Last night, the 3rd special session of the legislature finally concluded. The Texas legislature has been in session more days this year than the US Congress. The regular session began on January 8th. And with the exception of a brief respite during the bill signing period in June, the Gov. Abbott has continued to keep legislators in town. However, the special sessions seem to have finally come to a merciful end, at least for 2021. Upon conclusion last night, both presiding officers thanked the members for their service and wished them well moving forward. Here is an updated look at what was finally passed last night:
Redistricting – The main purpose of the session has also produced the most legislative success. New districts for the state House and state Senate have already been sent to the Governor for his signature. And last night, both Houses adopted the final version of the new plan for Congressional districts. All three plans work to not only protect the Republican majority, but also have the potential to increase the party’s majority during next year’s elections. Yesterday, the first lawsuit was filed challenging the validity of the new maps. This is the first lawsuit in what is expected to be numerous challenges to the new plans just adopted by the legislature. The lawsuit was filed Monday in El Paso federal district court, and claims discrimination against Latino voters by claiming the legislature intentionally diluted Latino voting strength, a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The lawsuit challenges all three plans, and the plaintiffs include LULAC, the Texas Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, and La Union del Pueblo Entero. The groups are represented by MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. MALDEF was successful in their challenge to the Republican led redistricting efforts in 2011 that led to the courts making substantial changes to the maps initially drawn by the legislature.
The plans as passed by the Legislature can be found here:
- HB 1 House redistricting Enrolled Planh2316
- SB 4 Senate redistricting Enrolled Plan2168
- SB 6 Congressional Redistricting Enrolled Planc2193
COVID Federal Relief Funds – In the end, after some back and forth over priorities, lawmakers finally earmarked nearly $13 billion in federal funds intended for COVID relief. The lion’s share — $7.2 billion – went to replenish the state’s unemployment compensation fund, that had been overrun by claims during the pandemic. And additional $2 billion was approved for hospitals for additional staffing and infusion centers. An additional $500 million went to broadband infrastructure for rural and underserved areas, to help public schools with their Wi-Fi capabilities and hospitals with telemedicine. And, there were other expenditures such as $300 million for a new state emergency operations center, $285 million to the Teachers Retirement System to help with health insurance premiums for teachers, and $100 million to food banks in the state. For details of all the funding, SB 8 can be found here: https://lrl.texas.gov/scanned/87ccrs/sb0008_3c.pdf#navpanes=0
Restraint of Dogs – Legislators were finally able to reach an agreement on a bill regarding the lawful restraint of dogs. The issue arose this year when Abbott vetoed a measure passed during the regular session that he said was too harsh on dog owners that did not tether their dogs properly. The debate on this bill was contentious at times, but the legislators finally reached an agreement on the proper way to protect dogs from harmful restraints. SB 5 can be found here: https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/873/billtext/pdf/SB00005F.pdf#navpanes=0
Property Tax Relief – Senate Bill 1 was filed to make use of the federal COVID relief dollars by creating a permanent tax cut for property taxes in the state. After passing the Senate, the House took a different approach by not calling for a tax cut, but instead passing their version that will send one time stimulus checks to homeowners to help with property tax bills. The bill went to conference committee, and House and Senate negotiators were not able to reach a compromise. So, they literally started over on the last day of session by filing SJR 2. Instead of the tax cuts or one time stimulus check, lawmakers finally agreed to increase the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000. This proposal sailed through the process with no opposition, and will ultimately need voter approval to be effective. If approved, the proposal will translate to approximately $176 in annual savings to each Texas homeowner on their annual property tax bill. SJR 2 can be found here: https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/873/billtext/pdf/SJ00002F.pdf#navpanes=0
Transgender Athletes – Both the House and Senate have finally passed House Bill 25, which requires any high school athlete in the state to compete on the sports team corresponding with their gender at birth. Gov. Abbott is expected to sign the bill this week. HB 25 can be found here: https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/873/billtext/pdf/HB00025F.pdf#navpanes=0
Additional Revenue for Universities – A late addition to the call of the special session, both Houses agreed to appropriations to add just over $3 billion to help universities with existing and future capital projects. Universities in every region of the state will be able to access the new funds. The proposal establishes a new commission to develop and oversee new project approval that will give the legislature more oversight of new construction on college campuses. The legislation also included direct appropriations to several state institutions such as the UT Health Science Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas A&M Health Science Center, Texas Southern University, as well as all health related institutions in the state. SB 52 can be found here: https://lrl.texas.gov/scanned/87ccrs/sb0052_3c.pdf#navpanes=0
Ban on Vaccine Mandates – Just added to the call last week, both Houses filed bills that would ban an entity in the state – including private business – from mandating vaccines for their employers or patrons. The proposal was met with swift and extreme opposition from the business community, as well as the health care community. Organizations such as the Greater Houston Partnership, the Dallas Regional Chamber, Texas Association of Business, Texas Medical Association, Texas Hospital Association, and numerous other all came out with strong statements and worked the Capitol to demonstrate their fierce opposition to this proposal. In the end, the bills did not have enough support to be considered in either House.
Gov. Abbott has not said definitively that he will not call another special session. He has indicated he would like to still address the vaccines mandate issue, as well as expediting construction of the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley. We will also wait for court decisions on the redistricting plans just passed. Expect changes to the plans before they are finalized for the 2022 elections. As usual, I will keep everyone up to date on all relevant developments.