One day into a second special session of the 87th Legislature in Austin, and many of the Democrats who left the Capitol during the waning moments of the regular session in May and for much of the first special session have not returned.
Lawmakers “gaveled in” Saturday, still without a quorum, which has been the case since a few days into the first special session.
On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott called the second special session, which began Saturday. The first special session began July 8 and ended at midnight Friday.
“I look forward to being there on Saturday for the beginning of the second special session,” said Brad Buckley, a Salado Republican, in a phone interview Thursday. “It is my hope that all of my colleagues are there so that we have a quorum and we can begin to tackle the agenda that the governor has set before us.”
Abbott placed 17 items on the agenda for the second special session, six more than the 11 from the first session.
Among the new items are the spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds and potentially changing the legislative rules regarding quorums, The Texas Tribune reported on Thursday.
Though the departure of many of the Democrats — in reaction to voting bills that Abbott has prioritized — brought the Texas House to a standstill and prevented official business to a certain point during the first special session, local lawmakers said they have still been working — as much as they are allowed to.
“While they’ve been gone, work has continued to the extent we can work,” said Buckley, who represents much of Killeen.
Buckley said that in the absence of the Democrats, the Republicans have met with retired teachers to discuss the proposed 13th check legislation and met with law enforcement officials to discuss the “dramatic rise of violent crime on the streets of Texas.”
Buckley also said he and is fellow Republicans met with officials of the foster care system and met with people about the surge of individuals crossing the border of Mexico into the state.
Without a quorum, the only motions that can be called on the House floor are either a motion to adjourn or a motion for a call of the House, according to the chamber’s rules.
Without a quorum, members are not allowed to meet in committees.
Every day, the members of the House who are present, “gavel in” and receive a “call of the House,” which allows them to leave the House chamber, on the promise that they will return the next day or whenever they are called back by Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, or within two hours.
“We’ve been doing that every day, seven days a week,” said Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple.
Shine said he has worked on some property tax reform bills while awaiting the return of the Democrats.
“We couldn’t do anything with it, but I’ve filed some bills related to property tax reform issues,” Shine said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Property tax reform has been Shine’s priority during the regular session, and one of his “major procedural” bills — House Bill 988 — passed and was signed by Abbott June 15.
The bill would give taxpayers a “uniform” process. It requires the Appraisal Review Board to adopt the Texas Comptroller’s approved procedural rules.
It also makes other procedural changes, including access to binding arbitration for tax authority procedural violations, guaranteeing an informal settlement discussion prior to protest hearings, requiring notice of a protest for changes in account numbers and allows taxpayers to request a senior-member Appraisal Review Board hearing and creates a complaint process to the appraisal district board and the Appraisal Review Board regarding procedural violations, Shine explained earlier in June.
Shine said Wednesday that he is also looking ahead.
“We’re looking at a number of issues for this next session,” he said. “I have a work group of about 50 professionals from across the state — that includes the comptroller’s office and the governor’s office — and we’ll start meetings in September, working on the interim on a number of issues — again, for accountability, efficiency and effectiveness of customer service and trying to improve the system for all of us who are taxpayers.”
Buckley said that while the House Democrats have been gone, the Senate has done quite a bit of work and passed many bills through the Senate.
He added that he has heard from some people that ask why the legislature did not get these issues accomplished during the regular session.
“I’m going to be perfectly clear about this: When we came into session, we were coming out of the biggest portion of our pandemic. Our economic outlook and forecast revenue estimates were done in a conservative manner, because it’s a revenue estimate,” Buckley said. “So the action we took during the regular session — the regular 87th — met our requirements to balance that budget and make the investments that we needed to make at the time.”
He characterized the argument that the issues could have been taken care of in the regular session is “a big excuse for not showing up and doing your job.”
Buckley also explained something that he said is an “inconvenient truth” to the Democrats.
“Much of the elections bill was negotiated with the Democrats prior to them leaving, so that is something that is an absolute fact,” Buckley said. “This is something that they saw that they were OK with until they weren’t.”
While waiting on the Democrats to return, Buckley said he has also had an opportunity to work with his team about finding a way to secure an expansion of the 100% disabled veterans property exemption reimbursement program.
“We’ve had lots of time to talk about options,” Buckley said. “You know, we’re going to have a change in leadership over the Finance Committee in the Senate since Sen. (Jane) Nelson has indicated she’ll not seek reelection, so we know there’ll be changes there.
“We’ve had communication with the Senate side to make sure we continue to educate members ... about the issue.”
During the regular session, Buckley had multiple attempts to secure expansion of the funding to reimburse Harker Heights and Nolanville fail.
Without a quorum to conduct official business, one group of state employees is in jeopardy of losing their paychecks.
All staff members pertaining to the legislature stand to not get paid if the legislature cannot pass Article 10 of the legislative budget.
Abbott vetoed the funding that affects around 2,100 employees to punish the Democrats for initially walking out of the Capitol in the waning days of the regular session in May, The Texas Tribune reported.
“I’m investigating options of how to pay the staff should it run out,” Buckley said. “But my staff is everything, and they deserve payment, and we will make sure they’re paid.”
Shine said Abbott’s veto of Article 10 of the budget is a “sticky point.”
Lawmakers have until Sept. 1 to restore funding to Article 10.
“I just hope that we’re able to bring people together and resolve the issues so we can move forward,” Shine said.
House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 10 from the first special session relate to Article 10 funding for the legislature.