On Tuesday afternoon, an unsatisfied Texas Gov. Greg Abbott elected to call Texas' House and Senate back for a special legislative session. In doing so, Abbott exercised one of his greatest gubernatorial powers for the first time, illustrating the priorities he has for the remainder of his first term as governor.
Before the 85th Legislature reconvenes in Austin this summer, let's answer some questions about the session and its aims.
When does it start and how long will it last?
Abbott's office said Tuesday that legislators will be called back July 18. The session can last no more than 30 days, but there is no minimum amount of time for which legislators can meet. If Abbott still isn't satisfied with the legislature's progress after a month, he can call another special session.
How much will the special session cost?
Somewhere between $800,000 and a little more than $1 million for a full 30 days. All legislators receive a per diem of $150 while in session. Multiply $150 by 182 (31 senators plus 150 state representatives plus one lieutenant governor), and a special session costs the state $27,300 per day for its duration. Add in overhead like utilities and other costs, and Abbott's decision could easily cost the state more than $1 million.
Why is this special session happening?
At a basic level, this special session is happening because the Texas Freedom Caucus slowed down dozens of bills in the Texas House at a key deadline. Among those was what's known as a sunset bill, a must-pass measure that keeps open critical state offices like the Texas Medical Board that certifies new doctors.
The Freedom Caucus wanted to force a special session for multiple reasons, chief among them to work around Texas House Speaker Joe Straus' refusal to move forward on bathroom legislation that would ban individuals in state facilities from using the bathroom of choice. With the sunset bill effectively blocked, it all but ensured a special session would occur. On Tuesday, Jonathan Stickland, a leader of the Texas Freedom Caucus, celebrated on Twitter.
So the legislature will pass the sunset bill and get out of Austin, right?
Not at all. In addition to the sunset bill, which Abbott declared must be passed before any other business is considered, the governor identified 19 areas for the House and Senate to focus on during the session, including bathroom legislation, a major priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick; limiting abortion access; creating a school voucher program for children with special needs and property tax reform.
Is there anything of special interest to Dallas residents in Abbott's raft of issues?
As a matter of fact, there is. During his announcement of the special session, Abbott called on legislators to pass a bill cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud. In doing so, he pointed to the ongoing investigation into Dallas' District 6 City Council election as evidence that Texas needs stiffer penalties.
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What does the lieutenant governor think of all this?
Patrick, the driving force behind implementing bathroom restrictions in the state, praised Abbott on Tuesday for his "big and bold" special session agenda.
"The people of Texas have a right to expect that we will finish the job on these critical issues, and I am happy to join with the governor in doing the work they elected us to do. I continue to be proud to serve with Gov. Abbott, and look forward to working with him in the upcoming special session," Patrick said.
What do Abbott's opponents think of Abbott's special session priorities?
Not much. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas accused Abbott of "paying a ransom" to Patrick, calling the session's priorities an "assault on Texas’s most persecuted communities — on women, on schoolchildren, on transgender kids." The Democratic Party of Texas similarly blasted Abbott for kowtowing to Patrick.
"Abbott has been gun-shy and MIA for months; calling for Dan Patrick’s political wish list now isn’t leadership. This isn’t about real solutions to the kitchen-table issues facing working Texans. Instead, it is a litany of half measures, fringe issues and failed ideas," said Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa.