If there were any legislative session when Texas lawmakers eschewed politics for serious policy, when class clowns got serious about life-or-death issues, when personal agendas took a backseat to the needs of ordinary Texans, it should have been this one.
After all, it isn’t often that a worldwide health emergency, a historic racial reckoning and Mother Nature tee up a trifecta of urgent, looming crises crying out for strong leadership.
But if the past five months were some kind of credentialing exam for Texas lawmakers, a great many would have failed — most especially those who boasted goals of The Most Conservative Session Ever and couldn’t meet a minimal standard of competence.
Going in, most Texans, regardless of ideology, knew the biggest issues lawmakers and our agenda-setting governor had to tackle stemmed from the epic failure of state leaders to keep the lights and heat on during a historic freeze. Texans expected reforms that fixed the problems and assured they’d never happen again. Other major priorities for most Texans involved improving access to health care amid a global pandemic and police reform in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s stated list of priorities for emergency action read like a check list for how to shore up his Republican primary bona fides, rather than a blueprint for making Texas a better place to live, work, raise a family or go to school.
Although Abbott promised in his State of the State address to expand heath care access — easy to say — he refused to do the sensible thing: expand Medicaid as so many other states have. He called for “bail reform,” though by that he meant making it harder for some defendants — and not just the dangerous ones — to post bail rather than seeking to end the poverty jailing that has led to reforms in Harris and Dallas counties.
A year ago in Houston, Abbott seemed to embrace calls for a George Floyd Act in Texas, in an apparent nod to a summer full of street protests demanding that Black lives be respected and protected just as other lives are. Instead, he urged lawmakers to fast-track bills such as one cracking down on cities that reallocate funding for police departments, which passed.
Among his other priorities were bills to shield businesses from COVID-19 related lawsuits, which passed, and expanding even further Texans’ near limitless right to own and keep guns, which also passed.
In February, he added to his priorities, after Winter Storm Uri knocked out power for millions and left the state within minutes of a months-long collapse of its electric grid.
His promises weren’t worth much in the end. Abbott did fire or force out most of the people he’d appointed to oversee the grid, but the sweeping structural reforms needed to shore up the grid and remove a perverse incentive for producers to profit off disaster never materialized. Instead, the Legislature made do changing up the membership of ERCOT, the nonprofit that oversees the grid, and the PUC, the state board that oversees ERCOT, and with a plan that will require some power plants to winterize, on the public dime — although no funding was appropriated, large swaths of the natural gas industry were exempted and penalties for noncompliance are minimal.
Abbott’s leadership failures weren’t mitigated by the leaders of the House or Senate. The latter, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, championed the harshest version of the voter-suppression legislation Senate Bill 7, which the House did try later to ameliorate. He helped lead the push against transgender kids and their families, though those bills mercifully did not become law.
In the House, Speaker Dade Phelan was a different case. He mostly avoided piling on the rhetoric to match Patrick’s and Abbott’s conservative saber-rattling. Phelan quietly oversaw a steady dilution of the bill to restrict voter rights, working with or through House Elections Committee chairman Rep. Briscoe Cain. By the time the House was ready to consider SB 7, it looked a lot less like the “Jim Crow 2.0” Patrick had sent over from the Senate and was a bill even some opponents, including this editorial board, could live with.
The bill ended up being hastily rewritten over in the Senate, with some of the worst provisions restored and even some outrageous new ones introduced, but we give Phelan credit for acknowledging House Democrats’ right to walk out in protest in a brazen move that killed the bill — for this session, at least.
Of course, one bill that Phelan, Abbott and Patrick all agreed on was one of the most extreme: the fetal heartbeat bill that many are calling the nation’s most restrictive. Its near complete ban on abortions after six weeks is almost certainly unconstitutional.
Passing bills that aren’t legal is one of the clearest signs of incompetence and partisan pandering.
Those aren’t the credentials of an effective Legislature. And they aren’t reassuring as lawmakers prepare to return for a special session on redistricting and a possible one to take up the failed voting bill. Perhaps it’s true that you get what you pay for: Texas lawmakers are among the lowest-paid in the nation.