No sooner had the gavels fallen Monday to end a 140-day biennial legislative session marked by a rare degree of consensus than Gov. Rick Perry called an immediate special session on redistricting.
Within a half hour, the Senate was launched into a bitter partisan debate over whether rule changes for the special session would empower Republicans to roll over Democrats not just on redistricting, but on a host of hot-button issues that fell by the wayside in the regular session.
Perry can add to the agenda as the special session proceeds, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and others are urging him to tack on a laundry list of conservative priorities that languished as long as Democrats had the power to block them.
In a letter Monday, Dewhurst asked Perry to let the Republican-controlled Legislature have at hot-button issues including the carrying of concealed weapons on college campuses, school choice, abortion, drug testing of welfare recipients and others that died during the session just ended.
And Dewhurst wrote Perry that because of what he described as the “unwillingness” among some members “to find consensus on these important legislative items, I can see no other alternative than to operate under a simple majority vote in the Special Session,” rather than abide by the Senate’s traditional two-thirds rule.
As members of the House scattered for sine die receptions, the Senate quickly convened to establish its rules for the special session. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus, challenged Dewhurst’s proposed rules change as an abuse of power in pursuit of a narrow political agenda.
“The MO here has become, if we fail in the regular session to pass a bill upon which there is no consensus, we will start wasting taxpayers’ money in a special session to push through the political agenda of a few,” Watson said.
Dewhurst said special sessions operate without the 21-vote rule, and passage of bills requires only a simple majority of 16. He said he plans not to use a so-called “blocker” bill during the special session, especially on redistricting.
“Blocker” bills are put at the head of the Senate’s calendar to block consideration of bills below unless 21 senators agree to suspend the rules and take them up out or order.
Without a blocker bill, the 12 Senate Democrats would be powerless to slow the Republican agenda.
With no blocker bill in place, the Senate quickly referred the redistricting legislation to committee Monday evening and recessed until noon Thursday.
Perry’s call for the session lists only enacting “legislation which ratifies and adopts the interim redistricting plans ordered by the federal district court as the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and United States House of Representatives.”
Attorney General Greg Abbott wants lawmakers to adopt interim maps imposed by a federal court, instead of continuing to defend in court earlier maps, drawn by lawmakers in 2011, that the court found problems with.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a party to the redistricting case, said that just because the federal court drew the temporary maps does not mean it will accept the state’s embrace of them as the last word.
Citing the expense of a special session, Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said redistricting should have been left to the court.
But Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the chairman of the Senate’s redistricting committee that will hold a public hearing on the maps at 9 a.m. on Thursday in the Capitol Extension, disagreed in comments to reporters afterward.
“These are maps that the courts have drawn. Why would we not want to consider approving them as a way to shorten what is certainly expensive and lengthy litigation?”
Watson noted during his questioning that more than 60 percent of Hispanics and more than 50 percent of blacks in Texas are represented by Democrats, noting that to freeze Democrats out by pushing through a GOP bill could imperil the legality of any new political boundary maps that are approved during the special session.
“When you set up a session where you take away one of the best tools where people can find middle ground, you disregard traditions,” Watson said afterward. “You also may have acted in a way that can adversely affect minority voting in Texas.”