Announcing an aggressive wish list of conservative priorities, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that the Legislature will meet next month for a sweeping special session that will include calls to limit local government power, enact additional abortion restrictions and crack down on transgender-friendly bathroom policies.
Abbott, who surprised members of both parties with a longer-than-expected list of 20 action items for a 30-day special session that will begin July 18, challenged lawmakers to put up or shut up.
“Legislators have six weeks to prepare for the special session, and then another 30 days to pass these proposals,” Abbott said. “If they fail, it’s not for lack of time, it would be because of a lack of will.”
Many of the items in Abbott’s wish list, however, failed to pass during the 140-day regular session that ended May 29 because there was a lack of agreement among Republicans — particularly between GOP senators and representatives — over the best course of action.
Some of the sharpest disagreements flared over attempts to reduce property taxes, reform school finance and allow public money to be used for private schooling of special needs students — all items on Abbott’s to-do list.
Democrats criticized Abbott’s expansive special session as an attempt to shift blame for what they called the governor’s failed leadership by giving lawmakers an impossibly long list of controversial items to finish in a short time.
“After providing zero leadership and interest during the regular session, the governor is clearly panicking and trying to shovel as much red meat as he can to his right-wing, tea party base,” said Rep. Chris Turner, head of the House Democratic Caucus.
The Republican leaders of the Senate and House — who clashed during the regular session over transgender bathroom limits, property taxes, school finance and other policy priorities — greeted Abbott’s announcement with a marked difference in tone.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, congratulated Abbott for his “big and bold special session agenda.”
“Almost every issue he addressed today passed the Senate during the regular session, and I am confident the senators are ready to hit the ground running to move these issues forward,” Patrick said.
House Speaker Joe Straus said he hoped representatives would spend the next six weeks with their families “after a long 140-day legislative session.”
“The members of the House will return to the Capitol next month ready to put their constituents and the best interest of the state first,” Straus said.
Tea party support
As governor, only Abbott has the authority to call a special session that is limited to the issues of his choosing.
Speaking from the Capitol on Tuesday, Abbott said he was forced to call a special session because the House and Senate failed to pass legislation to renew five state regulatory agencies, including the doctor-licensing Texas Medical Board, that would otherwise go out of business beginning Sept. 1.
The extra session will begin with only agency renewal on the agenda, he said. Once the Senate passes that bill — which Patrick has said would take two or three days — Abbott will expand the agenda to include 19 additional items.
“If I’m going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count,” said Abbott, who declined to answer reporters’ questions during Tuesday’s news conference.
Tea party leaders, including several who had criticized Abbott for a hands-off approach during the regular session, offered praise for a special session that will be rich in their favored initiatives, including limits on property tax increases, bathroom “privacy” legislation, ballot security and limits on city annexation powers.
“If this version of Greg Abbott had shown up during the regular session, perhaps we could have avoided the time and expense of a special,” Julie McCarty, head of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party said by email. “I can’t say I agree with his entire agenda, but at least he’s doing SOMEthing … finally.”
JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, chairwoman of the TEA Party Caucus Advisory Committee, said she feared Straus and his leadership team will try to run out the clock on Abbott’s conservative agenda.
“I hope the Legislature will be in session all day, every day to get this done,” Fleming said.
Activists opposed to many of Abbott’s initiatives predicted that the special session will be marred by acrimony and discord.
“There is no middle ground on discrimination,” Chuck Smith, head of Equality Texas, said of efforts to control which bathrooms transgender Texans may use. “We will not give up in our efforts to prevent the passage and enactment of such a dangerous and immoral law.”
Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said Abbott’s proposals were littered with discriminatory proposals that failed to pass during the regular session because they lacked widespread support.
“When legislators return to Austin on July 18, they should expect to meet stiff resistance not only from the ACLU, but from every Texan who believes everyone deserves a fair shot rather than a government running roughshod over our civil liberties,” Burke said.