After a slower-than-usual start thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and last month’s winter storm, lawmakers in the Texas Capitol this week marked the passage of the halfway point of this year’s legislative session by ramping up their work on a host of their Republican leaders’ priorities.
Work has progressed in earnest in the House and Senate on legislation related to imposing new restrictions on voting, expanding broadband access, protecting funding for local police departments and updating the state government’s ability to prevent and respond to emergencies like those that have recently plagued Texas. Committees have started to meet more frequently and bills are advancing, with both chambers now passing legislation with some regularity.
“This is when things get really fun at the Capitol,” new House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said Tuesday at a Texas Young Republicans event. “This is when the rubber meets the road, right?”
Lawmakers still have a lot to do with less than 70 days left on the clock, though leaders in both chambers say they are on the same page with the business that remains.
The optimism comes after a two-week stretch dominated by a tense standoff among the House, Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott over a bill seeking to retroactively reduce wholesale energy prices during the winter storm. The bill was championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. While he ultimately did not get his way — at least for now — he appears to be looking past the rocky chapter.
“We’re all in this together with our priorities,” Patrick said at the Young Republicans dinner, which Abbott also attended. “We’ve pretty much matched up our bills, and we’re gonna have a very successful session.”
Abbott has spent recent weeks traveling the state to promote his agenda, and he was in the Dallas area on Monday to talk about legislation to protect businesses that opened during the coronavirus pandemic from related lawsuits. It is one of five emergency items that Abbott designated during his State of the State speech in early February, along with expanding broadband internet access, punishing local governments that “defund the police” as he defines it, changing the bail system and ensuring what he described as “election integrity.”
Abbott’s agenda got a shakeup, though, following the winter storm that battered the state weeks after his State of the State speech, killing at least 111 people and leaving millions of Texans in the cold and dark. He responded by adding three more emergency items: reforming the state’s power grid operator, “winterizing” power plants and correcting any whole electricity billing errors.
Abbott’s office said it's optimistic that his priorities are on the right track, including those that came before the winter storm scrambled the Capitol agenda.
“With the legislative session passing the halfway mark, we have seen meaningful progress on these emergency items as they make their way through the legislative process,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement for this story.
In the Senate, Patrick has designated 31 priority bills. As of Thursday, more than half — 16 — had at least gotten a committee hearing. Seven of those bills had been voted out of committees. And two of them had been approved by the full Senate.
Both of the priority bills that have already gone through the upper chamber deal with the pandemic. Senate Bill 25 would give nursing-home residents the right to have a designated caretaker visit them regularly during a public health emergency. SB 26 prohibits the state government from mandating the closure of places of worship, even in cases like public health crises.
Still, responding to last month’s power crisis has been at the top of the Legislature’s radar, and both chambers in recent days have moved quickly to usher through legislation to the entire chamber for debate. On Thursday, a Senate committee approved legislation — SB 3 — that would overhaul the state’s energy industry. And early next week, the full House will consider a slate of the speaker’s priorities on the issue.
Most of the drama at the Capitol this week though centered on two election bills that have been prioritized by GOP state leaders and criticized by Democrats and voting rights groups.
On Monday, Democrats on the Senate State Affairs Committee temporarily derailed discussion on SB 7 — the chamber's priority election bill that would constrain local initiatives widening voter access in urban areas, made up largely by people of color, that favor Democrats. The Democrats used a procedural rule to delay consideration of the bill, though it was taken up again on Friday, along with 10 other election-related bills that would largely further tighten the state's already restrictive voting laws.
The House’s version of the legislation faced a different derailment Thursday during a House Elections Committee hearing on House Bill 6 by Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Deer Park Republican who chairs the committee.
After a tense exchange with state Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, Cain ended the hearing abruptly without specifying a time for members to reconvene later that day. That error meant the committee could not meet again Thursday, according to House rules, postponing the consideration of Cain’s election bill and meaning that more than 100 members of the public who had signed up to testify on the bill would not be able to speak at the hearing. That group included one of the state's best-known Democrats, Beto O'Rourke, who had driven from his far-away El Paso hometown to testify.
By Friday afternoon, Cain’s bill was rescheduled for an April 1 hearing, according to a committee hearing posting notice.
Before the Thursday hearing ended, González had pushed to recognize state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. Cain said he would not recognize a non-committee member to speak from the dais.
In a statement later Thursday, Collier said Cain had refused “to allow a duly elected, Black woman from fully participating in the legislative process.”
“Our voices matter,” she said. “Without a single Black voice on the elections committee, I owe it to my constituency and to every Texas voter who will potentially be deterred or intimidated from voting to fight back.”
Two other House committees — State Affairs and Homeland Security & Public Safety — on Thursday held marathon hearings into Friday morning. The state affairs committee signed off on HB 5, a bill that would expand broadband access across the state, before it heard testimony on a number of bills, such as one that would ban the use of taxpayer dollars on lobbying and several related to anti-“defund the police” efforts.
The Legislature couldn’t vote on legislation within the first 60 days of the session, which began Jan. 12, unless the proposals had been declared an “emergency item” by the governor.
The entire House also began passing its first bills of the session this week, signing off on several pieces of legislation, including one that would permanently allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery food orders. While not an emergency item, Abbott had repeatedly voiced support for the proposal.
On Tuesday, the lower chamber is scheduled to consider a number of proposals related to last month’s winter storm, such as one that would mandate the weatherization of power plants and another that would reform the board of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electric grid.
The Senate, meanwhile, has fast-tracked legislation that would shake up the board of the Public Utility Commission, which regulates the state’s electric, water and telecommunication industries. That legislation, SB 2154 by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, was filed Monday, flew through a Senate committee and was approved unanimously Thursday by the Senate. The bill now heads to the House for consideration.
The House has also considered legislation aimed at addressing the governor’s powers, with perhaps the most notable proposal — HB 3 by state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock — still pending in a committee after a hearing on the legislation earlier this month. That legislation would, among other things, create a legislative oversight committee that in some cases would have the authority to terminate a pandemic disaster declaration issued by the governor.
The Senate has taken a more piecemeal approach to the governor's powers, as shown by its passage of the legislation shielding nursing homes and churches from total shutdowns.
Shawn Mulcahy contributed to this story.