Besides House members quickly electing Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) as their new speaker, the start of the session was slow amid a wave of COVID-19 cases. But the drama quickly heated up after the state froze over.
The Texas Freeze
For five frigid days, the country watched as Texas stumbled through outages and the state struggled to restore power. It seemed as if everything that could’ve gone wrong, did — and that was largely accurate. Texas had not seen a winter storm like this in close to a century.
As the temperature dropped, Texans, not accustomed to colder temperatures, ramped up their thermostats and with it jumped the demand on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) power grid. In the middle of a mid-February night, demand very nearly exceeded electricity supply and ERCOT issued rotating brownouts.
For many across the state, those rotating brownouts would turn into prolonged blackouts as generators across the source spectrum failed.
Providing one bright spot amidst the chaos, as the grid’s frequency dropped below its mean, ERCOT avoided a “black start” event that would have knocked Texas’ power out for weeks or possibly months.
The supply struggles continued throughout the week but eventually, the lights came back on.
As power was being restored and legislative hearings began, the political sights moved toward assessing the fallout and pointing blame. It was discovered that much of the ERCOT board of directors did not live in Texas, including the chair and vice chair. Each of those five members eventually resigned and the Texas legislature would write into law an in-state residency requirement to serve on the ERCOT board and the Public Utility Commission (PUC).
Other reforms approved were a weatherization requirement for generators against severe temperatures; an establishment of a new emergency alert system to be overseen by a new energy reliability council; the issuance of emergency protocols; and a directive to make a multitude of changes to the ERCOT market.
Ever since, the PUC has been knee-deep in discussions with the power industry and other stakeholders to hammer out the details of the legislature’s directives.
The issue sits atop the Democrats’ platform. Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke has criticized incumbent Governor Greg Abbott for not adequately “fixing the grid” against another collapse. Similar accusations have come from Abbott’s primary challengers Allen West, Don Huffines, and Chad Prather.
But unless there is another 100-year winter storm a year after the last one, those criticisms will likely go untested.
Gov. Abbott’s COVID-19 Lockdown Reversal
Temperatures were not the only number that dropped in Texas throughout February. The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations also saw a sharp decline after they had slowly climbed to record highs over the preceding several months.
With the declining numbers and widespread distribution of the emergency-use authorized vaccines, Abbott saw fit to reverse course on his previous mandates in an announcement on March 2, 2021.
“It is now time to open up Texas 100 percent,” he said at the press conference in Lubbock.
After shutting down “non-essential” businesses and activities in March and April 2020, Abbott steadily rolled back his lockdown measures.
Though he shifted his policies throughout that tumultuous year — including issuing a statewide mask mandate in July — most businesses were permitted to open at 50 or 75 percent capacity by the end of 2020.
His new order in March 2021 ended the remaining restrictions on businesses as well as his mask mandate, but private businesses could still issue their own mask requirements and many local jurisdictions pushed back against his order.
Abbott’s order prohibited other governmental entities from issuing their own mask mandates, but even throughout the fall, the state continued to be embroiled in lawsuits with school districts over the policy.
As COVID-19 cases declined, lawmakers returned to Austin to ramp up the 87th Legislative Session.
Though addressing the freeze and power outages was at the forefront of agenda items, a number of other issues became priorities by the final weeks of the lawmaking period.
After initially dire revenue projections, the state legislature passed a $248.5 billion biennium budget. It was kept under the population and inflation metric often used to judge fiscal propriety, and includes $1.1 billion for continued property tax compression from the 2019 legislation and $3.1 billion to finance enrollment growth in schools.
The legislature also approved a stronger spending increase cap at the population and inflation line that requires a three-fifths vote in both chambers to override.
In addition to the constitutionally-required state budget, other notable bills that lawmakers passed included ERCOT and PUC reforms, expansions to telehealth and codified hospital price transparency requirements, and clarified standards for Child Protective Services.
Two approved bills in particular were at the center of claims that this year saw the “most conservative session in history” — a measure to largely remove the requirement for a license to carry a handgun, known as “constitutional carry,” and legislation to make abortions after a heartbeat can be detected illegal, known as the Texas Heartbeat Act.
Other measures that were touted at conservative victories included more pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, restrictions on Critical Race Theory in schools, and some bills that pushed back against big-city homeless camping policies and efforts to defund the police.
But some Republicans questioned the session’s conservative merits, pointing to the failure to provide substantial emergency powers reforms — with some exceptions that included protections for places of worship and essential caregivers — as well as the casualties of a taxpayer-funded lobbying ban, legislation targeting big tech censorship, a gender modification ban on children, and bail reform.
Those failures mounted in a dramatic fashion at the close of the session when Democrats in the House staged an eleventh-hour walkout to block the Republicans’ major election reform bill.
Without enough members on the House floor for a quorum, lawmakers could not give final approval to the Election Integrity Act of 2021.
Its death was met with dismay from Texas Republicans, including the governor. In response, Abbott vetoed funding for the legislature in the state budget that was otherwise set to begin on September 1, 2021.
In July, Abbott called the legislature into a special session with the election integrity bill at the forefront of the items he wanted to see them approve.
But House Democrats doubled-down on their opposition to the bill and broke quorum again, this time fleeing the state entirely to go to Washington, D.C. and urge federal lawmakers to pass sweeping election reforms at a national level.
Though special sessions can constitutionally only last 30 days, Abbott threatened to “call special session after special session after special session up until next year’s election” if that’s what it took to pass the election bill.
But in a little over a month, the Democrats’ attempt at stalling the legislation was over.
One by one, Democrats trickled back to the state Capitol in Austin until in mid-August three Houston Democrats returned to the floor to meet the two-thirds requirement for a quorum.
A week and a half later, Republicans in the state legislature finally approved the measure, albeit with substantial changes to appease its opponents, including lowering the penalty of illegal voting from a felony to a misdemeanor.
In the months preceding President Biden’s inauguration, border arrests in Texas border patrol sectors remained below 50,000. In February, they jumped to at least 63,000 and continued to increase until they peaked in July. At least 147,000 illegal aliens and unaccompanied children were apprehended in Texas sectors that month, and though enforcement encounters have declined since then, there were still more than 104,000 in November.
In September, there was a surge of an estimated 30,000 mostly Haitian nationals in Del Rio, Val Verde County, straining resources in the area and drawing national attention to the effects of illegal immigration. The rush of people may be partially attributed to confusion over the U.S. government’s decision to grant temporary protected status to a limited number of Haitians.
Of course, the number of apprehensions does not include the number of people who were not arrested. As many as two or more illegal aliens evade border agents for each one that is arrested, a reality that is exacerbated by the fact that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has had to focus a lot this year on humanitarian issues.
Governor Greg Abbott, faced with historic levels of illegal immigration and a GOP primary in March of next year, has sought to address the border crisis by deploying troops and state law enforcement via an effort known as Operation Lone Star. Abbott also began a state-funded border wall project, which is currently being constructed.
Though Abbott’s opponents question the timing of the governor’s decisions to launch the border wall project and Operation Lone Star, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported that it has resulted in the arrests of 8,900 criminals and the referral of 82,200 illegal aliens to federal authorities through December 9.
Redistricting and Teeming Turnover
Redistricting years are notorious for causing an uptick in political turnover, and this cycle has been no exception.
Lawmakers were poised to take up the matter of drawing new boundaries for legislative districts during the regular session as they have traditionally done at the beginning of each decade, but thanks to a delayed rollout of the necessary data from the U.S. Census Bureau, nothing happened until the fall.
Abbott called another special session with redistricting at the center in September, and both chambers managed to pass the four necessary maps — state House, state Senate, State Board of Education, and congressional — before the maximum 30 days of the session came to an end.
The new maps generally favored incumbents, redrawing existing lines to remove most competitive districts.
A handful of Democrat-controlled seats — such as House District (HD) 52 in Williamson County, HD 65 in Collin County, and Senate District (SD) 10 in Tarrant County — were redrawn to swing back toward Republicans.
Only one GOP-controlled district — HD 92 in Tarrant County — was redrawn to favor Democrats.
Still, though, a number of lawmakers who had announced their retirements or plans to run for a different office were paired into other members’ districts.
The higher volume of retirements and shuffling of positions will lead to a swarm of fresh faces at the Texas Capitol after the election in 2022.
In the state House, 26 of the 150 members are not seeking reelection. In the state Senate, five out of 31 members did not file for the legislature again. And in the congressional delegation from Texas, four out of the 36 members are not seeking reelection.
The timing of the retirement announcements — or in many cases, decisions to run for a different office — varied, with some, such as Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), making a decision after the regular session and others, such as Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX-01), announcing in the middle of the filing period that ended December 13, 2021.
A host of candidates are also receiving primary challenges. Based on filings for the ballot, there will be 39 primary challenges against current members in the state House, three in the state Senate, and 15 for Congress.
On the heels of the special sessions in the late summer and fall, lawsuits began to pile up in courts on a wide range of issues.
Even before the major election reform bill was signed into law, several civil rights groups brought legal challenges to the legislation.
But besides the election bill lawsuit, a host of other new laws and policies have been challenged.
Perhaps none has received more attention than the challenge to the Texas Heartbeat Act. One of the challenges to it quickly moved to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has said that litigation can continue at a lower level, albeit with a shorter list of defendants.
The new district maps have also been challenged in lawsuit after lawsuit, though the courts have yet to make a final say in any of the pending cases and the filing process for the primary elections was completed without interruption.
Other lawsuits that continue to pend before the courts include challenges to the new law passed during a special session that took aim at social media censorship, the state’s prohibition on school mask mandates, the age limit for carrying a handgun, and nearly every COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Going into the new year, vaccine mandates are bound to be one of the driving issues in politics, both in Texas and nationally.
Abbott initially gave leeway to businesses that wanted to mandate the policy for their employers, but then reversed course and pushed back against that policy in an executive order.
He has continued to face criticism from his primary opponents, though, who have urged him to call another special legislative session so that lawmakers can address the issue.
And at the federal level, the Biden administration’s various vaccine mandates have met cohesive opposition from state officials who are challenging the measures in court.
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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.