The 85th legislative session is now in the rearview mirror. Though a range of policy issues were addressed, the greatest focus will be on two things: so-called sanctuary cities and the special session.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott does not like special sessions, which he has consistently communicated. He believes 140 days is sufficient time for lawmakers to complete their work every other year.
But this session played out in a such a way that he now faces a choice where no good option is available.
• A must-pass sunset bill did not pass, with both houses blaming the other and jeopardizing several government agencies and boards, including the Texas Medical Board. Their charters expire in September if they are not reauthorized.
• Property tax cuts could not be agreed to by both houses — and it was left undone at a time when millions of urban and suburban Texans are angry about rising property tax rates.
• The Women’s Privacy Act — insultingly referred to as a “bathroom bill” — also did not pass both the House and Senate in the same form. The Senate passed a strong bill early. The House passed a more modest bill later. The Senate would not agree to the House bill.
All eyes now turn to Abbott as he makes his decision about whether to call a special session — and on which issues.
I suspect he is considering several facets, such as:
• Is a special session an absolute necessity?
• Is it politically wise?
• Will it produce solid policy that will benefit the state?
• Will a special session be likely to produce bills that he can sign?
• What are the risks of not calling a special session?
Abbott and his team want history to record this regular session as a success for their side, as the governor will be signing all five of his emergency items into law: sanctuary cities, Child Protective Service reform, ethics reform, Convention of States and voter ID. These were important policy victories. The governor was five for five on his priorities. Typically, that means no special session is necessary.
Absent controversy and political bickering at the end, he would be taking a victory lap right now.
Instead, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has the governor in a box: Call a special session, and Abbott appears to be letting Patrick call the shots. Fail to call a special session, and Abbott hands Patrick two explosive issues — property tax cuts and the Women’s Privacy Act — and risks the anger of Republican primary voters and grassroots leaders.
Lost in much of this is Speaker Joe Straus, who aimed to protect his members from taking tough votes during the regular session by slowing down floor activity and delaying committee assignments. As a political strategy, it almost worked.
On an important deadline day in the final weeks, the conservative House Freedom Caucus, frustrated by the slow pace and what they felt were reprisals against their own bills, successfully blocked the must-pass sunset bill and a handful of other bills as the clock struck midnight. This effectively forced a special session.
Later, on Memorial Day, the final day of the legislative session, a protest against the state’s sanctuary city bill, which Abbott signed into law, turned ugly. Protesters violated decorum rules in the House gallery by disrupting activity. Lawmakers from both parties got into heated exchanges with vulgar language and threats flying around. It was behavior that was a national embarrassment for the state of Texas.
The 85th legislative session should be remembered for the bills that passed and were signed into law, with a focus on how those new policies would affect millions of Texans and the state economy. Instead, the focus is on protests and the politics of a special session.
Abbott decided to focus on his priorities and sit back for most of the session, hoping that legislators would avoid a special session on their own. Clearly, they failed to do that.
The governor must now consider whether a special session is likely to end any differently than the regular session did.
Mackowiak is syndicated columnist, an Austin-based Republican consultant and a former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.