In addition to the items that he included on his previous call in July, Abbott has added six new items for the legislature to take action on throughout August.
American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Appropriations
Abbott originally stated in an email to lawmakers that he would “be calling a special session for redistricting in the fall” and that he committed to “place the allocation of the nearly $16 billion in Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Relief federal funds on the same special call so the entire legislature can participate in the allocation process in a way that best serves all Texans.”
Though Texas has yet to receive the data it needs from the Census Bureau to conduct redistricting, Abbott has moved up the timetable for placing federal coronavirus funding on the special session agenda.
That $16 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding was approved during the last round of coronavirus aid passed by Congress. That bucket of money is in addition to $11.2 billion for public schools, which has already been distributed, and $10.5 billion for local governments.
The state may choose to spend the money however it chooses, with two stipulations set by Congress: it may neither be used to directly or indirectly cut taxes nor to shore up underwater pension funds. However, the Ohio Attorney General succeeded in a preliminary ruling earlier this year that ruled the first of those stipulations unconstitutional.
Texas legislators deliberately chose not to appropriate the funds during the regular session so that it wasn’t distributed with a premature set of facts and circumstances.
As listed in the governor’s proclamation, that money can be used for “COVID-19-related healthcare expenses,” which includes:
- Healthcare staffing needs, including physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals;
- Establishing, staffing, and operating alternative care sites;
- Supporting the operations of nursing homes, state-supported living centers, assisted living facilities, and long-term care facilities;
- Vaccine administration;
- Testing sites;
- Supplies and equipment, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators; and
- Standing up and operating infusing centers.
COVID-19 Response in Schools
As more concern is raised about the rising number of COVID-19 cases and a renewed push from some is felt for stricter policies, Abbott has honed in on calling for legislation related to schools.
Specifically, his agenda requests, “Legislation providing strategies for public-school education in prekindergarten through twelfth grade during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Under his agenda, the bills put forward by the legislature should ensure:
- Students receive a high-quality education and progress in their learning;
- In-person learning is available for any student whose parent wants it;
- The wearing of face coverings is not mandatory; and
- COVID-19 vaccinations are always voluntary.
Furthermore, an Abbott spokesperson reportedly said that the agenda item would also provide lawmakers an opportunity to “consider funding for virtual learning.”
On the subject of prohibiting mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations in schools, Rep. Candy Noble (R-Allen) and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) filed legislation along those lines during the July special session.
That legislation went nowhere due to the quorum break, but will also likely need to be tightened to fit under Abbott’s call.
In addition to restricting mandatory vaccinations in prekindergarten through 12th grade, their proposal would have also prohibited vaccine requirements from institutions of higher education, employers, or health benefit plan issuers.
Primary Election Date Modifications
With redistricting delays, the primary campaign season will undoubtedly be tighter than in typical years.
To account for that, Abbott called for bills “modifying the filing periods and related election dates, including any runoffs, for primary elections held in Texas in 2022.”
Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, put forward legislation during the regular session earlier this year that would push the filing window and primary election dates back based on when redistricting actually occurs, but her bill was never approved by the House.
Abbott’s call provides another opportunity for the legislature to approve Huffman’s proposal or something similar to it.
If the legislature does not act on the item, it is foreseeable that election dates could still be pushed back by courts.
During the redistricting pandemonium that occurred in 2011, a state court moved the primary election date back multiple times as debates over the maps were taking place. The delays ultimately led to the primary election being held at the end of May instead of the beginning of March.
Radioactive Waste Storage and Transportation
Stricter regulation of the storage and transportation of radioactive waste is also among the new additions.
Abbott’s proclamation calls for “laws governing radioactive waste to protect the safety of Texans, including by further limiting the ability to store and transport high-level radioactive materials in this state.”
During the regular session, legislation failed to pass that would have banned “high-level radioactive waste” disposal from the State of Texas and reduced fees for existing “low-level” disposal facilities.
State Employment Laws to Preempt Local Regulations
One of the casualties of the first Democratic quorum bust that occurred on the final night of the regular session in May was a state preemption of local employment ordinances.
Some cities, typically urban and progressive population centers, have passed an array of regulations governing the contractual agreements made between employers and employees.
Those ordinances include things like paid sick leave requirements, mandatory bathroom and lunch breaks, and minimum wage rules that differ from the state’s.
The state legislature attempted to pass a law that would prohibit any local ordinance that “exceed[s] or conflict with federal or state law relating to any form of employment leave, hiring practices, employment benefits, scheduling practices, or other terms of employment.”
The bill made it all the way through conference committee negotiations but the House could not pass the final version before the midnight deadline.
Abbott’s task specifies that the legislature should pass protections from “political subdivision rules, regulations, ordinances, and other actions that require any terms of employment that exceed or conflict with federal or state law relating to any form of employment leave, hiring practices, employment benefits, or scheduling practices.”
Legislative Quorum Requirements
To push back against the Democrats’ walkout of the legislature, Abbott also placed an item on the agenda so that lawmakers could — if a quorum is present in the upcoming special session — pass new laws “relating to legislative quorum requirements.”
This addition to Abbott’s agenda could allow Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to lower the requirement for a quorum from two-thirds of the members in each chamber to a simple majority as in most other states.
However, even with the item now on Abbott’s agenda, a constitutional amendment such as that could face significant hurdles as it would require two-thirds support in each chamber before it could go before Texans for a vote.
The broad language of Abbott’s agenda could leave the door open for other non-constitutional amendment legislation to be approved if enough Democrats show up to constitute a quorum.
One such bill was put forward by Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), which would define “a legislative vacancy as 14 consecutive days of unexcused absences from the chamber in which the member holds office.”
“If you repeatedly don’t show up for work, you are fired from your job, our offices should be no different,” said Middleton in a press release. “Excessive, unexcused absences are certainly a violation of each member’s oath of office and a refusal to do the job the member is elected to do.”
Similarly, Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) announced on Thursday his intention to file a bill in the new session that would define a vacancy as seven consecutive days of unexcused absences.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.