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With Feelings Raw Over Voting Bill's Demise, Texas Legislature Wraps Up — For Now

 House members praised House Speaker Dade Phelan on Monday, the last day of the legislative session.
House members praised House Speaker Dade Phelan on Monday, the last day of the legislative session.

The Texas Legislature closed out its regular 140-day session Monday with sniping among the state’s top political leaders and lawmakers already well aware they will be back this calendar year for an overtime round.

“We will be back — when, I don’t know, but we will be back,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told members from the speaker’s dais. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but I look forward to doing it with every single one of you.”

Talk of a special session — and questions about how soon one may happen or what additional issues Gov. Greg Abbott could task legislators with — has largely defined the last weekend of the Legislature’s 140-day stretch after lawmakers left unfinished a number of GOP priorities and tensions between the two chambers escalated.

That drama reached new highs Sunday night when House Democrats staged a walkout and broke quorum, making it impossible to give final approval to Senate Bill 7, a massive GOP priority voting bill that would tighten the state’s election laws, before the midnight deadline.

Abbott quickly made clear that the bill, along with another other priority legislation that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash, “STILL must pass” — and said that the two issues “will be added to the special session agenda.”

The governor, who is the only official who holds the power to convene a special session, has not yet specified whether he plans to order one ahead of an overtime round already planned for the fall to handle the redrawing of the state’s political maps. An Abbott spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment earlier Monday.

Before lawmakers adjourned though, Abbott made clear he intends to reprimand the Legislature over its unfinished business by vetoing the section of the state budget that funds the legislative branch.

“No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” he tweeted. “Stay tuned.”

Shortly after lawmakers adjourned for the final time, Abbott released a lengthier statement in which he applauded the Legislature for pushing through a series of conservative victories, while doubling down on his demands that lawmakers pass voting and bail legislation. But the governor also left open the possibility that other topics could be added to the agenda for the special session.

House Democrats earlier this week successfully killed proposals that would’ve banned local governments from using taxpayer dollars to pay lobbyists, prohibited social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoints and barred transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity. Abbott had previously said he would sign those bills.

“I expect legislators to have worked out their differences prior to arriving back at the Capitol so that they can hit the ground running to pass legislation related to these emergency items and other priority legislation,” he said.

Aside from handling last-minute, typical end-of-session to-dos — such as correcting technical errors in already passed legislation and recognizing Capitol staff — House members were busy Monday taking photos with one another and with family members who were in town. Members, led by state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, also applauded Phelan over his first term as speaker.

“We always go through ups and downs — that’s the nature of the Legislature — but what we’re really here to tell you is: You did a great job,” Hunter told Phelan from the chamber’s back microphone. “Thanks for standing up for the Texas House.”

Even before Sunday night’s Democratic walkout, tension had been high in the Capitol.

Frustrated that the Senate had not moved fast enough on House leadership’s priorities, the House recessed for several days of the session’s homestretch. Later, three of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priority bills missed a key deadline in the House, leading Patrick to call for an immediate special session this summer. When the voting bill failed Sunday night, Patrick pointed the finger squarely at Phelan, saying “clock ran out on the House because it was managed poorly.”

Mentions of an imminent special session were sprinkled into conversations throughout Monday in the House. Before Hunter asked the chamber to applaud Phelan, the lawmaker asked whether it was the last day of the regular session — and added that he had heard “we may be getting a coastal breeze in the fall.”

Phelan during his speech also alluded to the special session, telling members that while he hoped that the Legislature would not return until the fall, the decision was not his.

“Let’s just have a restful, peaceful summer and hopefully be back here in the fall,” Phelan said. “But that’s not my decision, that’s someone else’s decision.”

Phelan also emphasized abiding by legislative rules, an apparent dig at Patrick and the Senate, which moved in the early hours of Sunday morning to suspend its rules and jam through a series of last-minute additions to the expansive voting bill.

“No matter the external forces that tried to distract us or diminish the work of this body, we are the Texas House,” Phelan said. “In this House, we work hard — and our rules matter. Our rules matter.”

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, senators slowly filled the chamber Monday morning — many with family members in tow — as they exchanged cordial handshakes and friendly smiles. Clusters of bipartisan conversation presented a stark contrast to the late-night partisanship that largely defined a strange legislative session.

The first order of business as Patrick gaveled in the final regular session meeting of the upper chamber was the election of the body’s president pro tempore during the interim — a largely ceremonial role reserved for the longest-serving senator who has not previously served in such a capacity. This year, that honor fell to state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.

Members, each wearing a yellow rose in homage to Campbell, took turns commending her heart, her perseverance and her faith. “Many people consider her an iron first in a velvet glove, perhaps because of her firmness and her brevity,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Campbell was flanked by her four daughters as she addressed her colleagues from the dais, the events from a tumultuous session seemingly weighing on her mind.

“We are chosen leaders of this great state of Texas at a time of great challenges,” she said. “We came into our position, our position of leadership, for a time such as this.”

After approving a series of memorial resolutions and technical changes to bills, the Senate prepared to gavel out for the final time this regular session. A hint at unfinished business rang out in Patrick’s closing remarks.

“I normally say I’ll see you in 18 months, but I might see you in 18 days or so,” he said.

From The Texas Tribune.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5