Waiving rules and blocking Democrats, Republicans in the Texas Senate opened the special legislative session Tuesday by taking rapid action on two key bills, potentially allowing Gov. Greg Abbott to open the overtime session to a longer list of conservative priorities as early as Wednesday afternoon.
Abbott said he will expand the special session’s agenda after the Senate approves two “sunset” bills allowing five state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, to continue operating.
To hasten action on the bills, Republicans voted along party lines to waive a rule requiring 24-hour notice of meetings so the Business and Commerce Committee could consider the sunset measures while the Senate was in a late-morning recess.
For the first time in more than 30 years, senators also voted — again along party lines — to suspend a rule allowing one senator to “tag” legislation, requiring a 48-hour wait before a bill can be heard in committee.
Democrats objected, saying GOP senators were targeting rules devoted to transparency and public participation.
“That’s not right,” said Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, who had tagged the sunset legislation. “This should be all about giving people the democratic right to participate in the democratic process.”
Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, rejected the claim, accusing Democrats of seeking to delay the legislation “for political gain.”
In the end, no members of the public testified during the 25-minute committee hearing, and Senate Bills 20 and 60 were approved on 9-0 votes shortly before noon.
The full Senate is expected to vote on the bills shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday.
The partisan strain also was evident Tuesday in the House, where a tea party Republican introduced a resolution to punish members who skip town in hopes of preventing a quorum — a tactic used by Democratic lawmakers to block action on legislation in the past.
Under House Resolution 35 by Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, representatives who avoid the Capitol to prevent a quorum could lose committee leadership positions. The remaining House members also could vote to “permanently remove” any seniority-based privileges for absent members.
Stepping to the rear microphone, Tinderholt told House Speaker Joe Straus that he feared his resolution wouldn’t receive a floor vote because it first must be approved by a committee that is led by a Democrat. Straus replied that there’s more than one way to get the resolution to the floor.
The otherwise quiet House session ended after less than an hour.
Afterward, House Democrats packed an adjoining room to press for a vote to repeal the “sanctuary city” ban passed during the regular session and signed into law by Abbott.
Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, called on Straus to bring Senate Bill 4 back to the floor so it could be repealed.
“He knows it’s not a good bill. His constituents know it’s not a good bill,” Anchia said.
During the 30-day special session, however, lawmakers can only take up matters designated by Abbott, who has not included immigration-related issues on his agenda.
Texas Association of Business Treasurer Bob Cartwright joined the Democrats in criticizing SB 4, calling the law discriminatory and saying it will hurt the state’s construction and hospitality industries. Laborers will leave Texas and “seek work in other states that are more welcoming,” he said.
Several cities, including Austin, have challenged SB 4 in federal court.
Most of Tuesday’s action, however, occurred in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has promised rapid action on the sunset bills and 19 other items Abbott has proposed for the special session, including additional abortion regulations, a crackdown on transgender-friendly bathroom policies and limits on city authority to annex land, regulate tree removal and ban drivers from using cell phones.
The sharpest confrontation flared after Hancock moved to speed action on the sunset bills, saying the measures had been widely publicized and that the public already understood the need for the agencies to continue running.
Democrats strongly objected to waiving the 48-hour tagging rule, saying it was a time-honored tradition and a personal right of senators who believe more time is needed for public input or to more closely examine legislation.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she didn’t recall the tagging rule ever being suspended during her 30 years in the Senate.
Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said the vote didn’t break new political ground, telling Zaffirini that the rule had been waived several times 30 to 50 years ago.
Democrats also said they feared the vote on the tagging rule and the 24-hour notice rule would set a precedent for the remaining 29 days of the special session, allowing the Senate to move swiftly on Abbott’s priorities without taking adequate time for committee hearings — the only time set aside for public input after a bill is filed.
“The tag rule has been in place and respected by the Senate since at least 1939. Once invoked, the Senate should not be able to retroactively destroy the right it creates,” said Rodriguez, who is head of the Senate Democratic Caucus.