SAN ANTONIO (KTSA News) — A bang of the gavel adjourned the Texas Legislature early this morning, passing most — but not all — of the agenda items set by Governor Greg Abbott.
On the top of the list, lawmakers approved a new congressional map, decided how the state will spend more than $10 billion federal dollars in COVID-19 relief funds and fast-tracked an 11th-hour constitutional amendment to raise the state’s homestead exemption for school district property taxes that will be voted on by Texans next year.
The primary function of the third special session was to tackle the state’s redistricting following the release of the 2020 Census. Texas gained two seats in nation reapportionment, the most of any state in the country, and lawmakers drew up new districts in Houston and Austin.
The state redesigned a map that has drawn harsh criticisms from Democratic lawmakers, with some claiming the newly designed districts shore up control for Republicans when 95% of the state’s population growth can be attributed to minority communities.
“There is no better case for the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act than Texas redistricting,” Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said. “Left to their own devices, Republican lawmakers cannot resist the opportunity to draw discriminatory district lines and consolidate their own power. Decisive federal action is the only way to ensure that Texas voters can elect the candidates of their choice and receive fair representation in their government.”
Rep. Lyle Larson, who announced last week would not be running for re-election for his seat in Northern Bexar County, has shared colorful commentary about the redistricting process on Twitter over the last week.
“One would conclude that elected representatives should not draw the lines of new districts every ten years, including their own district,” Larson, a Republican, said. “The inter and intra party conflicts are a good indicator of subjective vs objective. There is a better way to do this process.”
The constitutional amendment will raise the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000 and will be included on the May ballot. Lawmakers say the amendment will save homeowners $175 per year.
Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan made a joint statement to explain the plan for the federal COVID-19 relief, headed to Texas by way of the American Rescue Plan Act.
“The Texas House and Senate have come to an agreement on a bold financial package using both ARPA and state dollars to address health issues related to COVID-19, and the financial impact on homeowners, businesses and education,” Patrick and Phelan said in the joint statement. “We are also announcing a bold plan to create endowments in the 2023 Texas budget to preserve historic buildings, sites and our state parks for future generations. These endowments will help with maintenance and repair so that our wonderful parks and historic sites remain world-class.”
Lawmakers agreed to earmark the largest portion of the funds — $7.2 billion — to restoring Texas’ unemployment insurance which was reportedly depleted during the pandemic, followed by $2 billion for the COVID-19 related nursing surge. Hundreds of millions of dollars each are designated for broadband infrastructure, a new state operations emergency center, COVID-19 public safety salary compensation and funding to ensure the Teacher Retirement System of Texas does not see an increase in health insurance premiums. Additional funds will head to the tourism, travel and hospitality industries, to sexual assault fund and crime victims’ compensation in addition to veterans homes, rural hospitals and Texas food banks.
An additional $3 billion in funding will be set aside for future tax relief that will be discussed during the 88th Legislative Session, which is set to begin in January 2023.
All of Abbott’s third special session agenda items passed through the legislature with the exception of banning vaccine mandates and a call by the Governor to rescind reduced penalties for illegally voting.
The ban on vaccine mandates was the last item added to the agenda last week following an executive order stating that “no entity in Texas can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination by any individual, including an employee or consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19.”
Republican state lawmaker from Amarillo Kel Seliger referred to the mandate ban as “anti-business” and described the legislation as “not too well developed.”
“We’re getting tremendous amount of communications from the business community saying this is their job,” Seliger said. “They set the rules and working conditions in their places of business.”
Lawmakers failed to rescind the reduced illegal voting penalty — now a Class A misdemeanor from a second-degree felony — after Phelan refused to take up the measure saying that the chamber would not re-litigate the issue. The penalty reduction was included in the controversial election integrity bill that passed earlier in the summer after more than 50 state Democrats fled to state break quorum over the issue.
Additional legislation that passed through the third special session include a controversial law banning students from competing in school sports using an amended birth certificate, creating a criminal offense related to the unlawful restraint of a dog, education benefits for survivors of public servants, increasing homestead exemptions for public school purposes and earmarking $3.3 billion for capital projects for higher education institutions.
“These dynamic achievements would not have been possible without the men and women of the Texas House and Senate who worked tirelessly through the third Special Session to ensure these priorities made it across the finish line,” Abbott said in a statement this afternoon. “Because of their efforts, the future of Texas is stronger, safer, and freer.”
Abbott did not say if he would be calling a fourth special session.
10 previous sessions of the Texas Legislature since 1909 have been called into four or more special sessions, with the 2003 legislature being the last to meet four times. The 1929 legislature met for five special sessions and the 1989 legislature met for a record six special sessions.