Legislative Update - May 22, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

May 22, 2021 — 9Days to Go in Regular Session

“The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion.”

 “The thing is this: You got to have fun while you're fightin' for freedom, 'cause you don't always win.”

—Just a couple samples of wisdom from the late, great journalist Molly Ivins, who understood the Texas Legislature well.

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Brink by Brink — Every legislative session reaches a moment where it looks like the remaining agenda could fall apart. This year, the moment arrived Thursday, when a fed-up Texas House, within six days of a deadline that will crush anything remaining on the Calendar, recessed until 1 p.m. Sunday, leaving pending a Resolutions Calendar, a Local Calendar and two daily Calendars that had been set for Friday and Saturday. The bipartisan complaint? While the House has put most priority Senate bills in position to become law, the Senate has not reciprocated with priority House bills. Following the departure of House members, the Senate suspended its rules to hear dozens of House bills.

It Could Go Either Way — Usually, these kinds of disputes are resolved by the folks at the top of leadership. If sweetness and light prevail, the House is perfectly capable of zipping through pending Calendars on Sunday and catching up. The House is also perfectly capable of “chubbing” its remaining work so that major Senate bills are placed in jeopardy. Bet on the first option, but don’t be shocked if lawmakers decide the body of work that remains in position to get to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk is good enough. What’s certain is that the closer the deadlines, the fewer lawmakers it can take to stop bills dead. (See “The Basics”)

State Budget in Position, With an Asterisk — A House-Senate conference committee reached agreement on SB 1, the appropriations bill for the 2022-23 biennium. The House and Senate were not far apart on a document that generally maintains spending and was hailed by lawmakers as a win given the uncertainties of the pandemic. House members, however, were upset that the final version of the bill did not provide for enhanced legislative oversight of the spending of $16 billion in federal pandemic relief. This is a sore subject after the full Legislature had no influence in how prior federal aid was allocated during the pandemic; the part-time nature of the Texas Legislature and absence of special sessions kept rank-and-file lawmakers out of the picture for nearly a year. After lawmakers began questioning their support for the budget, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement promising to include spending of federal pandemic dollars in a fall session that will be called to address redistricting.

Bad Week for Unemployed Texans — Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texas will opt out of federal Unemployment Insurance benefits on June 26, cutting off $300 per week in funding that would have lasted until early September. Because more than 800,000 Texas workers remain unemployed through no fault of their own, the decision could cost Texas billions of dollars that would likely have been spent immediately for basic needs. It will eliminate all unemployment benefits for gig workers and others whose state benefits have run out. Partisan angle: Texas is one of 20 states that made this move — each headed by a Republican governor. Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy blasted the decision as “callous.” Meanwhile, bills that could have delivered serious reform to the UI system in Texas are dead or dying — even after some 4 million applicants struggled mightily just to contact the Texas Workforce Commission during the pandemic.

Thirst for Justice — The Workers Defense Action Fund led a “thirst strike” in front of the Capitol to call attention to the threat to rest break ordinances for construction workers posed by SB 14. The broad ULLCO-opposed bill would  stop cities and other local governments from enacting workplace benefits that apply to the private sector. Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Leonard Aguilar spoke at the rally. Rest breaks are just one of the many local benefits that could vanish if SB 14, which is pending in the House, becomes law. Video: https://fb.watch/5zUJNehUGg/

Stopping Trafficking — ULLCO-backed HB 1540 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, an omnibus measure sponsored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, continued a unanimous run through the Legislature with Senate passage this week. The bill would expand criminal penalties for certain kinds of human trafficking and build on prevention efforts. Labor has consistently endorsed this long-term legislative project whose universal support may not always highlight its importance in our state.

Retiree Representation — A ULLCO-endorsed bill to give retirees the chance to run for one seat on the three-member Employees Retirement System board has been signed by Gov. Greg Abbott. HB 917 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, does not automatically allocate the seat to retirees. This version of the proposal made it to the finish line after several sessions of work by, among others, AFSCME and the Texas State Employees Union.

Trucking Liability — A compromise between business interests and trial lawyers on HB 19, a trucking liability bill, cleared the Texas Senate on a unanimous vote. ULLCO had opposed the bill, believing it would compromise accident victims while reducing incentives for trucking companies to follow regulations affecting the health and safety of drivers. The final version of the legislation was differs dramatically from the introduced version.

The Final Week — Both the House and Senate will be working toward midnight Wednesday, May 26th, after which the rules generally prevent passage of bills that have not already cleared both chambers. In the House, a bill must receive preliminary approval by midnight Tuesday. When the deadlines have passed, the drama turns to whether the House and Senate can reconcile differing versions of bills. ULLCO’s stakes lean in the direction of trying to stop bills, but some ULLCO-endorsed items have a chance to survive to the Governor’s desk. 

The Basics

How does a legislator’s power grow as session deadlines approach?

This question calls to mind a “Star Trek” theme that crosses movies. When Spock “died” in “The Wrath of Khan,” sacrificing himself to a burst of radiation to save the Enterprise crew, he explained his decision by saying (with an assist from Captain Kirk), “Don't grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” That’s the Texas Legislature for the first 130-something days. But in “The Search for Spock” (because in science fiction, not every “dead” person is really dead), when Spock asks Kirk why the Enterprise risked everything to save him, Kirk replies, ““Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” That’s the Texas Legislature next week.

What the hell are you talking about?

It’s like this: Gadflies have their day. The general nature of legislative work is that a consensus usually wins. If you have a majority of the votes and can clear a series of tests, your bill can move; “the needs of the many” prevail. But at the end of the session, one legislator can turn outsized, and “the needs of the one”  or, with some help, the “needs of the few” can kill bills. 

Got any examples?

“The Basics” previously discussed “chubbing” (done by groups of lawmakers) and filibusters (a lone Senator) as tools for not just killing the bill being debated but killing bills further down the Calendars through delay. Another example: When the House debates the Local Calendar late in a legislative session, bills that were presumed to have no opposition can go down through action by one opponent. That might happen for reasons having nothing to do with the legislation, such as revenge. After deadlines hit, reviving legislation takes extraordinary majorities that can be thwarted by small minorities of lawmakers.

Any limitations to the damage one lawmaker can do through these tactics?

Limits tend toward political and practical. While some lawmakers are content to spend their time stopping legislation, most want to pass bills, and blocking the work of others can backfire on one’s own agenda and, potentially, one’s reelection prospects. Moreover, a concerted majority can deploy tools to cut off debate if a broad enough consensus exists that obstruction is serving no purpose. The big secret, though, is that even supporters of bills don’t always mourn their deaths and obstruction, within reasonable limits, is an accepted tactic. Why? It’s available to everyone.

Anything to add?

Yes. Live long and prosper.

Bill Position

As the hour grows late, the United Labor Legislative Committee took action on only one bill this week. ULLCO:

ENDORSED HB 2156 by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, which would establish “Buy Texan” and “Buy American” preferences for U.S. and Texas flag purchases by governmental agencies in Texas. The bill flew majestically through the Texas House on a 145-0 vote and is pending in the Senate.