How Democrats can stop a bad special session

Photo by Austin Price / The Texas Tribune

It’s going to be a long summer for Texas Democrats. From their perspective, the recently-concluded legislative session was already a disaster. Over strenuous opposition, Republicans rammed through long-sought legislation to ban sanctuary cities with Senate Bill 4. They also passed SB 8, a sweeping bill that bans most second-trimester abortions. The stingy state budget, passed with only lukewarm Democratic support, underfunds public services and drastically cuts state funding for Medicaid and public universities.

Democrats spent most of the session playing defense, slowing down divisive and destructive legislation including the “bathroom bill,” private school vouchers, anti-union legislation and caps on local government taxation and spending.

Now Gov. Abbott is threatening to make all their efforts for naught. All of these high-profile bills and several more far-right priorities have found their way onto the agenda for the upcoming special session. Half of his list amounts to a full-throated assault on local control: 10 of the 20 special-session items threaten the ability of local governments to carry out their duties.

Not on the agenda? Legislation to fix Texas’ school finance system (though the governor has asked lawmakers to study that issue), restore Medicaid rate cuts and address the risk of catastrophic flooding in Houston (largely a federal issue. Even Republican Speaker Joe Straus wryly compared the agenda to a “pile of manure.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick forced this special session by killing vital legislation to continue the Texas Medical Board and four other agencies. First, he privately encouraged members of the House Freedom caucus to kill one version of the legislation. Then, he killed last-ditch legislation to patch up the problem. In a display of artful political cynicism and blatant disregard for the truth, Patrick then blamed the House for the entire mess.

These tactics were effective. Patrick got his special session and his top priorities are on the agenda. During the special, Democrats will be even less powerful than usual — that is, if they show up.

Article 3, Section 10 of the Texas Constitution requires two-thirds of the House to be present to conduct business. Of 150 members, 55 are Democrats. If 51 of them pack up and leave Austin for the 30-day special session, none of Abbott’s and Patrick’s toxic priorities can pass.

Quorum-busting has precedent. In 2003, 52 House Democrats left for Ardmore, Oklahoma, to prevent the passage of a mid-decade redistricting plan. Later that fall, 11 Senators fled to New Mexico in an effort to block the same legislation. Both left the state to prevent Texas state police for rounding them up and returning them to work.

Going nuclear on the special-session agenda would kill, at least temporarily, the must-pass sunset legislation. Abbott will add to the agenda only after the medical board legislation has made it out of the Senate — an attempt to take the must-pass hostage out of Patrick’s control.

House Democrats should pass that legislation and leave. If House leadership decides to hold the legislation hostage to maintain a quorum, they should leave anyway. If keeping those five agencies alive is a priority of the governor, he can always call a quick, one-item special session later.

During the regular session, Patrick proved that you can win in Texas politics and pass extreme legislation by being cynical, ruthless and ready to exercise power. Democrats have a choice: help pass the Republican agenda or pack their bags for someplace out of state.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Doug Snyder

President, UT University Democrats