87th LegislatureState HouseState SenateBudget Woes, Emergency Powers, and Redistricting: Texas Legislature Faces Mountain of Obstacles as it Convenes

The Texas legislature convenes today for its 87th regular session with only 140 days to complete its business.
January 12, 2021
It’s been 596 days since the Texas legislature last stood in assembly. Today, they will convene again for the 87th Legislative Session.

Both chambers face new trails to blaze this year. In the Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick is poised to reduce the three-fifths “supermajority” threshold down to four-sevenths. This would enable an easier path for GOP legislation at the expense of the minority party’s ability to obstruct.

The House, meanwhile, will elect a new leader. Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) is the presumptive speaker, and barring unforeseen circumstances, will take hold of the gavel later today.

Texas’ legislature faces two tasks that must be completed during the 140 days of regular session: pass a balanced budget and redraw legislative districts.

The former presents a bear of an obstacle in light of the coronavirus pandemic and governmental lockdowns thereof, while the latter usually yields a bare-knuckle brawl that comes once every decade.

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Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar projects a $950 million budget shortfall by the end of this biennium. An estimated $112.5 billion will be available for the legislature to form its 2022-2023 biennium budget — that, by constitutional mandate, must be balanced.

While the fiscal outlook is better than six months ago, it’s still not an ideal starting point for a legislature still on the hook for part of its $15 billion in increased spending commitments from last session.

The foremost political responsibility of the legislature is the decennial drawing of state and federal legislative districts. Both congressional and state House and Senate districts must be redrawn based on the census results. While the number of state legislative districts is locked in place — 150 in the House and 31 in the Senate — the number of congressional districts fluctuates based on population.

Texas is poised to gain two, maybe three, congressional districts due to the influx of more than four million new residents since 2010. The fights over where new districts are drawn will be the source of plenty of intra-body squabbles. Thanks to their electoral preservation of the status quo, Texas Republicans hold basically all the cards in the redistricting fight.

But those two issues will not be the only considered by the legislature this session. This year illustrated vulnerabilities in the state’s emergency disaster code — namely that the legislature has no authority to convene itself during the interim.

While Governor Greg Abbott issued order after order, the only way for the legislature to provide any forceful check is for the governor himself to open the door toward limitation of his own authority. There appears to be a substantial appetite among legislators, on both sides of the aisle, to constrain such authority in some fashion.

That said, any reforms will likely need veto-proof support as the governor’s chief authority pertaining to the legislative session comes with the veto power. A similarly-aimed piece of legislation is a proposal for the legislature to meet annually rather than biennially, something that would have indirectly assuaged much of the disaster powers concerns.

Property taxes will, surely, play some role once again as Texas has among the highest in the nation. Last session, it became one half of the legislature’s top priority and the body reduced the cap on year-to-year increases for political subdivisions. Despite that, property taxes present a very real and lingering problem for taxpayers — especially in the pandemic’s wake.

A bevy of gun-related legislation has been filed for the coming session ranging from constitutional carry to a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines. But it is unclear whether any of these will be prioritized.

One of the foremost casualties for the GOP last session was the ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying. Once again among the Republican Party of Texas’ legislative priorities, the GOP apparatus will lobby hard for the legislation filed by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) and Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville).

And with the contentious 2020 election, many legislators have their eye on a cornucopia of election-related legislation.

Each of these policy items, however, come second to the legislature’s plans to cope with coronavirus — both throughout the state and within the capitol. Some legislators have called for construction of a more comprehensive healthcare operation that could better respond to such a disaster as the one we currently face.

Additionally, it is unclear how coronavirus will affect internal protocols for the legislature itself. Remote voting from offices, gaveling out for a period of time, and restricting public access in some fashion have all been suggested, but nothing has materialized yet. A clearer picture will be painted this week when each body approves their rules for the session.

This opening day of the 87th Legislative Session marks the 175th year of Texas statehood and just like every other year since 1846, the legislature has its hands full.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.