This Week in the Texas Legislature: Lurching Rightward

Welcome to the 87th Legislative Session. Since the last session came to a close in June 2019, Texas has been hit by an unrestrained pandemic and a crippling economic crisis—and now the fallout from deadly blackouts. Under unprecedented circumstances, lawmakers are faced with a number of urgent challenges. The Texas Observer is following along every step of the way. 

Go here for last week’s dispatch from the state Capitol.

What We’re Following:

The Rightward Lurch

The 2019 legislative session was applauded for being a relatively sane session that stayed laser-focused on comprehensive reform of the state’s school finance system. In the wake of multiple statewide crises, many hoped that legislators would maintain a similar focus on serious policymaking. 

No dice. The legislative session has swerved to the right with Republicans pushing hard for a raft of conservative bills that have long been a priority for the party’s base. That lurch accelerated this week as Republicans in the House and Senate advanced a number of key bills on abortion, permitless carry, and voting restrictions. 

For starters, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made good on his promise to bring the House’s permitless carry bill—which would allow almost anyone to carry a handgun without a license—to the Senate floor, and ensure that it passed. On Wednesday, Republican senators passed the bill 18-30 on a party-line vote. The Senate tacked on a handful of amendments that addressed concerns from law enforcement, and also barring Texans who’ve been convinced of specific crimes.

The bill is now likely headed to conference committee where House and Senate members will try to hash out their differences. But with time running out, passage of permitless carry is far from certain, especially if it gets bogged down by an inter-chamber duel. Nearly 60 percent of Texans oppose unlicensed gun carry, per a recent poll

Meanwhile, the House advanced a pair of draconian anti-abortion bills this week. On Wednesday, Republicans passed Senate Bill 8, the so-called “heartbeat” bill, a near-total abortion ban with no exemptions for rape or incest. Further, the bill would allow anyone—in Texas or elsewhere—to sue an abortion provider, as well as anyone who “aids or abets” someone in getting abortion care. Reproductive rights advocates have warned that this would expose many people to legal harassment and frivolous lawsuits. As the Austin Chronicle notes, while rape and incest cases aren’t excepted from the ban, Representative Shelby Slawson, the bill’s House sponsor, did add an amendment that would prohibit a rapist or someone who committs incest from suing their victim’s abortion provider. 

When Representative Donna Howard told the bill’s House sponsor, Representative Shelby Slawson, that what the bill refers to as the sound of a “heartbeat” is, according to medical experts, actually the “electrically induced” flickering of fetal tissue, Slawson demurred: “I don’t know that I agree with that.” Howard, a former nurse and Austin Democrat, condemned Republicans for putting womens’ lives in danger. “You guys know that there have always been abortions and there always will be despite the obstructions that you’re putting in place here. Despite the self-righteousness of valuing life over what I value, which I highly resent. I also value the lives of the women and families who have to make these decisions,” she said.

The bill heads back to the Senate, which must sign off on the amendments before it heads to the desk of Governor Greg Abbott, who has said he will sign it. If passed, it will be one of—if not the most—extreme abortion laws in the country. The House also approved House Bill 1280, which would trigger an automatic prohibition of abortion if the Supreme Court rules to overturn Roe v. Wade. The Senate has already passed an identical bill. 

GOP lawmakers also pushed ahead–despite growing opposition from major corporations and local business groups—with their “election integrity” legislation, though they ran into resistance on the House floor. On Thursday evening, the Texas House began debate on the GOP’s omnibus package, Senate Bill 7, that further restricts the state’s election laws and settled in for a long night. After a procedural challenge that could have killed the bill, Republicans and Democrats struck a deal to revamp the bill with a series of amendments. Around 3 a.m., the bill was advanced on a party-line vote. 

Among the assortment of other reactionary legislation on track to become law: a statewide ban on public homeless encampments, which passed the House with some Democratic support; a bill that would prohibit the state from investing in companies that have divested or boycotted fossil-fuel companies; a so-called anti-critical race theory measure that would restrict how public school teachers can teach about race and racism. 

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

What We’re Reading:

Matthew Busch

‘Show me your maps’: 2021 Texas redistricting starts with less oversight, transparency concerns

As state lawmakers prepare to redraw Texas political maps—which will include two new congressional districts—in a likely fall special session, civil rights advocates are raising concerns about the lack of federal oversight and limited opportunity for public scrutiny. / Houston Chronicle

Texas House advances plan to subsidize power plant weatherization

The House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would establish a $2 billion program to help the state’s power plants pay for what will likely be new mandatory weatherization standards. / Texas Tribune 

The GOP won it all in Texas. Then it turned on itself. 

Texas Republicans dominated in the 2020 elections. But as the party’s focus quickly shifted to the legislative session—and the upcoming 2022 primaries—the GOP fell into a familiar situation:   intra-party warfare. / The New York Times Magazine

Leland Foster for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune/NBC

Texas enabled the worst carbon monoxide poisoning catastrophe in recent U.S. history

After more than 1,400 Texans were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning—and at least 11 died—and during the February winter storm and power blackouts, Texas lawmakers have done little to protect residents from future carbon monoxide catastrophes. This all after more than a decade of ignored warnings and inaction that left Texas as just one of six states with no statewide requirement for carbon monoxide alarms in homes. / ProPublica/Texas Tribune/NBC News

All Hat, No Cattle

The Texas Legislature is known for its outlandish members, ludicrous antics, and right-wing flare-ups. Here’s your weekly dose.

Republican Senator Charles Schwertner led the charge to pass unlicensed gun carry legislation in the Senate this week, contending that it’s not the state’s job to mandate gun safety—it’s a matter of personal responsibility. “The [licensing] requirement is what is being set aside; the obligation on the part of the citizen who owns a potentially dangerous weapon to understand gun laws, to become proficient in their handling of their gun, is not absolved,” Schwertner said.

During the floor debate, Schwertner, acknowledged to Senator César Blanco, who represents El Paso, that he never got around to reading the “safety action report” that the Governor’s Office issued after the mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa. The report makes several recommendations to the Legislature that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Blanco asked Schwertner whether the bill he sponsored, House Bill 1927, incorporated any of those provision. It did not. Schwertner, however, asserted that allowing all lawful citizens to carry guns is a “societal good regarding safety.”


The Texas Observer