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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vows to defund state Legislature after voting restrictions bill fails, threatening salaries
By Patrick Svitek
Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday he would veto the section of the state budget that funds the Legislature hours after a Democratic walkout killed his priority elections bill.
"No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities," Abbott said in a tweet. "Stay tuned."
Late Sunday night, enough Democrats left the House to break a quorum and block passage of the elections bill, Senate Bill 7, before a midnight deadline. Calling the bill's failure "deeply disappointing," Abbott quickly made clear he would call a special session to get it passed, though he has not specified a timeline.
Abbott's tweet referred to Article X of the budget, which pays not only lawmakers and staff but also funds legislative agencies, such as the Legislative Budget Board. Under the current budget, the legislative branch is funded through the end of August, and the budget Abbott is referring to covers the fiscal year starting Sept. 1.
Abbott has until June 20 to carry out the veto.
State lawmakers are paid $600 a month, equal to $7,200 per year. They also get a per diem of $221 for every day they are in session, including both regular and special sessions.
Democratic legislators quickly criticized Abbott's veto announcement.
SB 7 was one of Abbott's emergency items, as was another proposal that died Sunday that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash.
Abbott's tweet came minutes before the House adjourned sine die, finishing its regular session. In remarks from the dais, GOP Speaker Dade Phelan acknowledged lawmakers had unfinished business.
"We will be back — when, I don't know, but we will be back," Phelan told members. "There's a lot of work to be done, but I look forward to doing it with every single one of you."
The Texas Senate today blitzed through the normal procedures to pass HB 1900, a bill that could trigger disannexation elections throughout parts of Austin. This is a direct response to police budget cuts last year.
HB 1900 establishes criteria for determining whether a city is a "defunding municipality" that has cut its police department budget disproportionally to the rest of its budget. Once such a designation is made, the city would have to "hold a separate election in each area annexed in the preceding 30 years by the defunding municipality on the question of disannexing the area."
If Austin gets hit with the designation—which appears likely under the definition set in the bill—then disannexation elections would be triggered in vast tracts of Austin annexed since the 1990s, including River Place, Cat Mountain Villas, the Samsung Semiconductor plant and nearby areas, Southpark Meadows, and Onion Creek.
Read the full story at The Austin Bulldog.
Despite Austin shooting and concerns from law enforcement, permitless carry law could survive Texas Legislature session
After years of lobbying by gun rights activists, Texas House members overwhelmingly approved a bill last week that would allow handguns to be carried without a permit. It then moved to the more conservative Senate, but its chances of passage remained murky due to concerns from law enforcement and some Republican lawmakers.
As Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick attempted to sway his colleagues to support the bill, a former Travis County sheriff's deputy shot and killed three people—his ex-wife Amanda, her 17-year-old daughter Alyssa Broderick and Alyssa's 18-year-old boyfriend Willie Simmons III—in North Austin, prompting an hours-long shelter-in-place order and some local elected officials to decry the permitless carry proposal.
A March poll by the University of Texas-Tyler and the Dallas Morning News found that 64% of Texas voters oppose changing the state's permitting requirement, including a majority of both Republican and gun-owning respondents.
The Texas Police Chiefs Association and some local unions have also spoken out against permitless carry, which would eliminate training requirements, including basic safety instruction. "I think Texas gun laws are lax enough now that law enforcement probably has to approach every situation like people are armed," said Switzer, Texas Gun Sense executive director.
Despite these concerns, permitless carry could still become state law. Patrick created a new Senate Committee on Constitutional Issues, which is chaired by State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. He announced in a tweet on Friday that the committee will hear the permitless carry bill approved by the house next week.
I am proud to chair the newly created Senate Committee on Constitutional Issues and look forward to hearing this bill next week so we can pass #ConstitutionalCarry this session! #txlege pic.twitter.com/Vo52auMrOP
— Charles Schwertner (@DrSchwertner) April 23, 2021
Melanie Greene, lead volunteer for the Moms Demand Action Austin group, said state lawmakers are likely motivated to pursue such legislation because of a small, vocal minority of gun rights activists and the threat of drawing even more conservative opponents in primary elections. Although they may be impervious to the recent triple homicide, others are not. "These mass shootings tend to galvanize interest in this topic," she said. "We see many more people signing up for our meetings or reaching out to us after a mass shooting."
Local officials are also taking action.
Austin City Council approved a resolution Thursday directing the city manager to accelerate local efforts to combat gun violence. Members also called on state and federal officials to address gun violence through "common-sense legislation," such as universal background checks, red flag laws and licensing requirements.
"Common-sense gun violence protection is both possible and necessary," District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, who sponsored the ordinance and in whose district the shooting occurred, said in a statement Thursday. "We all know that prayers are not enough."
Council Member Leslie Pool added: "Words cannot describe the frustration we feel to have lost three of our community members to gun violence—while the Texas Legislature doubles down on policies that will cause more loss of life with permitless gun carry bills."
In addition to addressing gun restrictions, local officials are focused on reducing violent gun crime, which is on the rise in Austin and across the country. The Austin Police Department launched a gun crime prevention program in partnership with the Travis County District Attorney's Office last Friday, which aims to increase prosecution of violent offenses by tracking gun crime trends more closely and referring cases to federal law enforcement where appropriate.
After last week's triple homicide, there have been 26 homicides in Austin so far this year, compared to 16 this time last year and 10 in late April of 2019. "I won't say it's unprecedented, but it's very, very concerning," Interim Police Chief Joe Chacon said during a press conference last Friday. "We haven't seen these types of homicide waves since the '90s."
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By Alex Samuels, Cassandra Pollock, Patrick Svitek
The 2021 session of the Texas Legislature will commence Tuesday under pervasive uncertainty.
Lawmakers have been waiting for months to see how it will be conducted safely as the coronavirus pandemic rages.
And after a pro-Donald Trump mob rushed into the U.S. Capitol last week, leaving five people dead and leading to dozens of arrests, some Texas lawmakers are on edge about the potential for unrest in Austin. The Texas Department of Public Safety is deploying additional resources and personnel to the state Capitol, and Gov. Greg Abbott promised Monday that DPS will "continue to remain on top of" safety at the building.
Meanwhile, three clear top priorities have emerged for the agenda: the budget, redistricting and the pandemic. But it remains to be seen how much space — or political appetite — there will be for more polarizing proposals, especially among Republicans coming off a successful November election.
Given all that, here are the five things to watch as the session kicks off:
State legislatures across the country are looking for ways to conduct their business in spite of restrictions on indoor gatherings because of the coronavirus.
Already, two Texas House Democrats — Michelle Beckley of Carrollton and Ana-Maria Ramos of Richardson — have said they will not attend the opening day of the legislative session, calling the gathering of 150 House members a "superspreader event."
For Tuesday, the Texas House and Senate have put in precautions for members and invited guests in each chamber; it's unclear if leadership will relax such measures if the vaccine becomes more readily available.
In a last-minute change, the Department of Public Safety announced Monday that anyone who wants to enter the Capitol will be required to take a coronavirus test.
Beyond opening day, State Rep. Dade Phelan has asked a group of lawmakers to make recommendations and solicit input from members on what changes should be made to the chamber's rules. The Senate, meanwhile, has been more tight-lipped on what precautions will be in place during the legislative session.
Since the Capitol closed in mid-March, both Democrats and Republicans from each chamber have raised questions about the accessibility of the legislative process. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, asked the attorney general to weigh in on whether the Legislature has the power to close the Capitol and whether members could debate or vote on legislation from outside the chamber.
Some disability right's advocates, meanwhile, have raised concerns about the uncertain rules on testifying in committee hearings remotely and have expressed hesitancy about going to the Capitol in person.
Tackling the state's current two-year budget — and writing the next one — will be one of the largest items on the Legislature's plate, though lawmakers received better-than-expected news Monday when Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar unveiled the biennial revenue estimate.
On top of that, the Legislature will also need to redraw the state's political maps, which is often a polarizing and draining process for lawmakers.
Lawmakers will also have to respond to the ongoing pandemic and address other policy issues that have been focal points throughout the pandemic, such as public education funding and health care. In 2019, the Legislature overhauled the state's school finance system, infusing $6.5 billion more into public schools and roughly $5.1 billion to lower Texans' property tax bills. State leaders have already said the Legislature will remain committed to continuing to fund those massive investments, regardless of the tough economic forecast.
Beyond that, debates over police funding and reforms following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in Minneapolis police custody, are expected to play a central role during the legislative session.
The Texas Legislative Black Caucus has already unveiled the George Floyd Act, a sweeping reform proposal that would, among other things, ban chokeholds across the state and address qualified immunity, which shields government officials from litigation. Meanwhile, Abbott has said he is considering a measure that would put the state in charge of policing a large area of Austin, including the Texas Capitol and the University of Texas at Austin — a move that came during a political fight against the capital city over its decision to trim its police budget.
After some Republicans argued that Abbott overstepped his authority over responding to the pandemic, proposals at the Legislature were filed to curb the emergency powers of a governor during a declared disaster. The more conservative faction of the GOP is also expected to again push a bill that would ban cities and local governments from using taxpayer dollars to lobby the state government after the measure failed during the 2019 session.
Lawmakers from both parties may also push election-related matters after fights over voter access and ballot integrity largely defined the lead up to the November presidential election.
And yearslong conversations over new revenue sources — such as legalizing casinos or marijuana — have also seemed to get a renewed focus, though it's unclear how seriously lawmakers will consider such options after Hegar's news Monday with a better-than-expected economic picture heading into session.
A new speaker
One of the House's first orders of business Tuesday will be to formally elect Phelan as speaker. Phelan, who has served in the lower chamber since 2015, announced he had the votes to win the gavel in the hours after Election Day, after Republicans maintained control of the House.
He's described among colleagues as a straight-shooter who's familiar with the legislative process and the policies at play, and who intends to lead the chamber by letting the members drive its business.
Beyond the budget and redistricting, Phelan said during an interview Monday with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith that public health issues that the pandemic has "put a highlighter" on what will be a focus this session, such as expanding telemedicine and telehealth and "improving rural health care options for Texans."
GOP family fights
Texas Republicans are beginning the session two months after a November election in which they beat expectations up and down the ballot, including holding on to their majority in the state House. Emboldened by the election results, will there be a renewed appetite among the most conservative in the party for hot-button issues, or will the Legislature continue on the middle-of-the-road policy path it stuck to for the 2019 session?
Early indications are that the Big Three — Abbott, Patrick and Phelan — are not spoiling for much intraparty conflict this session. That seems especially true with the trio of must-do issues already topping the legislative agenda: the budget, redistricting and responding to the pandemic.
Still, there is potential for some GOP family fights. Texas GOP Chairman Allen West plans to make an aggressive push for the party's eight legislative priorities, which include election integrity, the abolition of abortion and constitutional carry, or licenseless carry of firearms. Some of the priorities enjoy broad GOP support, others not as much.
Rallying support for the priorities Saturday outside the Capitol, West told Republicans he was preparing them for an "ideological battlefield" and that they needed to pressure lawmakers "so that you can become a powerful force and let people know in that building that they work for you, that you don't work for them."
West himself has been a critic of Abbott's coronavirus decisions, and the former Florida congressman is already being discussed as a possible challenger to the governor.
To that end, the 2022 primary season could also loom large over Republicans this session. Most statewide officials are up for reelection, including Abbott and Patrick, and their agendas could reflect how they would like to position themselves for March 2022.
One issue that could impact whether the GOP engages in such a fight is whether it holds onto its complete control of the Senate.
Right now, Senate rules require 19 members, or three-fifths of the body, to vote to bring legislation to the floor. With the reelection defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, there are only 18 Republicans in the chamber.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, however, has announced his intention to lower the threshold to align with the size of the GOP majority — a move that effectively strips Senate Democrats of the one tool they have to block legislation they unanimously oppose.
Patrick doesn't have unilateral control of the Senate threshold's fate. Such a change requires a simple majority — 16 senators — to go into effect. It's not immediately clear how many Republican senators are in favor of such a move, while some Democrats have already denounced Patrick's latest procedural proposal.
To be clear, this isn't the first time Patrick oversaw a decrease in the threshold. During his first session as lieutenant governor in 2015, the Senate dropped the threshold from two-thirds, or 21 members, to three-fifths, or 19 members. At that time, there were 20 Republican senators.
More on the legislative session: