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By Patrick Svitek
The Texas House voted Tuesday to send law enforcement to track down Democrats who left the state a day earlier in protest of Republicans' priority elections bill "under warrant of arrest if necessary."
More than 50 House Democrats left Monday for Washington, D.C., to deny the chamber a quorum as it takes up voting restrictions and other GOP priorities in special session.
The impact of the House move is unclear since the Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction in the nation's capital.
Meeting shortly after 10 a.m., the House quickly established that it lacked the two-thirds quorum required to do business, with only 80 of 150 members participating in a test vote.
Then Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, chair of the House Administration Committee, moved to issue what is known as a "call of the House" to try to regain quorum. That motion passed 76-4. Metcalf offered another motion, asking that "the sergeant at arms, or officers appointed by him, send for all absentees … under warrant of arrest if necessary." That motion also passed 76-4.
Metcalf's motions were opposed by four Democrats who were present on the House floor Tuesday morning: Reps. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, Tracy King of Batesville, Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass and John Turner of Dallas.
After Metcalf's motions passed, Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, sought to move to strip absent Democrats of their committee leadership posts if they do not return by noon Wednesday. The motion did not immediately get a vote, and in a subsequent exchange with Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said committee chairs and vice chairs cannot be removed from their positions under the current chamber rules.
Earlier Tuesday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a radio interview that any Democrat who fled the state should lose their committee leadership posts.
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Texas House Democrats preparing to flee the state in move that could block voting restrictions bill, bring Legislature to a halt
By Alexa Ura and Cassandra Pollock
Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives plan to leave the state and fly to Washington, D.C., Monday afternoon, according to sources with knowledge of the plan, in a bid to again deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass new voting restrictions with 27 days left in a special legislative session called largely for that purpose.
Upping the ante in both the legislative fight at home and the national debate over voting rights, most House Democrats are expected to board a flight out of Austin headed for the capital without a set return date. They'll need at least 51 of the 67 Democratic representatives to flee for their plan to work. The House is set to reconvene Tuesday morning, but the absent Democrats could mean there will not be enough members present to conduct business under House rules.
With the national political spotlight on Texas' efforts to further restrict voting, the Democratic exodus offers them a platform to continue pleading with Congress to act on restoring federal protections for voters of color. Back in Texas, the decamping will mark a more aggressive stance by Democrats to block Republican legislation further tightening the state's voting rules as the GOP works against thinning statewide margins of victory.
Ultimately, Democrats lack the votes to keep the Republican-controlled Legislature from passing new voting restrictions, along with the other red meat items on Gov. Greg Abbott's 11-item agenda for the special session.
Some Democrats hope their absence will give them leverage to force good-faith negotiations with Republicans, who they say have largely shut them out of negotiations over the voting bill. Both chambers advanced their legislation out of committees on party-lines votes after overnight hearings, passing out the bills early Sunday morning after hearing hours of testimony mostly against the proposal and just a few days after making their revived proposals public. They are expected to bring the bills to the floor for a vote this week.
Even if Democratic lawmakers stay out of state for the next few weeks, the governor could continue to call 30-day sessions or add voting restrictions to the agenda when the Legislature takes on the redrawing of the state's political maps later this summer.
Monday's mass departure follows a Democratic walkout in May that kept Republicans from passing their priority voting bill at the end of the regular legislative session. For weeks, Democrats had indicated that skipping town during the special session remained an option as Republicans prepared for a second attempt at tightening the state's voting laws.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has signaled he may take a harder line against his Democratic colleagues than he did when members walked out in May.
"My Democratic colleagues have been quoted saying all options are on the table," Phelan told KXAN in an interview that aired the day before the special session began. "Respectfully, all options are on the table for myself as well."
According to House rules adopted at the beginning of the regular session, two-thirds of the 150-member chamber must be present to conduct business. When the House is in session, legislators can vote to lock chamber doors to prevent colleagues from leaving, and order law enforcement to track down lawmakers who have already fled.
If a quorum is not present when the House convenes Tuesday, any House member can move to make what's known as a call of the House to "to secure and maintain a quorum" to consider a certain piece of legislation, resolution or motion, under chamber rules. That motion must be seconded by 15 members and ordered by a majority vote. If that happens, the missing Democrats will become legislative fugitives.
"All absentees for whom no sufficient excuse is made may, by order of a majority of those present, be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained," the House rules state. "The house shall determine on what conditions they shall be discharged."
It's unclear though what options Phelan may have to compel Democrats to return to the Legislature if they're out of state.
The House voting bill as passed by committee over the weekend would rein in local voting initiatives like drive-thru and 24-hour voting, further tighten the rules for voting by mail, bolster access for partisan poll watchers and ban local election officials from proactively sending out applications to request mail-in ballots.
Democrats leaving also calls into question other items included on Abbott's special session agenda, including legislation to provide funding for the Legislature. Last month, Abbott vetoed a section of the state budget that funds the Legislature for the two-year budget cycle that starts Sept. 1. He did so in retribution for Democrats' walkout in May. If the Legislature does not pass a supplemental budget before the new cycle begins, more than 2,100 legislative staffers and individuals working at legislative agencies could be impacted.
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Texas students' standardized test scores dropped dramatically during the pandemic, especially in math
By Reese Oxner
The COVID-19 pandemic appeared to undo years of improvement for Texas students meeting grade requirements in reading and math, with students who did most of their schooling remotely suffering "significant declines" compared to those who attended in person, according to standardized test results released Monday by the Texas Education Agency.
In districts where fewer than a quarter of classes were held in person, the number of students who met math test expectations dropped by 32 percentage points, and the number of students who met reading expectations dropped by 9 percentage points compared to 2019, the last time the test was administered. In districts with more than three-quarters in-person instruction, the number of students meeting math expectations only dropped by 9 percentage points and those who met reading expectations by 1 percentage point. Students of color and lower-income students saw greater gaps as well, although those gaps were smaller than the one between remote and in-person instruction.
"The impact of the coronavirus on what school means and what school is has been truly profound," Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told reporters Monday. "What we know now with certainty is that the decision in Texas to prioritize in person instruction was critical.
"The STAAR test was optional last year due to coronavirus-related orders, but 87% of students still participated — compared to 96% of students in 2019. Morath said those numbers allow for "fairly effective comparisons." The STAAR assessment for math and reading is administered from grades 3 to 8.
Since 2012, test results in the state had been steadily improving, but after COVID-19 related disruptions, the percentage of students meeting reading expectations dropped back to 2016 rates and the percentage meeting math expectations dropped to 2013 passing rates. Math test performance saw the most significant drop, from 50% of students meeting their grade level in 2019 to only 35% this year.
Hispanic students in districts with over three-quarters of learning done remotely saw the largest drops compared to other demographics, with a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of students meeting reading expectations and a 34 percentage point decrease in those meeting math expectations. This is followed by Black students taking mostly remote classes, who saw a 6 percentage point decrease in those meeting reading expectations and a 28 percentage point in those meeting expectations for math.
Students who took the test in Spanish also saw "far more significant declines in rates of grade level" than those who took the test in English, Morath said.
"The data may be disheartening, but with it, our teachers and school leaders are building action plans to support students in the new school year," he said. "Policymakers are using it to direct resources where they are needed most."
He said parents can also sign in to TexasAssessment.gov to go over their children's results and strategize how to catch them up.
There were outliers among the results, with some remote learners demonstrating progress and even some school districts containing a high concentration of remote learners with good outcomes. These outliers will be studied by a new commission on remote learning formed by the Texas Legislature.
While many districts expected remote learning to continue as an option moving into next year, a bill that would have funded it died during the final days of the Texas Legislature's regular session. Some programs were canceled with thousands of students signed up, such as in Frisco, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Morath said on average, only 4% of students across all grades who are below grade level catch up within two years. But he pointed to the recently passed House Bill 4545 as an opportunity to help with catching students up. The bill requires school districts to offer tutoring to any student who doesn't meet grade level expectations and to offer high-performing teachers.
He said the agency will also be offering "rigorous instructional materials, additional teachers support, help wherever appropriate to expand learning time, and targeted tutoring" this summer in an effort to close the gap.
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."