WEEK IN REVIEW
DESPITE FILIBUSTER, SENATE APPROVES ELECTION BILL
(AUSTIN) — Less than one week after it started, the Senate has considered and approved bills relating to nearly all of the topics laid out by Governor Greg Abbott for the Second Called Session of the 87th Legislature - including the controversial elections bill that sparked a walk out by House opponents. While the Senate has passed these measures, in some cases for the third time, they may have to take another stab at them if the House continues to lack members for a quorum. As of Thursday, that chamber had yet to have the 100 members needed to conduct business. Abbott has promised to keep calling sessions until these bills reach his desk, so whether or not the bills passed this week by the Senate will be signed into law remains to be seen.
The agenda set forth by Abbott for the second special session is much the same as the agenda for the first. The elections bill, passed on Thursday by the Senate, would ban a number of voting strategies employed by Harris County to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic during the November 2020 general election, including bans on drive-through voting, unsolicited applications for voting by mail, and 24-hour voting. It would standardize early voting statewide, increasing early voting hours in 55 counties, said bill author and Mineola Senator Bryan Hughes. It would also give poll watchers more leeway to observe election procedures, a provision that opponents worry could lead to voter intimidation or election disruption.
Senate opponents to the measure used every tool at their disposal to defeat the bill, but with weeks left to go in the special session, time wasn't on their side. Houston Senator Carol Alvarado engaged in a filibuster, speaking through the night, reading testimony from citizens saying that the bill would negatively impact their right to vote. In the Texas Senate, a member filibustering a bill must stay standing, with no relief or refreshment, if they wish to hold the floor. Rules also require them to remain on topic. Ultimately, Alvarado spoke against the bill for fifteen hours, ceding the floor just before 9 a.m. on Thursday morning. The bill passed the Senate shortly thereafter.
A handful of new items were also included on the Governor's agenda. One would create a framework for virtual education. While the vast majority of students do better with in-person instruction, bill author and Friendswood Senator Larry Taylor said that one thing learned from the COVID pandemic is that some students flourish with virtual learning. His bill would allow local school districts to implement virtual learning programs for no more than ten percent of students. It would include provisions for requiring a return to in-person classroom should the student have difficulty with grades, attendance, or behavior. For state funding purposes, virtual students would count the same as in-person students. The bill has a two-year sunset provision, so lawmakers can evaluate the program when they return to Austin in 2023.
Only a few measures remain before the Senate, mostly fiscal ones. Though state leadership was able to extend funding for the Legislature through the end of September, a bill to completely restore the funding vetoed by the governor in response to the House quorum break remains before the Senate Finance Committee. Also in that committee is SB 11, which would pay for the bonus check for retired teachers, cover property tax breaks and other costs from legislation passed earlier in the special session.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, August 16, at 2 p.m.