Labor Legislative Update - July 31, 2021

July 30, 2021 — #26
Special Session Edition, Day 23

No lyrics needed in a “quiet” legislative week. This instrumental interlude dedicated to the Texas House Democratic Quorum Busters: https://bit.ly/3x8ypAg

And for those who get wet-eye over that music, an antidote: https://bit.ly/3fbLB14

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‘Nothing’ Happened — The 57 Democrats who broke quorum remain in Washington, D.C., having announced plans to stay out of Texas until the current special session’s time runs out midnight Friday, Aug. 6. The Texas AFL-CIO was honored to welcome three of them as virtual guests at our Convention. Three others testified on voting rights before a congressional subcommittee as more federal lawmakers take notice. After the special session ends, what comes next is hazy in the crystal ball, except Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to call another special session immediately. The practical and political stakes are rising on a daily basis.

TSEU to Rally — Gov. Greg Abbott’s ill-considered veto of funding for the legislative branch will for practical purposes take hold in three weeks, a cutoff date for getting legislative branch employees paid for their work before the official Sept. 1 start of the new budget. Many of the more than 2,000 employees facing loss of pay and benefits are Texas State Employees Union members. The union announced an informational picket 5-6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5 in front of the Governor’s Mansion. See flyer: https://bit.ly/3zRg6kY. Delegates to the Texas AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention weighed in, calling on Abbott to initiate the next special session with only Article X funding on the agenda until the matter is resolved.

Attack on Line-Item Veto — Abbott’s veto of Article X funding for the legislative branch in the 2022-23 appropriations bill has upset lawmakers on a bipartisan basis. On Tuesday, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed SJR 8, which would change the Texas Constitution to remove the ability of the Governor to issue line-item vetoes of specific items in the appropriations bill. The Texas Tribune reported the measure appears symbolic at the moment. Seliger tweeted that livelihoods are at stake: “Vetoing this funding doesn’t punish legislators who left. It punishes regular hard-working folks who have nothing to do with voting for or against bills…We now have less than 4 weeks before the veto eliminates pay for Capitol post office staff, researchers, caseworkers in district offices, those responsible for answering open record requests, etc…They have not left their posts but are worried about health insurance, rent, and paying for their children’s school supplies.” Tribune article: https://bit.ly/2TORLgk

Veto Nightmare — The chair of the Texas House Administration Committee, Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, laid out in scary detail what will happen if funding for the legislative branch runs out. Besides a cutoff of staff pay, staff members would have to pay their full health-care premium, including the state’s share, to retain coverage and would lose state contributions to their pensions. Leases for legislative district offices would be canceled. No cleaning, including COVID-19 protocols, could take place. No cable service, no printing. And that doesn’t even include the consequences to the ability of lawmakers to do their jobs if lawyers, language drafters, librarians, budget experts and others are not available. Democracy Forward details the pending disaster in this Twitter thread: https://bit.ly/3y6PRqh

Redistricting — The U.S. Census Bureau announced it will finally release in-depth population statistics needed to redraw political boundaries on Aug. 16. The Bureau had previously indicated the numbers would arrive in late September. Problems with the Census during the last administration — including President Trump’s failed effort to include a citizenship question — delayed the count required by the U.S. Constitution. A special legislative session on redistricting looms in Texas, perhaps sooner than planned but subject to the outcome of the quorum bust. The special session may be limited by a provision in the Texas Constitution that legislative maps are drawn in the first regular session after Census numbers are released. That language has raised serious questions about whether lawmakers can address House and Senate districts before the 140-day regular session in 2023. Congressional lines, however, will be redrawn to account for a gain of two U.S. House seats for Texas.

Quorum Quirk — For you nerds: A wise ULLCO head points up a subtlety in the Legislature’s quorum rule in light of Tuesday’s runoff win by State Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie, in the 6th Congressional District in North Texas. Ellzey’s departure for Congress puts the House one more lawmaker short of a quorum of 100. BUT: If you look at the big book of House rule interpretations, the Texas Constitution’s two-thirds quorum rule is considered to apply to the number of qualified members. Until Ellzey’s successor is elected — something that could take months if a runoff occurs — the House will have 149 qualified members. Two-thirds of 149 is 99 and a third, and since we can’t cut House members into pieces, the quorum of 100 remains in effect. If another rep was to leave office, however, the quorum would drop to 99 (literally 98 and two-thirds out of 148). And so on. In theory, this corollary could become significant if, as a few GOP lawmakers have suggested, House GOPers were to invent a way to expel absent Democrats without a quorum present.

On the Road Again — A major Texas Capitol march and rally for voting rights will culminate a four-day Poor People’s Campaign march, invoking the spirit of Selma civil rights protests. The Rev. William Barber II and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke are among leaders of the campaign, which has announced Willie Nelson will perform during the Capitol rally on Saturday morning. Organized labor was featured in one of the legs of the march, with Texas AFL-CIO officers and staff taking part.

Climate Jobs — The Climate Jobs Project, a long-term initiative approved by delegates to the 61st Texas AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention, will add to labor’s portfolio, including our work in legislative sessions. The Project aims to elevate organized labor’s proactive role in developing strong union jobs in clean energy while fighting for a just transition for workers as the nation and world deemphasize fossil fuels to address climate change. “Texans are facing several converging crises: a changing climate that is hurting working people first and worst, skyrocketing income inequality, and deep racial injustice,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said upon announcement of the project. “Today, the Texas labor movement is coming together to endorse an historic proposal that would tackle these crises by creating good union jobs across our state and combating climate breakdown.” To get a fuller picture of the Project, sign on for emails and read the 55-page report, prepared by 27 unions with facilitation from Cornell University, at this link: https://www.txclimatejobs.org

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The Basics

Does Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of legislative branch funding target House Democrats for their walkout?

No. The Texas Constitution provides for legislative pay and Abbott cannot stop lawmakers’ paychecks. Instead, the veto threatens the livelihoods of staffers for House Democrats AND House Republicans, plus loyal, dedicated employees not employed by lawmakers without whom the Legislature could grind to a halt. 

Who works in the Texas Legislature besides Representatives, Senators and their staffs?

Among them, staff of: the Legislative Budget Board (LBB), which provides expertise for budget-writing and for LBB-approved transfers of funds when the part-time Legislature is not in session; Legislative Council, which provides legal advice and drafts legislation; the Sunset Advisory Board, which analyzes the effectiveness of state agencies and makes recommendations for legislation; the State Auditor, who reviews the integrity of state expenditures; and the Legislative Reference Library, which provides research background for lawmakers and the public. These are all non-partisan jobs essential to the workings of the Legislature.

 When would the veto cut off pay?

The current two-year budget ends Aug. 31, but several sources have said Aug. 20 is the practical deadline date because paychecks for the remainder of August could not go out ahead of the new zeroed-out budget’s taking effect.

 What is organized labor doing to fight this?

A Texas AFL-CIO lawsuit to render Abbott’s veto null and void, which also includes as plaintiffs House Democrats and staffers affected by the veto, remains pending at the Texas Supreme Court at this writing. Many of the legislative staffers are members of the Texas State Employees Union. ULLCO has also endorsed a legislative fix. TSEU will hold an informational picket next week at the Governor’s Mansion.

 What else is organized labor doing to fight this?

Delegates to the Texas AFL-CIO Constitution called on Abbott to limit the next special session to Article X funding until the issue is resolved.