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Labor Legislative Update - September 3, 2021

Ed Sills
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Sept. 3, 2021 — #31
Second Special Session Edition, Sine Die plus 1!

“Hit the road Jack and don't you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road Jack and don't you come back no more
What you say?”

--From “Hit the Road Jack” by the immortal Ray Charles, a song whose advice is being only partly taken by the Texas Legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott plans to call another special session to take up redrawing of political boundaries and other topics. This video featuring the Raelettes, the Charles backup group that cycled through 71 amazing singers during its existence, has 223 million views and counting for a reason:

“Goodbye to you”

--From “Goodbye to You” by Scandal, featuring Patty Smyth.

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Suppress Your Luck – The nature of the whammies in SB 1, the voter suppression bill that reached Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk after an epic three-month resistance by House Democrats, will not be fully understood until the 2022 election cycle, but it can be said now that the fight was worth it. Right at the start of the walkout, House Democrats killed awful provisions that would have reduced voting hours in conflict with “Souls to the Polls” events associated with Black churches and would have permitted judges to overturn elections without evidence that alleged fraud had even reversed the result. Democrats later achieved improvements in provisions for voters with disabilities and, dramatically, made a deep enough national impression on the importance of federal voting rights that Congress redoubled efforts to approve the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The final votes on a conference committee report this week were almost purely along party lines again, but on a changed bill. ULLCO opposed SB 1 from the start, decrying provisions that eliminate previously lawful Harris County innovations that encouraged voting during the pandemic, subject local election officials to potential criminal prosecution for such matters as distributing applications for mail-in ballots, change rules for voting by mail that could confuse and potentially disenfranchise voters, and empower partisan poll watchers, with minimal guardrails to prevent intimidation.

Another GOP Bite of the Apple – Partisan GOP attempts to rewrite election rules have not ended. At the 11th hour, Senate Republicans rushed through the chamber SB 97 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a Trumpian idea that would pave the way for “audits” of the 2020 election and future elections. Democrats said the bill could bring to Texas the kind of fiasco currently taking place in Arizona, where a private company has mishandled a grant of power to inspect 2020 ballots in service to the big lie that Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 was fraudulent. Quorum Report states Gov. Greg Abbott plans to put what Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, called “a sore winner provision” on the agenda of the upcoming redistricting special session.

Universal Summer Runoffs Scheduled – Legislative Republicans also rammed through a bill that sets the schedule for 2022 primary and runoff elections. Strange quirk: SB 13 as finally approved sets elections for precinct chairs on the runoff date, potentially requiring all 254 Texas counties to hold elections even if no actual runoff is needed in the county. ProPublica reports former Trump advisor Steve Bannon has called for right-wing Republicans to run for precinct chairs as a means of influencing the direction of GOP county officials. See:

Hallelujah! Legislative Branch Is Funded; ‘13th Check’ Approved – After experiencing a harrowing summer that saw their paychecks placed in jeopardy by a veto from Gov. Greg Abbott, some 2,100 employees of the Texas legislative branch of government received funding again in a supplemental appropriations bill. The action should end the livelihood limbo faced by legislative staffs and employees of agencies that enable the Legislature to function. Many of the employees are members of the Texas State Employees Union, which fought the veto from the moment it was issued. The Texas AFL-CIO also filed a lawsuit trying to overturn the veto, but the Texas Supreme Court declined to act. Also funded on bipartisan basis: A “13th check” for retirees in the Teacher Retirement System – the second biennium in a row to accomplish the much-needed boost.

SB 14 Produces ‘Perils of Pauline’ Moment – In “The Perils of Pauline,” the silent film serial that became synonymous with cliffhangers, Pauline got into all sorts of near-death experiences but always managed to escape. (Contrary to myth, Pauline was never tied to a railroad track; that was “The Hazards of Helen.”) With the help of a group of amazing House Democratic friends of labor, SB 14 – the ULLCO-opposed bill barring local governments from enacting workplace protections -- was knocked off Wednesday’s House Calendar on a point of order and did not resurface. The successful point of order raised by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, was peculiar to a special session, arguing that elements of the bill exceeded Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda call. Before Moody raised the objection, Democrats tried in dozens of ways to improve the bill by carving out areas in which local governments could continue to act, including rest breaks for construction workers. Democrats never got more than 50 votes. On the do-no-harm side, the bill would have left union contracts alone, continued to allow governments to enact workplace benefits for public employees and permitted governments to seek workplace protections with contractors who are paid with tax dollars. Before the bill sank, a new problem apparated out of the shadows…

Attack on Payroll Dues Deduction – Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, put forward an amendment to SB 14 taking away the freedom of public employees to voluntarily pay union dues through the mechanism of payroll deduction. Such attacks have taken place on a continuous basis since 2015, but in the regular session this year a bill by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, had not even been heard in committee. House Democrats were ready. When Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, called a point of order arguing the Middleton amendment was not germane to the bill, the amendment was pulled down. The no-celebration rule on SB 14 remains in effect, as the bill is all but certain to resurface in the next special session on redistricting.

Border Spending Escalation – Lawmakers approved HB 9, which steers an additional $1.8 billion in taxpayer funds to border security. $1 billion of that will go to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, three-quarters toward border barriers and the rest for law enforcement. Republicans used the bill to lambaste the Biden administration, which has actual constitutional responsibility for immigration and border security. Most but not all Democrats said border woes are perennial and not tied alone to this White House, that the bill is really about political leverage, and that the measure blows up an existing misplaced state spending priority to record levels (some $2.6 billion) while spawning dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric. No doubt you will hear about this bill more and more as elections near in 2022.

Classroom Whitewashing – Another bill seeking to govern how social studies and civics teachers discuss race went to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, even though a law on the subject took effect Wednesday. ULLCO-opposed SB 3 is allegedly aimed at preventing the teaching of critical race theory, an academic discipline that contemplates American history in the context of slavery and other forms of systemic racism. But it also bars schools from offering credits to students for advocacy in government and threatens administrative action against teachers who violate vague language. Texas AFT led labor’s fight to stop the bill, which like other measures in the special session fits neatly into a national right-wing agenda funded by billionaires. See our tweet:

Masking Public Health – The U.S. Department of Education said it is investigating whether states that ban mask requirements in public schools are violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by subjecting students with disabilities to a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The states being investigated do not yet include Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott posted an Executive Order barring such mask requirements. That’s because litigation is continuing. See:

Bill on Transgender Students in Sports Dies – SB 2 by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, failed to emerge from the House Public Education Committee. The repeat measure would have required transgender public school students to participate in sports according to the gender on their birth certificates. The University Interscholastic League has quietly handled these eligibility matters, which occur rarely, and ULLCO opposed the bill as discriminatory. The bill may resurface in the next special session.

What’s Next – Over the next couple of weeks, House and Senate committees will hold hearings on redistricting ahead of a special session to redraw political boundaries. Abbott will prepare gala bill-signing ceremonies that have clear political implications. With final adjournment having left three days to spare in the 30-day limit, the ULLCO Sentinel will take a break until the first Friday after the Legislature returns to the Capitol. Keep an eye out: Sens. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, and Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, filed a lawsuit challenging the ability of the Legislature to take up legislative redistricting. A provision in the Texas Constitution suggests that because the U.S. Census arrived late, lawmakers cannot redraw legislative maps until 2023. See:

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The Basics – Quorum-Busting Trivia Edition

When was the shortest special session ever in Texas?
Per the Legislative Reference Library, the 1st Called Session of 38th Legislature in 1923 lasted only one hour and passed no legislation, a standard of perfection never matched before or since.

When was the longest special session ever in Texas?
Before the Texas Constitution limited special sessions to 30 days maximum, in 1870 lawmakers in the 12th Legislature met for 112 days.

What took so long?
A fight over Gov. Edmund Davis’s proposal to establish a state militia produced a pitched battle, not unlike this year’s election law fight, with 13 Senators leaving to bust quorum and kill the bill, whose opponents actually had a majority on paper.

What happened next?
The Senate sergeant-at-arms was sent to retrieve at least four senators to make a quorum. The senators locked themselves in a committee room, but the sergeant-at-arms flung himself through a window and persuaded the Senators to return. As related by the Texas State Historical Association, all but four of them were arrested and kept off the Senate floor. What’s known as “The Rump Senate,” consisting mainly of “Radical Republicans,” approved the militia bill.

Several Senators were held under arrest in the Capitol for three weeks. Sen. E.L. Alford was expelled by the Senate for resisting the civil arrest, but he refused to give up his seat, forcing his successor to “wait in the wings.”