Lawmakers at their desks on the House floor on May 30, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
For the second time in four years, Texas legislators are returning for a summer special session mixing culture wars, political confections and — just to try to get the Democrats in the House and Senate to show up — a couple of issues that don’t get much attention at conservative rallies and town halls, like foster care and extra retirement checks for teachers.
But the list of legislation Gov. Greg Abbott wants lawmakers to consider puts the politics of 2022 into clearer view. Here’s an early betting line on some of the issues you’ll see in campaign ads by some of the state’s top Republican candidates: tougher voting laws, bans on critical race theory, restrictions on transgender athletes in public schools, abortion drugs, and building a wall between Texas and Mexico.
Some of those topics have been on the governor’s list for a while. He had “election integrity” and changes to the state’s bail laws on his list of emergency items at the beginning of February. He didn’t get what he wanted from the Legislature, and both of those items made the summer menu.
And some topics that were emergencies aren’t on the special session list. Reorganizing electric regulations and other responses to the electric outages during the February freeze — including pricing “corrections,” a subject dear to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — were late additions to the governor’s list of emergency items during the regular session. Despite calls from Patrick and Democratic officials with other priorities, no mention of the state’s electric grid made it onto the agenda for the summer session.
Abbott’s list of special session agenda items includes his brand of censorship — blocking teaching of critical race theory in public and charter schools; and his brand of anti-censorship — giving legal remedies to people “wrongfully excluded from a platform” for their “expressed viewpoints” by social media companies.
Censorship of the public kind is a hot ticket at the moment. At Patrick’s urging, the Bullock Texas State History Museum canceled a virtual event with two of the authors of “Forget the Alamo,” a recounting of the role of slavery in the state’s fight for independence from Mexico.
Like a lot of controversies, that cancellation seems to have benefited both the striker and the stricken. Patrick got a lot of attention, and sales of the book skyrocketed. The only real victim appears to be the state history museum that pulled itself out of a discussion about state history at the behest of elected chickens in high perches.
One spending item — the Legislature’s own budget — is getting a lot of attention, since Abbott vetoed it in anger when Democratic House members blocked passage of a restrictive voting bill at the end of the session. Lawmakers are expected to vote their section back into the state budget.
Getting less attention are the governor’s efforts in this special session to spend more money on his border security plan, which includes more law enforcement along the border, money for jailing migrants arrested for violating state laws and the governor’s call to revive former President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful effort to build a wall along the Mexican frontier.
State officials have already lifted $250 million from the state prison system, saying they’ll pay it back before it’s missed in the next budget, and that could be a special session project.
But that border wall plays on other lines, like the one between government and politics and the one that separates national business like foreign affairs and international borders from state business.
To keep the Democrats in the game, or to try to, Abbott included family violence prevention, enhancements to foster care and a one-time “13th check” to retired teachers accustomed to getting 12 monthly checks a year. The House Democrats walked out to kill that voting bill in May — denying the necessary number of legislators required to conduct business.
Abbott has offered those issues as a carrot to the Democrats, alongside the stick of threatening to kill legislators’ state budgets.
He needs all of the legislators back for a month, to work on his state priorities — and some of his political ones, too.
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