As Texas lawmakers wrapped up their regular 140-day session Monday, they were put on notice by Gov. Greg Abbott that they might soon be back to complete unfinished business.
Not only that, but a day traditionally marked by tears and hugs turned into a time where lawmakers had to temporarily stop their work when a protest over Texas’s new anti-sanctuary cities law dominated the chamber and sparked a scuffle between lawmakers on the House floor.
“As today has proved, (the Legislature) is never, ever boring,” House Speaker Joe Straus said shortly before the House gaveled to a close.
Some say it was an unpredictable end to an unpredictable session dominated by issues that never made their way to the governor’s desk, such as a bathroom bill to set new regulations for transgender Texans and property tax relief.
But Abbott took charge Monday, saying he plans to announce later this week whether he will call state lawmakers back to work.
“I can tell you this, and that is when it gets to a special session, the time and the topics are solely up to the governor of the state of Texas, and we will be, if we have a special session, convening only on the topics that I choose at the time of my choosing,” Abbott said after a bill signing at the Texas Department of Transportation’s Riverside Campus.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been among those asking Abbott to reconvene the Legislature to pass a bathroom bill, property tax reform and address Senate Bill 1929, which is needed to keep the doors open to the Texas Medical Board that licenses doctors in Texas.
A special session can last as long as 30 days and cost the state as much as $800,000.
During a special session, the governor picks the topics to be addressed and he can call lawmakers back as many times for as many special sessions as he would like, until the Legislature produces what he wants.
But when Abbott was asked Monday if he was feeling any pressure from Patrick on a special session, he said “None.”
On Monday, lawmakers made some technical corrections, approved some resolutions, took some photos — and thanked those who worked for and with them this session — and then gaveled out of the session within a few hours.
This regular session was marked by emotional, tumultuous times.
The House battle over sanctuary cities legislation — which lets law enforcers ask people about their immigration status during an arrest or detainment, such as a traffic stop — was literally marked by tears, pleas and temporary hunger strikes.
And throughout the session, large crowds of protesters and supporters showed up at the Capitol for a number of bills, including sanctuary cities and bathroom regulations.
“It has been very bitter for me to see Texas citizen after citizen testify about issues and see vote after vote go against them,” said state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth.
“We are all going to have to go home and explain what happened this session,” said state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. “But we did make Texas better.”
Earlier in the session, the House was introduced to a newly created House Freedom Caucus — which includes state Reps. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington — that ended up killing dozens of bills just before Mother’s Day.
Caucus members said they were trying to punish House leaders because efforts to move forward some of their priority bills were thwarted.
“I am sick and tired of the rules only mattering when it keeps the minority members of this House, whatever the issue is, in line,” Stickland said in one late night House session. “When this leadership of this House decides that they want to do something, it happens.”
And the last week of the session, frustration was high as each chamber was accused of holding up the other chamber’s legislation.
As members in the lower chamber began yelling out of frustration because bills weren’t being passed in the Senate, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, R-Houston, yelled “Open the door” so senators could hear them yell.
“When the Senate won’t respect us, they need to expect us,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said on the House floor during the last week of the session. “We’re not going to take it any more.”
Then late Sunday night, a filibuster took place when state Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, spoke for about two hours until midnight to block passage of an annexation bill, SB 715, by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.
More work soon?
Speculation about a special session has been strong since Patrick said he’d ask Abbott for one after Straus said the lower chamber would go no further on the bathroom bill than the compromise it already passed.
The House passed a measure requiring Texas schools to provide alternate restrooms and locker rooms for youth who don’t want to use facilities that match their “biological sex.”
Patrick wanted the House to OK the Senate’s version, which essentially requires people using restrooms in publicly owned buildings, not just schools, to go to the one that matches their “biological sex.” This would overrule any local ordinances already in place.
As for property tax reform, both chambers differed on this proposal as well.
The Senate proposal included a measure allowing rollback elections if proposed property tax rates for cities and counties go above 5 percent. The House measure didn’t include that, but it did require local governments to start with a “no-new-revenue” tax rate every year. Taxpayers could get copies of that and be able to look at it side-by-side with the actual rate proposed. Neither version made it to the governor’s desk.
By Sunday, Patrick’s call for a special session came because of SB 1929.
House members said the Senate was holding the bill hostage; senators said the bill wouldn’t fix the problem and a solution could only be found in a special session.
If Abbott calls a special session, lawmakers could head back to work at any time.
“My biggest disappointment, of course, is the sunset bill did not pass,” Abbott said Monday. “This is something that is incredibly easy to achieve that members could’ve very easily gotten together and agreed upon but simply was not done.”
Many speculate a special session could come after the June 18 bill signing deadline, so lawmakers won’t be in position to override any vetoes the governor might use.