Texas has a remarkably short legislation session (about five months every two years), so special sessions to accomplish unfinished business are fairly common. It’s definitely going to happen at least twice this year because of the redistricting from the delayed Census, but what exactly will that look like?
It’s a question on a lot of Democrats’ minds, especially because the draconian voter rights restriction bill that didn’t pass in the regular session was defeated only by a walkout as the clock ticked down. Depending on how the special session(s) go, that may no longer be a factor.
The ability to call a special session in place rests entirely with the governor, but there is a legion of rules that go along with how and why they can occur. The governor may call as many as they like, but the sessions can only be thirty days long. The sessions may also cover only the specific topics that the governor appoints, although there is no limit to the number of topics per session.
The special session has been a Texas tradition right from the beginning. Sam Houston himself was forced to call one in 1861 as the secessionist movement gained speed in the state. He was hoping that by summoning lawmakers to work in Austin he could head off the special delegation that wished to force leaving the union. Sadly, Houston failed in the face-off slaveholder populism.
The special session has been less apocalyptic in the modern era, but also quite consequential. Only former Governor George W. Bush failed to call any special sessions in the modern era. Rick Perry called twelve separate ones, three in 2013 alone. That was a weird marathon of special sessions, one right after the other, that aimed to get a transportation funding bill passed. The big issue under contention was diverting half of the money from the Rainy Day Fund to fix Texas’ crumbling roads. The fight was a good indicator of exactly how these next sessions are likely to go, with strong opinions on all sides and the end only accomplished by the governor’s grim determination to see something they want done through to the end.
Perry seemed almost to delight in making lawmakers come back to Austin to finish work that he wanted done. In particular, he was known for rapidly calling sessions right after other sessions, essentially extending the regular sessions at his arbitrary whim. The Texas constitution does not mandate a break between sessions, which Perry liberally exploited.
In 2005, Perry drove lawmakers in a series of special sessions aimed at massive education reform. He had little patience for the bickering and in-fighting, declaring in a statement, “Legislators will overcome their differences and deliver reform. They won’t have a choice. And I’m not going to stop talking about these issues until they do.” In the end, Perry got nearly everything he wanted, from lower property taxes to more funding for education.
Under a stern taskmaster, the special session can be used very effectively by governors. Governor Greg Abbott has already announced that the first of the Texas special sessions will commence on July 8 but has not announced the priorities. We can be fairly certain that it will not be the redistricting as the official Census has still not been completed. Since that session later this fall will be a top priority ahead of the deadline to file to run, this session is likely to be the only chance Abbott has to push his agenda ahead of the midterms.
However, he won’t have the same sort of freedom that Perry often used. If the redistricting fight edges into October or later, it’s going to begin cutting into the primary season. Denying lawmakers the chance to return to their districts and run could endanger Republican’s ability to hold both chambers. The voting rights restriction bill will almost certainly be on the schedule, but considering how contentious that fight has been there may not be enough time to make the bill happen, especially if other items are added to the mix.