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Government/Politics

Here's What Happened On Opening Day Of Texas' Special Legislative Session

Texas Democratic lawmakers join multiple organizations outside the Texas State Capitol to criticize proposed changes to election laws on the 2021 Special Legislative Session agenda in Austin, TX on July 8, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Texas Democratic lawmakers join multiple organizations outside the Texas State Capitol to criticize proposed changes to election laws on the 2021 Special Legislative Session agenda in Austin, TX on July 8, 2021.

Texas lawmakers are back in Austin Thursday after wrapping up the 87th regular legislative session just over a month ago. Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session to work on what he considers unfinished business.

The 11-item agenda he released on Wednesday includes a slew of Republican priorities. Among them are measures to expand cash bail, constrain how educators talk about racism in the classroom, and bar transgender students from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity.

Also on the list is a sweeping GOP voting bill that Democrats managed to kill in May by breaking quorum with a late night walkout. Senate Bill 7 would have imposed a variety of new restrictions on voting from preventing local elections officials from proactively distributing absentee ballots to limiting the hours during which people can vote on Sundays.

Both the Texas House and Senate convened around 10 a.m. and state senators wasted little time getting to work on election legislation during their roughly one hour meeting. State Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican from Mineola, who was the architect of SB 7, said a hearing on the latest iteration of his voting bill, Senate Bill 1, will be held on Saturday, July 10 at 11 a.m.

Tourists inside the Texas State Capitol at the start of the 2021 Special Legislative Session in Austin, TX on July 8, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Tourists inside the Texas State Capitol at the start of the 2021 Special Legislative Session in Austin, TX on July 8, 2021.

Hughes announced the hearing on SB 1 before the text of the bill was available to the public. The 52-page bill includes numerous provisions. One would require the Texas Secretary of State’s Office to work with the Department of Public Safety on a monthly basis to verify the citizenship status of registered voters.

A total of 15 measures related to Gov. Abbott’s agenda were assigned to various Senate committees.

At one point, State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat from San Antonio, asked Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick if Abbott could still add other issues to the call.

“So he could add rate payer relief for winter storm Uri and he could add Medicaid expansion, if he so chose?” Gutierrez asked.

Patrick replied, “I don’t deal with hypotheticals but the governor can add anything he wishes.”

Meanwhile, the Texas House kicked off their brief 30 minute session, with an invocation from State Rep. Oscar Longoria, a Democrat from Mission.

“These 30 days will be difficult and none of us want to be away from our homes. But grant us the strength to stand for our convictions, for our constituents back home,” said Longoria.

The Texas House assigned more than 30 measures to committees, including their version of the Republican voting bill, House Bill 3. One of its provisions requires polling places to be located inside of buildings and prohibits voters from casting a ballot from inside a car, taking aim at drive-thru voting, which Harris County offered during the 2020 election amid the pandemic. As soon as the House adjourned, Democratic state representatives gathered for a news conference to present what they described as a “united front” against Gov. Abbott’s largely conservative agenda.

State Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus, told reporters Abbott’s agenda is “proof positive” that he is only focused on politics and his reelection bid. Turner also blasted Abbott for vetoing funding for the Texas Legislature, one of the items on the special session agenda.

“It’s not legislators that he’s punishing by doing that. He’s punishing state employees, those who work day in and day out to serve the people of Texas, to serve our constituents, who also by the way, are Governor Abbott’s constituents,” said Turner.

Ahead of the special session, Democratic lawmakers and legislative staffers asked the Texas Supreme Court to overturn Abbott’s veto, arguing it is unconstitutional. If funding is not restored by July 31, more than 2,000 people will be affected.

Also during the news conference, State Rep. Nicole Collier, who chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, presented a vision for bail reform that differs from that of the governor. The Fort Worth Democrat said the focus should not be on making it harder for people to bond out of jail without cash before their trials.

“We want to see bail that’s not focused on cash and the rich being able to get out but those who deserve to get out because they’re entitled and they have fair bail policies.”

State Rep. Collier also urged Gov. Abbott to add "common sense legislation" to the agenda including the anti-hair discrimination CROWN Act and the George Floyd Act, a sweeping police reform bill.

Special sessions can last up to 30 days. The one that began Thursday is the first of two Gov. Abbott is expected to call this year. He has previously said the second session will focus on redrawing Texas’ political maps once U.S. Census data for redistricting is available. During that special session, expected this fall, lawmakers will also determine how to distribute federal pandemic relief funds.

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