AUSTIN (KXAN) — Legislative efforts at the State Capitol are on hold, after more than 50 Texas House Democrats flew across state lines to the nation’s capitol this week.
The move was part of an effort to block Republicans from enacting new voting regulations, as Texas law prevents any business from being done without at least two-thirds of lawmakers present to meet ‘quorum.’ However, the move also halts movement on dozens of other issues slated for discussion during this special session.
“Nothing happens,” said Christy Hoppe, longtime political journalist and former Austin Bureau Chief, of the Dallas Morning News. “Now, you are nearing crisis with foster care. You are nearing crisis with teacher retirement and some other major issues. But at the end of the day, everything gets steam-rolled by highly partisan issues that suck all the air out of everything else. It becomes the line in the sand.”
Gov. Greg Abbott laid out 11 priority items for consideration this special session. Earlier this week, he threatened to bring lawmakers back for more special sessions until they are able to take a vote on issues like bail reform and banning critical race theory.
“While there are many issues that a lot of Texas politicians feel very close about, ones about elections and politics cut closest to their hearts,” she said.
Hoppe said Democrats fled the Capitol previously in 1979 and 2003 — both times to block voting-related legislation.
“With something as polarizing and purely political as something like election-restrictions, then everybody digs in their heels, and the partisanship comes out.”Christy Hoppe, longtime political journalist
She said it would likely take a compromise from one side or the other on this piece of legislation to bring the Democrats home.
In a press conference on Tuesday, State Rep. Jim Murphy, who chairs the Texas House GOP Caucus, said, “We want our colleagues — we respect their work, we respect their opinions, we want to embrace them and work with them. But we have work to do.”
Meanwhile, several Texas Democrats told KXAN they were prepared to stay in Washington D.C. for months, if necessary, to block this vote.
“What you are seeing now is that Democrats are more powerful in absentia, than actually being here. The Republicans are saying, ‘Come here, and take it like a man,” she quipped. “The Democrats are saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ Their actions call attention to the issue.”
What about other legislative efforts?
Upon hearing about the stalemate, retired teacher Joe Ramirez said, “They need to find a way to come together and diplomatically discuss these other issues.”
He taught social studies to junior high and high school students in Austin for nearly 30 years. He said he misses interacting with students every day, but the stress of “living month to month” was enough for him to leave the classroom. When asked about any long-term financial savings, Ramirez immediately shook his head.
“There was no opportunity to save,” he said.
Now, as the president of the Austin Retired Teachers Association, Ramirez had his eye on the “Thirteenth Check” item — an effort to send a one-time supplemental payment of retirement funds to former educators.
“I think we are all appreciative of the fact that there is some acknowledgement of our need,” he explained. “I see the Thirteenth Check as a temporary stop-gap.”
He hoped the legislators would go even further during the special session and consider permanent cost-of-living adjustments and other measures to provide for retired teachers. However, as the special session ground to a halt, he realized those hopes would have to wait.
“I think the frustration really goes back to the regular session,” he said. “Had all of this been taken care of during the regular legislative session, we wouldn’t have to be worried about this right now.”
Funding for foster care providers also topped the list of legislative priorities gaining attention.
Several measures passed during the regular session to address what’s been labeled as a “capacity crisis,” with hundreds of children sleeping in state CPS offices and hotels over the last few months. Still, advocates said lawmakers didn’t increase provider funding rates or foster family reimbursements — one of the main ways to encourage more providers to open up beds for foster kids.
Andi Harrison, director of Buckner Foster Care and Adoption in North Texas, said they were most worried about older children with mental health needs and behavioral challenges that made them harder to place.
“Foster homes would be much more open to caring for some of these harder children if they were reimbursed the rate that’s necessary — knowing the type of care and supervision needed,” she said. “Right now, we are tremendously underfunded.”
On Tuesday, Texas Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) taped a sign to his office door that read, “Days without a quorum because Texas Democrats abandoned foster children and retired teachers: 1.”
Ramirez, on the other hand, said he understood the intention behind the Democratic lawmakers trip out of the state. In fact, he said he knows many Texas retired teachers support the move because of their political beliefs.
Still, he wishes there was a way to continue the work on some of the other issues important to Texans.
“It’s time for legislators to come together for meaningful discussion on all the issues that they have differences on right now,” he said.
Hoppe said she believed Gov. Abbott may have put some items on the call for the special session with bi-partisan support, in order to try and keep Democrats around “for the stuff they can’t stomach.” She referred to other pieces of legislation these lawmakers have said they would oppose, including an effort to restrict abortion-inducing drugs and a bill that would prevent kids from participating in sports depending on their sex at birth.
“The stuff they can’t stomach over-rode all their other concerns. They are basically saying, ‘We are having none of it,” she explained.
Hoppe went on, “We’ve reached a political impasse, but anytime you have a political impasse, you’ve failed the people you represent — both sides.”