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When the Texas House Democrats missed city monday in an attempt to prevent the passage of a GOP priority bill on voting restrictions, they also jeopardized a host of other divisive Republican measures that were due to be passed in the special legislative session that started last week.
Bills to restrict release from prison before judgment, prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in schools and ban transgender students from public schools in the competition on teams that match their gender identities were on hold after dozens of Democratic lawmakers chartered flights to Washington, DC But their departure also undermined more widely supported measures, like giving teachers more money retired and restore veto funding for more than 2,100 legislative employees who could potentially go without paychecks as of September.
The move drew much criticism from Republican heads of state and conservatives nationwide. Govt. Greg Abbott threatened to keep bringing lawmakers back for 30-day special sessions until they vote on its priority issues, like voting and bail restrictions.
“The decision by the Texas Democrats to break the quorum in the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol hurts the Texans who elected them to serve,” Abbott said in a statement. “As they fly over the country in comfortable private planes, they leave aside issues that can help their districts and our state.”
He specifically noted that the Democrats’ departure was hampering the passage of more money for retired teachers, foster families and law enforcement, but did not mention the most controversial conservative measures.
But Democrats across the country and civil rights and racial justice advocates celebrated the breaking of the quorum on Monday that could potentially block voting laws. And many also welcomed the possibility of putting other measures on the agenda of the special session of the GOP.
“From the start, the governor designed this special session to suppress the civil liberties of Texans,” Sarah Labowitz, director of policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a statement, listing the bills on the voting, bail, abortion and transgender athletes. “The walkout is a drastic action in direct response to the governor’s refusal to listen to his constituents or meet the real needs of Texans.”
Last month, Abbott vetoed funding for the entire Texas legislative branch in retaliation against Democrats who left the House floor in May to block passage of the legislation in the regular legislative session. This month the Republican Governor put the responsibility on the legislators to add funding during the special session – during which lawmakers have 30 days to pass measures specifically assigned by him – apparently as a way to discourage Democrats from stepping down again.
It did not work.
According to House rules, at least two-thirds of its 150 members must be present for the chamber to take action. At least 51 of the 67 Democratic representatives left Texas on Monday with no intention of returning until the end of the special legislative session on August 6, potentially preventing the passage of any bills in the current session.
“We were elected to represent our constituents and fight for the interests of our constituents,” said the state representative. Chris Turner, said the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus after landing in Washington on Monday night. “We are not going to sit in Austin in the House chamber and watch the Republican majority destroy the voting rights of our constituents.”
Besides voting, a key Abbott priority for the special session was to change Texas bail laws, with the goal of keeping more felony defendants deemed dangerous behind bars. Bail bills, similar to failed Ordinary Legislative Session legislation and approved by House and Senate committees on Saturday, would change how and whether people can be released from prison before their criminal cases go. be resolved while they are still legally presumed innocent.
While some provisions of the bills are widely supported, such as one that would provide additional training for court officials who set bail and ensure they have information about the criminal history of defendants, important elements have been noted. criticized by House Democrats and civil rights advocates. They argue that the bills would result in the mass detention of poor people while the rich accused could still roam freely.
On Monday, the author of the bill said the senator. Joan huffman said Democrats leaving the Legislature could prevent vital bail reform as the state goes through a public safety crisis. Many Republicans and victims of crime insisted on the need to revise state law, citing rising crime rates and numerous violent crimes allegedly committed by people who had been released from prison on bail.
“Since the legislature adjourned sine die, at least five people in Harris County alone have been killed by individuals on multiple bonds,” said Huffman, a Republican from Houston. “These people have been the victims of preventable crimes, and we have a responsibility to prevent such tragedies from happening again. “
According to Harris County court records, at least three of the defendants in those cases were released from jail after paying cash bond, which would not have been prevented under legislative proposals.
Current legislation, Democrats say, would increase the use of bail by prohibiting the release of those accused of numerous violent or sexual crimes on bonds that do not require cash. Those accused of such crimes could still bail out if they had enough money. The bills would also restrict the ability of charitable groups to pay to get people out of jail.
These groups have become notorious for posting bail to protesters after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. One also posted the A deposit of $ 100,000 for Hervis Rogers, who was recently arrested by order of the Texas Attorney General Ken paxton and charged with illegal voting in Houston. On Monday, representatives from nonprofit bail groups in Texas and across the country said they were supporting Democrats by using any tools at their disposal to stop bail bills.
“[The Texas bail bills] are the most regressive bills we see in the country right now, ”said Twyla Carter, director of national policy for The Bail Project. “Charitable bond funds are the response of communities to mass incarceration. It is community members and community organizations that come together and work together to bail out those who cannot afford to buy their freedom.
Besides the voting and bail bills, other Republican priorities that are now in jeopardy during Abbott’s 30-day session include efforts to shut down social media companies to block users for their views, limit pill-induced abortions, and add money for police efforts on the Texas-Mexico border. But the governor has also called on lawmakers to tackle less partisan issues – like adding funds for foster families, property tax relief and retired teachers. On Monday, he criticized Democrats for leaving those on the table.
A bill would provide what is called a “13th check” to retired teachers in Texas. The bills would order the Texas Teacher Retirement System to distribute a one-time additional payment of up to $ 2,400 by January of next year.
House and Senate committees unanimously moved the bill forward on Friday in some of the first committee votes in the special session.
Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said its members “are in desperate need of help,” especially after economic strains caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think feelings are mixed,” Lee said of the 13th check proposal that the 13th proposal might disappear due to the departure of Democrats from the state. “I think educators care about the right to vote, educators care about the truth, they care about working together, compromising and listening – so that’s what they hope both sides of this political spectrum will ultimately end, that people will work together. “
Regarding legislative employees – who earn a median salary of $ 52,000 per year – some staff and a legal representative said there may be other ways to pay elected officials and those who help all. lawmakers to draft bills and provide cost estimates for legislation.
Lawmakers could potentially carry over money from the current fiscal year, if they have any, to pay their employees. Or the Texas Supreme Court can rule in favor of House Employees and Democrats in a Abbott veto legal action was a governor’s excess. And Abbott has already used his emergency power to move money, as he did in lead the $ 250 million transfer from Texas prisons to a border wall deposit.
For Odus Evbagharu, chief of staff of the Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, it is Abbott’s responsibility to restore his salary and that of his colleagues.
“I don’t think it’s for the Democratic House caucus to answer for this. I think that will be an answer that Governor Abbott will have to respond to himself, ”Evbagharu said. “I guess you’re hoping he doesn’t punish staff more for decisions lawmakers make.”
Yet the representative of the state. Barbara gervin hawkins, D-San Antonio, said Monday she was hopeful but wanted her employees to be prepared.
“I told my staff to prepare for unemployment,” she said.
Patrick Svitek and Heidi Pérez-Moreno contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The Texas Retired Teachers Association has financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a suit list of them here.