Ramsey: State lawmakers may get new life for dying bills
The legislative session that ends in a week is just the first chapter for this batch of state lawmakers; the list of things to do when they come back later this year is growing.
With a special session later this year already a certainty, lawmakers have an opportunity to kick some cans down the road. They’ve done it once already, with the governor promising to consult lawmakers about spending $16 billion in federal COVID-19 response money. That averted a budget standoff; the House voted unanimously to require the governor to consult lawmakers on that federal windfall, and the governor’s special session promise made it possible to go ahead and pass the state budget in this regular session without that House provision.
That budget standoff was part of the routine end-of-session collision of the House and the Senate, with deadline threats that big priorities are in danger, that bills under discussion since January are going to come to pieces, and that political alliances are frayed beyond repair.
Most of that is artificial. The big conflicts have a way of coming back together before the deadline — like they would in the last 20 minutes of a summer blockbuster movie.
At the same time, those two big concerns — drawing new political maps and spending $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief — have already been punted into a special session to take place sometime later this year.
There could be more. Think back to the 2017 legislative session — that’s the one famous for the failed “bathroom bill” that would have barred transgender Texans from using restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identities. That session ended with unsatisfied lawmakers — and an unsatisfied Gov. Greg Abbott.
The result? A special legislative session, called a week after the regular session ended, with 19 issues on the governor’s agenda. He had the bathroom bill on the list, but told lawmakers they had to pass some must-do legislation before they could take that up. In the end, the must-do legislation passed, and the bathroom bill didn’t.
This year, redistricting is a must-do item, delayed to the fall not by legislative failure, but because of pandemic-delayed data from the 2020 census. That made a special session a certainty.
Now the federal COVID-19 relief is on the autumn agenda, too. And other big issues that remain unresolved have at least the possibility of a safety net: If they fail in the regular session, there’s always a chance that the governor might put them on the agenda for that special session.
In a system designed, as people at the Texas Capitol like to say, more to kill bills than to pass them, it’s a chance at a kind of legislative life after death. After all, the bathroom bill got a second chance, but only because lawmakers had failed to pass a piece of must-do legislation. That time, the legislation in question was needed to keep important state agencies in operation. Without that special session, bathrooms and all the rest would have had to wait until the next regular session.
This time, the certainty of a special session on redistricting is the safety net — giving lawmakers with bills that fall short another chance, so long as they can get the governor to go along.
Abbott hasn’t sent many signals about what he might allow or not allow, but the list of things that still need to be completed in this last week includes some of his darlings, like the voting legislation he refers to as “election integrity,” the package of bills that state officials hope will prevent another incidence of the power outages that killed dozens of Texans during a February winter storm, and a proposal that would allow most adult Texans to carry handguns without permits or licenses, to name just a few.
This legislative session won’t last past Memorial Day, no matter what. Ordinarily, that deadline might prompt a conversation about which pieces of legislation will die and which ones will pass. Those conversations are certainly taking place, but with an asterisk: Which dead bills would the governor be willing to resuscitate in the 30-day special session already on the October calendar?
Hope springs eternal in legislatures, too.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of the Texas Tribune, where this column originally appeared.