it stands to reason that future vaccines would be the worst of all.”
—Behind the scenes, in the run-up to next week’s debate on the House floor, negotiators continue discussing how to plug the $20 billion hole in the biennial state budget. The math is so unpalatable—deep cuts to public education, health care, transportation, etc.—that budget writers were initially loath to lay out any plan at all.
Top lawmakers now agree on the broad strokes: empty out a good chunk of the $8.5 billion Rainy Day Fund, throw in the billions the feds have given Texas in direct aid, and eke out a few billion more with the budget and accounting tricks the Lege adores. Still, the hacksaw is going to have to be employed. To blunt the damage, left-leaning policy analysts are calling for tax increases that have little chance of escaping even the Democratic-controlled House, while conservative pressure groups like Empower Texans are pushing for a 20 percent cut across all state agencies. Lawmakers are mindful that the fallout from the Great Recession of 2008 didn’t really hit the state budget until 2011, when the economy was still in the doldrums and the federal stimulus money had run out. If $20 billion is the preliminary shortfall in 2021, what fresh horrors might await the state in 2023? That thought has caused some conservative lawmakers to reconsider drawing down the Rainy Day Fund. The state might need it next time, they argue. But that would mean even deeper cuts this year. So the main question before the Legislature is a simple one: Who’s going to get the blame for this? Expect that dance to take center stage in the closing months of session.
—It has now been 76 days since Governor Greg Abbott has been seen in public, after he abruptly ended his ritual weekly press conference and withdrew from view. Months of unchecked executive power, exercised repeatedly during the pandemic, seem to have taken a toll on Abbott: on January 7, shortly before the start of the session and the return of a branch of government that theoretically offers a check on the governor’s power, Abbott issued a cryptic statement that read, in part, “I am tired of these people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.” His whereabouts, and the whereabouts of his dog, Pancake, are currently unknown, although executive orders continue to be issued by his office at an accelerating rate.
—Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s Senate continues to pass legislation nullifying the ability of cities and counties to regulate themselves at an astonishing clip. The bills include efforts to strip mayors and county judges of the authority to promulgate public health orders broader than those issued by the governor and the Legislature, along with preemptions of all kinds of other regulatory powers—from limiting cities’ ability to deny construction permits to overturning local regulations of payday lenders.
But the most recent package of bills has shocked even jaded Capitol insiders. On Wednesday, state senator Charles Perry, who represents West Texas, introduced legislation to abolish the Harris County Commissioners Court and place Greater Houston under the control of the Texas State Guard. Another bill puts the city of Dallas under a kind of receivership; mayors of outlying cities in the Metroplex would make decisions for the urban center. When asked at a press conference if the measures violated the once-sacred principle of “local control,” Patrick told reporters that he had merely altered the emphasis of the phrase to reflect its true intent: “locals, controlled.”
—Tensions around efforts to protect lawmakers from COVID-19 continue to rise. Legislators are by and large much older than the average Texan, and some have serious health conditions that put them at elevated risk. Senators have continued to debate legislation on the spacious floor of the upper chamber, although Patrick has banned reporters from the Senate.
The remote system that allows House members to vote from their offices has helped keep endangered lawmakers off the usually crowded floor. But technical problems with the system have derailed votes all session, sometimes forcing members to come to the House chamber. The problem: some representatives still refuse to wear masks. On Monday, a fight nearly broke out when a coughing member of the House Freedom Caucus, sans mask, got too close to state representative Senfronia Thompson, 82. Some members have expressed concern that House leadership may place sick members near the back mic on House budget night in order to dissuade dissidents from “chubbing,” or talking at length to kill bills.
Committee hearings have been a bit easier, but still far from optimal. Thanks to a change in House and Senate rules, the marathon hearings are typically held on Zoom. A Houston Chronicle analysis this week reported that roughly 34 percent of one recent meeting of the House Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee was spent on the question of mic etiquette. Eyebrows were raised when state representative Dan Flynn called his grandson for technical support during a hearing, believing that his microphone was off. The grandson later told Quorum Report, a Capitol insider publication, “Paw-paw calls me three or four times a day, but he’s usually just butt-dialing.”
—Tuesday saw the first Senate hearing of state representative Tom Craddick’s House Bill 74, otherwise known as the Keep Texas Safe Act, which would require the state to purchase large quantities of Permian Basin crude for the purpose of sanitizing surfaces in public areas, which, the Midland oilman explained to the mostly supportive Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, could include sidewalks and roads.
With disinfectant still in short supply, Craddick testified, there remains no economical way to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 on Texas blacktop. Critics say the bill is merely a way to prop up demand for oil. But even Craddick’s staunchest critics concede that COVID-19 likely cannot survive sustained contact with fossil fuels, and the bill, supported by a wide range of industry groups, is expected to sail through the Lege and land on the governor’s desk.
Tomorrow means 69 days are left until sine die. Stay strong, Texans. It will all be over soon.