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By failing to hear a critical bill before a Senate deadline to pass certain legislation, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appeared to give himself leverage early Thursday morning to force lawmakers back to a special legislative session this summer. But after facing pushback from the governor Thursday afternoon, Patrick's office said he wouldn't use that leverage: "There are no hostages," a spokeswoman told The Texas Tribune.
Only Gov. Greg Abbott can call a special session, but the inaction by the Texas Senate on a bill that expands the life of state agencies essentially put the regulating agency for Texas law enforcement on death watch. If Patrick didn't agree to allow a related bill to be tweaked in final negotiations, Abbott would have had to either find a creative way to push back the abolition date on his own or call lawmakers back to fix it this summer.
But after Abbott slammed unnamed lawmakers for trying to force a special session by holding essential legislation hostage on Thursday, the Patrick spokeswoman said the Senate would instead keep the agency alive in the other bill connected to expiring state agencies.
Patrick and Abbott, who are both Republicans, have made bills to “back the blue” priorities this year. But on Wednesday, Patrick asked Abbott to call a June special session so the Legislature could reconsider three conservative measures that failed after missing a House deadline. The regular five-month session ends Monday.
And if Abbott was forced to bring lawmakers back to Austin to save the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, it would have been easier to ask them also to hear again Patrick’s priorities to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity, prohibit local governments from using taxpayer funds to pay for lobbyists and punish social media companies for "censoring" Texans based on their political viewpoints.
But after failing to pass the key bill Wednesday night, Abbott pushed back on demands for a special session Thursday. At an unrelated press conference, he said if "anybody tries to force" a special session, it would not be one with a plethora of bills on the agenda at the start.
In 2017, when a similar move by Patrick forced Abbott to reconvene lawmakers to keep state agencies from being shut down, Abbott added 19 other items to the agenda, but only after lawmakers approved the must-pass legislation needed to keep the agencies open. The other items included the failed "bathroom bill" to require transgender Texans to use bathrooms in government buildings and public schools that match their sex assigned at birth.
"It’s not going to be like it has been in the past where we’ll have 40 items on the special session, whatever," Abbott said Thursday.
He said if a special session was needed, the Legislature would take one item at a time and not move on to other items — which only he gets to decide — until it passes the previous item.
"So if anybody tries to hold hostage this legislative session to force a special session, that person will be putting their members, in the Senate or the House, potentially into a special session for another two years until the next regular session because I’m going to make sure that we get things passed, not just open up some debating society."
Patrick’s spokespeople did not respond to questions about why he did not bring House Bill 1600 to the floor Wednesday night or Thursday morning. But after Abbott's comments, Patrick told FOX4 News that he would add an extension for TCOLE in a similar bill.
"We're not holding anything hostage, we're not forcing a special session," he told the TV station.
A spokeswoman then told the Tribune it was always the plan to add an extension for the commission in another bill during final negotiations.
The high-stakes legislation that failed Wednesday night was a “safety net” bill for statewide agencies that are soon set to be abolished. Under what’s called a sunset review process, lawmakers periodically make assessments on how efficiently state agencies are being run and whether they should continue to exist. Although agencies are individually considered, there is also a safety net bill each session to extend the life by two years of any agency that did not get individually renewed.
This year, TCOLE, which sets minimum licensing and training standards for police, did not get separate clearance. A scathing report from the typically subdued Texas Sunset Advisory Commission called TCOLE toothless, saying it allowed poor accountability and inadequate training for police. Suggested changes — or even extending the regulatory agency’s life by two years while reviewing suggested changes — however, failed in the House.
Although lawmakers are already expected to come back this fall to redraw the state’s political maps, it would be too late to have combined the resuscitation of TCOLE with that session. Without an extension, TCOLE is set to be dissolved Sept. 1.
The other bill related to scheduling sunset reviews is currently in closed-door negotiations between the House and Senate. Lawmakers can amend the secondary sunset bill to push back TCOLE's abolition date — which Patrick now says will happen, but the leader of the Senate could have also blocked that change if he wanted.
But even if he had, a summer session would not have been guaranteed under the safety net's failure. In 2019, Abbott issued an executive order extending the life of the state plumbing board after a similar move. The governor said he was able to overstep the Legislature because plumbers were still needed to address destruction from Hurricane Harvey. It's possible the governor could employ similar political maneuvering this year, but that could have been complicated by another piece of priority legislation.
House Bill 3, which would limit the governor's emergency powers, was made a priority as Democrats and Republicans both criticized different orders from Abbott during the coronavirus pandemic. Versions of the bill have passed both chambers, but as it passed the Senate, the bill would bar Abbott from postponing state agencies' abolition dates under sunset review, as he did with the plumbing board. House lawmakers have yet to decide whether to accept the more recent Senate version or try to compromise.
It's unclear, however, if the Senate version would clear procedural hurdles that ensure any changes to bills remain relevant to the overall purpose of the legislation. And even if it did pass with the limiting provision, it's unknown if the bill's enactment date in September would nullify any order Abbott may issue before then. The governor could also veto HB 3 entirely after legislators go home next month.
When Patrick asked for a special session before tanking the sunset bill, Abbott responded by urging lawmakers to instead "work together to get important conservative legislation to my desk" in the remaining days of the regular session.
The Senate continued debating and voting on bills early Thursday, past a midnight deadline to vote on bills. No senators challenged the move. Still, HB 1600 was not one of the bills brought up before the chamber adjourned shortly after 3 a.m. Thursday.
Sami Sparber and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.