Texas Senate didn’t pass critical bill; may force special session

By not hearing a critical bill before a Senate deadline to pass certain legislation, Texas could force Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to force lawmakers to return for a special legislative session this summer.

Only Governor Greg Abbott can convene a special session, but in failing to pass a bill that extends the life of government agencies, Patrick essentially signed a death warrant before the Texas law enforcement regulator. That is, unless Abbott is able to find a creative way to push back the agency’s own abolition date or call back lawmakers to fix it.

If they get Patrick’s blessing, lawmakers can also amend a bill this week to enable the agency’s survival.

Patrick and Abbott, both Republicans, introduced bills this year to “support the Blue Priorities.” But Wednesday, Patrick Abbott had asked to hold a June special session so the legislature could reconsider three Conservative measures that failed after missing a House deadline. The regular five-month session ends on Monday.

And if Abbott is forced to bring lawmakers back to Austin to save a state agency, it would also be easier to ask them to also listen again to Patrick’s priorities of banning transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity, and to prohibit local governments from using taxpayers to pay lobbyists and punish social media companies for “censoring” Texans based on their political stances.

Abbott’s spokesman did not respond to questions about a special session to continue the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or TCOLE, on Wednesday night or Thursday. Nor did Patrick’s spokespersons respond to questions as to why he didn’t take House Bill 1600 to the floor.

The high-stakes legislation was a “safety net” law for government agencies that will soon be abolished. As part of a so-called sunset review process, legislators periodically make assessments about how efficiently government agencies are being run and whether they should continue to exist. While agencies are being considered individually, there is also a safety net account for each session to extend the life of each agency by two years that has not been individually extended.

This year, TCOLE, which sets minimum permits and training standards for the police, was not given separate authorization. A damning report from the typically understated Texas Sunset Advisory Commission called TCOLE toothless, which allowed for poor accountability and inadequate training for the police. However, proposed changes – or even extending the life of the regulator by two years while the proposed changes were revised – failed in Parliament.

While lawmakers are expected to come back this fall to redraw the state’s political maps, it would be too late to combine TCOLE’s resuscitation with that session. Without the safety net account, TCOLE will be dissolved on September 1.

But a summer session is not guaranteed if the bill fails. In 2019, Abbott issued an executive order to extend the life of the state plumbing after a similar move. The governor said he could go beyond the legislature because plumbers were still needed to deal with the destruction from Hurricane Harvey. It’s possible the governor could engage in similar political maneuvers this year, but that could be complicated by another piece of priority legislation.

House Bill 3, which would limit the governor’s emergency powers, was given priority because Democrats and Republicans both criticized various Abbott orders during the coronavirus pandemic. Versions of the bill passed both chambers, but as it passed the Senate, the bill would specifically prevent Abbott from delaying the dates of the abolition of state agencies at sunset, as he did with the Plumbers Council. House lawmakers have yet to decide whether to accept the more recent version of the Senate or try to compromise.

However, it is unclear whether the Senate version would remove procedural hurdles that would ensure that any changes to bills remain relevant to the overall purpose of the legislation. And even if it succeeded with the restrictive provision, it’s not known whether the bill’s date of entry into force in September would invalidate an order that Abbott would issue before then. The governor could also veto HB 3 completely after lawmakers go home next month.

There is also another bill regarding sunset review scheduling currently under negotiation between the House and Senate. In theory, that bill could be amended to keep the state agency alive before the legislation is due to hit the chambers on Saturday, although Patrick could block that too.

When Patrick called for a special session before handing over the sunset bill, Abbott responded by urging lawmakers to instead “work together to get important conservative legislation on my desk” in the remaining days of the regular session.

The Senate continued to debate and vote on bills on Thursday, after midnight to vote on bills. No senator has contested the move. Still, HB 1600 was not one of the bills filed before the room was suspended shortly after 3 a.m. on Thursday.

Sami Sparber contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/27/texas-special-session-legislature-senate/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-sponsored, unbiased newsroom that educates and engages Texans about state politics and policy. Read more at texastribune.org.

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