State of Texas: The threat of a special session

AUSTIN (KXAN) – There’s just over a week to go in the legislative session. But state lawmakers learned that they may have to spend a little more time in Austin than they expected. On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick promised to push lawmakers toward a special session unless House members approve two controversial bills. One sets new limits on how much cities and counties can raise property taxes without voter approval. The other is the Senate bill requiring Texans to use the bathroom based on their biological sex, commonly known as the bathroom bill.

“Here’s the bottom line, I want to avoid a special session,” Patrick told reporters at a news conference in the Capitol. “But I am prepared to go into one if the House does not pass a strong version of Senate Bill 2, property tax relief, desperately wanted by the people of this state, and if the House does not pass SB 6 or amend another bill with the language concerning Texas privacy.” Patrick cited polls that show support for the proposals. “Again, the people have spoken clearly. The votes are there!” he concluded.

Despite Patrick’s high-profile statement, he’s not the one who decides whether lawmakers get to go home after Memorial Day. “Only the Governor can call a special session,” explained Sherri Greenberg, a former state representative who now works as a professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas. “And only the Governor can determine what’s on the call, meaning what the legislature will take up.” Governor Greg Abbott has voiced support for SB 6 but has not indicated that he plans to call a special session.

Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune, said Patrick’s statement sets up something akin to a hostage situation. Ramsey explained that the Lieutenant Governor will block bills important to House leaders unless they advance the two bills he wants passed. “We’re waiting on that midnight prisoner exchange on the German border somewhere,” Ramsey said, laying out his analogy. “They hand us one, we hand them one, everyone tries to go home safely.”

But the hostage analogy Ramsey described does not necessarily set the stage for a special session. “The only two reasons they have special sessions are when they have legitimate emergencies,” Ramsey said, giving the example of a hurricane. “Or when they make a mistake or mess something up in their own work. They don’t finish a budget in time, they don’t pass a sunset bill.” But Ramsey also laid out a third option. “You can put in somewhere in between those categories the times when a Governor decides for political reasons, I want this issue to pass…. I’m bringing you back until I get it.”

“The best way to end this session is to reach consensus on as many issues as we can,” House Speaker Joe Straus said in an e-mailed statement responding to Lt. Gov. Patrick. “Nobody is going to get everything they want.”

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