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What To Expect This Special Session: The Logistics And The Possible Drama

 The dome of the Texas State Capitol Building peeks over a structure in Austin's Waterloo Park.
The dome of the Texas State Capitol Building peeks over a structure in Austin's Waterloo Park.

From Texas Standard:

The first special session of the 87th Legislature gets underway today. Gov. Greg Abbott has tasked lawmakers with 11 agenda items. Lawmakers will have exactly 30 days to accomplish what they can from that agenda. If Abbott is unsatisfied with their work, he can call them back.

“The governor has the ability to keep calling them again and again and again,” Texas Public Radio host David Martin Davies said. “And Governor [Bill] Clements, you know, he had a special session go over 150 days [in 1989-1990] because they couldn't figure out how to deal with workman's comp issues. Governor [Rick] Perry called special sessions again and again so we could have some very special special sessions coming up here.”

Gov. Abbott could also continue to wield power over legislators through his earlier veto of “Article X” of the General Appropriations Act. That is the line item that funds the salaries of legislators and their staffs among others. Abbott put the item on the special session agenda and lawmakers are likely to approve it and send it back to Abbott’s desk – but it’s an open question as to whether Abbott would veto the funding once again.

“If the legislature doesn't pass that and the governor doesn't approve it, the legislature won't be able to function after the end of this fiscal year [at the end of August],” Houston Public Media politics reporter Andrew Schneider said.

Shoring Up His Right Flank

What seems to be clear is that Abbott is setting the special session up in a way that is meant to bolster his conservative credentials ahead of his reelection bid in 2022.

“Governor Abbott has laid out a really conservative agenda for this special session, it really speaks to Republican primary voters,” Texas Newsroom Statewide Managing Editor Corrie MacLaggan said. “And this comes as he's being attacked from the right in the Republican primary.”

The conservative issue on the agenda that comes at no surprise is one labeled “election integrity” by the governor and “voter suppression” by others. It was one of Gov. Abbott’s priorities in the regular session but failed when House Democrats dramatically left the chamber and broke quorum – preventing the bill’s passage.

“Among the things that the supporters of the bill have tried to do is ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting – those are both things we saw in Harris County,” MacLaggan said. “Also limiting voting by mail.”

The version of the bill that House Democrats prevented from passing included efforts to limit voting on Sunday – which would impact "souls to the polls" events organized by churches particularly in Black communities. The version of the bill on the special session agenda takes that element out.

Political watchers say Texas leaders may feel emboldened to pursue this voting bill because the Supreme Court sided with Arizona on a challenge to a similar measure there.

Other so-called “red meat” items on the agenda include banning the shipment of “abortion-inducing” drugs to Texas, banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in classrooms, and regulations on which sports teams transgender youth can join. Another item, bail reform, was one of Abbott’s priority measures for the regular session. Its passage was also held up by House Democrats walking out.

“The governor had said initially that this is an emergency item, arguing because there are large numbers of – allegedly large numbers – of criminals who have been released on bail and committing crimes,” Schneider said. “Opponents of the bill argue that effectively it would reinforce a cash bail system that is questionable, if not unconstitutional.”

New from the regular session is the issue of what Abbott refers to as “social media censorship.” It comes at the same time former President Donald Trump is suing social media companies for banning him from their platforms.

“Effectively, it would allow people who are banned from social media for expressing a particular viewpoint, could sue or would allow the attorney general to sue on their behalf,” Schneider said. “Now, this is fairly similar to a law that's already been challenged in the courts in Florida, a Florida court – Florida federal court – in the 11th Circuit struck down the law. It's, obviously, it's going to be appealed. But opponents of the bill basically argue that it's infringing on the First Amendment rights of the social media companies by deciding who can appear on their platforms.”

Concerns From Democrats

Though the agenda is rather long for an only 30-day special session, what is not there raises concern for some.

“Democrats are going to be trying to block all of this and they say that this whole agenda is just unfair, looking at the wrong topics, should have included Medicaid expansion, something about the power grid – that this agenda is really just dividing Texans,” MacLaggan said.

In their work to block measures, it appears clear Democrats are prepared to take whatever dramatic means necessary – including another walkout.

“I've spoken to lawmaker[s] and they made me believe that that's definitely on the table,” Davies said. “It's not going to happen immediately. It's going to be surgical and they're going to use it to make a point. But I'm pretty sure there's going to be points, times in this session where they will be locking the doors under the pink dome.”

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