Legislative Update - Feb. 5, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel 

Feb. 5, 2021 — #5
115 Days to Go in Regular Session

“At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”

—A. Philip Randolph Jr., quoted on a bust of the famed union civil rights leader in front of Union Station (and, also, a Starbuck’s outlet) in Washington, D.C. See: http://bit.ly/39Mg97e. February is Black History Month.

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State of the State — In a State of the State legislative agenda that centered neither the war on COVID-19 nor working families, Gov. Greg Abbott gave lawmakers a green light to move quickly on bills falling into five emergency topics: 

  • Liability protections for businesses that took precautions against COVID-19;
  • Expansion of broadband access;
  • Bail reform;
  • Penalties for local governments that reduce police budgets; and
  • Ensuring “election integrity.”

Eye of the Beholder — Expanding broadband access across Texas clearly  has bipartisan support and is on labor’s Fair Shot Agenda (http://bit.ly/39RDd3o). The others hinge heavily on what legislation the Governor really means. The police budget matter is a big piece of a larger feud between Abbott and the City of Austin that, at one point, prompted Abbott to threaten a state takeover of the entire Austin Police Department. Bail reform can be progressive or regressive. “Election integrity” has become code for bills that suppress legitimate voting (see “Bills” section below). And the flip side of liability protection for businesses in the pandemic is that working families have been pushing for bills that make Workers’ Compensation more readily available when frontline workers contract COVID-19. That worker protection wasn’t in Abbott’s speech.

Labor Response — A Texas AFL-CIO statement contrasted Abbott’s vow to protect coverage of pre-existing conditions for all Texans with the state’s  lead in an effort to kill the one place where pre-existing conditions are protected — the Affordable Care Act. The state federation criticized as scapegoating of immigrants Abbott’s false declaration that the federal government now has an “open borders policy” and that Texas needs to keep spending $800 million each budget on the federal responsibility of border control. “Greg Abbott’s vision for Texas has a big hole in its heart, shortchanging, ignoring or even attacking the desire of working families for a fair shot at better lives. Texas can do so much better than this,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy and Secretary-Treasurer Montserrat Garibay stated. Full news release: http://bit.ly/3oOKh6n

House Committees — House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, on Thursday announced committee assignments that switch out chairmanships and, per long tradition, maintain a reasonably proportional mix of Republican and Democratic leadership. In the Texas Senate committees appointed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, just one Democrat holds a chairmanship in a body with an18-13 partisan split; that is close to how Congress operates. In the House, Republicans hold an 83-67 edge; Phelan appointed 21 Republicans and 13 Democrats to chairmanships. (Five chairs are women and 14 are Black, Hispanic or Asian-American; the Senate has five women leading committees but no minority chairs.) 

Implications for Labor — House chairmanships or positions directly affecting labor include: Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, Speaker Pro Tem; Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, Chair of Appropriations; Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, Chair of Calendars; Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, Chair of State Affairs; Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, Chair of Public Education; Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, Chair of Redistricting; Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, Chair of Licensing & Administrative Procedures; Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, Chair of Business & Industry; Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Houston, Chair of Elections; Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, Chair of Pensions, Investments, & Financial Services; Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, Chair of Public Health; Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, Chair of Corrections; and Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Garland, Chair of International Relations & Economic Development. Virtually all the other committees have additional implications for labor’s Fair Shot Agenda. See the full list of committee assignments here: https://bit.ly/2MZlqiM

Historical Note — Phelan designated Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, as joint “Deans of the Texas House of Representatives.” Craddick is in his 53rd year of service and Thompson is in her 48th, each having set records for longevity.

Schedule — Taking precautions in the pandemic, the Legislature did not meet this week. The House reconvenes 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9 and the Senate returns 3 p.m. the same day.

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The Basics

What is an “Emergency Item”?

The 140-day regular legislative session never hits the ground running. In part, that’s because the Texas Constitution prevents lawmakers from passing bills in the first 60 days. It takes a four-fifths vote to overcome that roadblock. The Senate may approve some overwhelmingly supported bills in the first 60 days, but ordinarily lawmakers wait out the restriction rather than try to muster four-fifths support ahead of the 60-day mark. The big exception: “emergency items” designated by the Governor.

What constitutes an “emergency”? 

Whatever the Governor says it is. He has absolute power to give topics a quick start. Once the governor opens a subject for early consideration, though, legislators may proceed with any bill on that subject. For example, Abbott’s decision announced in the State of the State speech to make “election integrity” an emergency subject could theoretically generate hearings on making voting easier or making voting tougher.

What is the practical effect of declaring an item an “emergency”? 

It’s a head start. When the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and House Speaker are reading from the same page, as they seem to be in 2021, it means powerful leadership resources will help catapult a bill through the process. Meanwhile, thousands of other bills await the 60-day mark before there is even a possibility they will be debated on the floor of the House or Senate.

Will we see more “emergencies” in 2021? 

Maybe. The Governor is not limited to declaring emergencies in the “State of the State” speech.

Does every “emergency” item become law? 

No. While many do, the bills still must pass muster, and may not end up as the bills a governor really wanted to see.

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Bills — “Election Integrity”

(Because the Legislature did not meet this week, ULLCO did not meet or take positions on bills.)

A key theme emerging from Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State speech was his declaration of “election integrity” as an emergency item. Abbott did not define what he means by “election integrity” in his speech; in a later interview, he emphasized tightening up rules for mail-in ballots. His budget proposal calls for funding election observers across the state during early voting periods.

From hard experience, many Democrats tend to equate discussion of “election integrity” with voter suppression, including more hoops to jump through for those wishing to vote.

The issue took on new meaning later in the week when House Speaker Dade Phelan announced the appointment of Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Houston, as chair of the House Elections Committee. The Texas Tribune pointed out that Cain traveled to Pennsylvania after the Nov. 3 election to volunteer his services in trying to overturn the presidential election results. (http://bit.ly/2O2Bd0R) No evidence of fraud or serious error surfaced, and courts threw out a variety of lawsuits, some with force.

Coincidentally, Cain has already filed HB 329, “Relating to election integrity,” which goes well beyond what Abbott said in offering direction on what the phrase might mean this year. The bill has provisions that in the past have been strongly opposed by the Texas AFL-CIO, including sweeps of databases that could lead to removal of eligible voters from the rolls and an accompanying hunt for potential prosecutions when all evidence suggests voting fraud is extraordinarily rare.

Bill provisions include: 

1) Without evidence of any significant amount of “non-citizen voting,” the bill would require the Secretary of State twice a year to review a Department of Homeland Security database of non-citizens living in Texas with an eye toward removal of matching names from the voter rolls.;

2) The Secretary of State would also examine non-citizen Texas driver license applications for the same purpose; 

3) The Secretary of State would gain the power to audit county election rolls to enforce compliance with both state law and any direction from the Secretary of State’s office to remove names from the voter rolls;

4) Hinging state payments to local election officials on compliance with Secretary of State directives;

5) Election judges would have to pass an exam created by the Secretary of State to serve during early voting by personal appearance or on Election Day. Rules for compliance would be set by the Secretary of State. 

6) The Secretary of State “shall investigate” a voter who declared a “reasonable impediment” that he or she lacked a “voter ID” card to see if that person was issued a driver license or identification card by DPS. The Attorney General “shall, as appropriate, prosecute” voters who were issued a card; and

7) Repeal of Election Code sections on certain state payments to local voter registrars.

Another example of Cain’s thinking on elections may be found in HB 330, which, among other things, would: 1) require a two-thirds supermajority and a 20 percent turnout for local voters to approve bonds; 2) create a criminal offense for election judges who incorrectly accept a vote from a person who is only entitled to vote provisionally; and 3) add restrictions on voter assistance and voting from nursing homes.