Abbott defunds the entire Texas state legislature

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Governor Abbott threatened to defund the Texas Legislature after Texas Democrats walked out of the legislative session rather than take a vote on election reform laws. When they broke quorum and shut down the session, Abbott said that if legislators weren’t going to do their jobs, they shouldn’t be paid. Friday Abbott made good on that threat.

The elections bill was a top priority for the governor during this year’s session. Texas Democrats decided to cut and run, breaking quorum, instead of voting on Senate Bill 7. They knew that the Republicans had the votes to pass the legislation – both the Texas House and the Texas Senate hold Republican majorities. By breaking quorum when they did, Texas Democrats also stopped bail legislation reform, another of the governor’s priorities. Rather than do their jobs and vote, Democrats walked out, something that has rarely been done in the past. It is a cowardly move, not a move exhibiting strength.

At that time, at the end of May, Abbott tweeted out his intention to hold legislators accountable and said he would veto Article 10 in the budget which funds the legislative branch. On May 31 he tweeted: “I will veto Article 10 of the budget passed by the legislature. Article 10 funds the legislative branch. No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities. Stay tuned.”

Texas has a biennial legislature which means it meets every other year. On Friday Governor Abbott signed the two-year state budget. He touted the budget as fiscally conservative. “It includes no new taxes and a budget surplus of more than $1 billion.”

His office confirmed that Abbott made good on his threat. Then he released a statement about vetoing Article 10 which defunds all of the state legislators, staff, and legislative agencies.

“Texans don’t run from a legislative fight, and they don’t walk away from unfinished business,” Abbott said in a statement. “Funding should not be provided for those who quit their job early, leaving their state with unfinished business and exposing taxpayers to higher costs for an additional legislative session. I therefore object to and disapprove of these appropriations.”

So, that’s that, at least for now. There will be legal challenges as it isn’t clear if this is something the governor can legally do. It calls into question the division between the branches of government – the executive branch and the legislative branch.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner of Grand Prairie called the move by Abbott an “abuse of power” and said the caucus “is exploring every option, including immediate legal options, to fight back.”

“Texas has a governor, not a dictator,” Turner said in a statement. “The tyrannical veto of the legislative branch is the latest indication that [Abbott] is simply out of control.”

While the constitutionality of the veto is argued, it is staffers who will be feeling the consequences of the governor’s action. The Legislative Reference Library finds the veto of Article 10 is unprecedented. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, a Republican from Beaumont, notes it isn’t the fault of the staff that Democrats acted in the manner they did. “I’m just concerned how it impacts them because they weren’t the ones who decided that we were going to break quorum, it wasn’t their decision, right?”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate, supports the veto and says it could force Democrats to come back for special sessions. Governor Abbott expects to call two special sessions. One special session will likely be called later this summer to address the election bill and bail bills. A second special session is expected in the fall to address redistricting and the distribution of $16 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds. No official dates have been placed on the calendar. The biennial budget covers the fiscal year beginning on September 1. In a special session, lawmakers can pass a supplemental budget to restore funding, which is an incentive for them all to show up.

All of this amounts to political theatre. Abbott is angry about the walk-out and that is a legitimate reason to be irked at the Democrats. The walk-out wasn’t some organic last-minute decision to put a halt to voting legislation. It was in the works and Democrats positioned themselves accordingly. State Democrats are quite pleased with themselves and their lawmakers. Some of them went to Washington this week and met with Kamala and other top Democrats. They were treated as heroes who are fighting voter suppression. It’s nonsense, of course, but that is the narrative pushed by Democrats. This will be worked out in a special session when the voting bill passes as it would have in May. In the meantime, Republicans will cheer Abbott’s veto and Democrats will have scored points with Texas Democrats and Democrats on the national scene, too. And the staffers are left holding the bag.

Abbott’s running for re-election. We’ll see how this plays out with both supporters and opponents.

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David Strom 4:31 PM on November 25, 2022