Texas Democrats sue Governor Abbott for defunding the state legislature after walk-out

AP Photo/Eric Gay

We knew it was coming. More than 50 Texas House Democrats and legislative staffers, along with the Texas AFL-CIO signed on to a petition for a writ of mandamus. It was filed Friday. They are taking it straight to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Texas Democrats are asking that the Texas Supreme Court overrule a veto by Governor Abbott of a portion of the state budget that funds the Legislature, staff, and legislative agencies. In other words, Abbott defunded the Texas Legislature. At the end of the 2021 session, Texas Democrats in the House realized they didn’t have the votes to defeat voting law reforms so they made good on a threat to just walk out and break quorum. In turn, Abbott made good on his promise to defund the Legislature. If they aren’t going to do their jobs, they shouldn’t be paid, is his reasoning.

The voting law reform legislation was a top priority for Governor Abbott in this year’s legislative session. After the advantages taken during the pandemic, with Democrats putting in place processes that have not been done in previous elections – like drive-through voting, and mailing ballot applications to every registered voter – clarification on election law needs to be formally adopted. An attorney involved in the petition claims that Texas is in a constitutional crisis.

The petition argues that Abbott exceeded his executive authority and violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine. The parties involved with the petition are asking the all-Republican court to find Abbott’s veto unconstitutional, which would allow Article X of the state budget, the section at issue, to become law later this year.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus in the lower chamber, told reporters Thursday there are roughly 2,000 employees in the state’s legislative branch that would be affected by Abbott’s veto if it stands.

Lawmakers receive $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session for both regular and session sessions.

Texas lawmakers don’t make much money but I’m not particularly concerned about them. They meet for five months every other year. They brought the governor’s veto on themselves. I do, however, feel for the staffers. They don’t deserve to have their livelihoods interrupted for actions taken by their bosses. They work year round. This is a point that Rep. Turner addressed. “This isn’t about [lawmakers’] paychecks,” Turner said during the briefing. “What he’s doing is hurting our staff and hurting our constituents.”

The lack of payment to the lawmakers and the others likely will not become reality. This is all political theatre. Abbott has called the first of two special sessions for July 8. The fiscal year begins on September 1. The new budget doesn’t go into effect until then. It’s a two-year budget. In the July 8 special session, lawmakers can pass a supplemental budget restore the funding. Therefore, the employees won’t lose their paychecks. Abbott has already said that election law reform will be the top priority of the special session.

The plaintiffs went straight to the Texas Supreme Court with their petition. They ask for a ruling by September 1.

“That’s what happens when one branch gets in a conflict with another — the third leg of the stool steps in and resolves it,” Dunn, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said. “That’s what we’re doing here.”

Democrats, gird your loins. The battle will continue in July. Election reform legislation will pass, given the majority held by state Republicans. Democrats can put up a dramatic fight for their constituents at home but in the end, they will fail.