Texas Senate didn’t pass critical bill needed to keep key state agency alive, potentially forcing a special session

Texas Senate didn’t pass critical bill needed to keep key state agency alive, potentially forcing a special session
Texas Senate didn’t pass critical bill needed to keep key state agency alive, potentially forcing a special session

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick presides over session on the Senate floor at the state capitol on May 25, 2021.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick presides over session on the Senate floor at the state capitol on Tuesday.

Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune

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By failing to hear a critical bill before a Senate deadline to pass certain legislation, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick may force lawmakers to come back for a special legislative session this summer.

Only Gov. Greg Abbott can call a special session, but by neglecting to pass a bill that extends the life of state agencies, Patrick essentially signed a death warrant for the regulating agency for Texas law enforcement. That is, unless Abbott finds a creative way to push back the agency’s abolition date on his own or calls lawmakers back to fix it.

If they get Patrick’s blessing, legislators could also tweak another bill this week to allow for the agency’s survival.

Patrick and Abbott, who are both Republicans, have made bills to “back the blue” priorities this year. On Wednesday, Patrick had asked Abbott to call a June special session so the Legislature could reconsider three conservative measures that failed after missing a House deadline. The regular five-month session ends Monday.

And if Abbott is forced to bring lawmakers back to Austin to save a state agency, it would be easier to ask them also to hear again Patrick’s priorities to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity, prohibit local governments from using taxpayer funds to pay for lobbyists and punish social media companies for “censoring” Texans based on their political viewpoints.

Abbott’s spokesperson did not respond to questions about a special session related to TCOLE Wednesday night. Patrick’s spokespeople did not respond to questions Wednesday night about why he had yet to bring House Bill 1600 to the floor.

The high-stakes legislation was a “safety net” bill for statewide agencies that are soon set to be abolished. Under what’s called a sunset review process, lawmakers periodically make assessments on how efficiently state agencies are being run and whether they should continue to exist. Though agencies are individually considered, there is also a safety net bill each session to extend the life by two years of any agency that did not get individually renewed.

This year, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or TCOLE, which sets minimum licensing and training standards for police, did not get separate clearance. A scathing report from the typically subdued Texas Sunset Advisory Commission called TCOLE toothless, allowing poor accountability and inadequate training for police. Suggested changes — or even extending the regulatory agency’s life by two years while reviewing suggested changes — however, failed in the House.

Although lawmakers are already expected to come back this fall to redraw the state’s political maps, it would be too late to combine the resuscitation of TCOLE with that session. Without the safety net bill, TCOLE is set to be dissolved on Sept. 1.

But a summer session is not guaranteed under the bill’s failure. In 2019, Abbott issued an executive order extending the life of the state plumbing board after a similar move. The governor said he was able to overstep the Legislature because plumbers were still needed to address destruction from Hurricane Harvey. It’s possible the governor could employ similar political maneuvering this year.

There is also another bill related to scheduling sunset reviews that is currently in closed-door negotiations between the House and Senate. In theory, that bill could be amended to keep the state agency alive before the legislation is due in the chambers Saturday, though Patrick could also block that.

When Patrick asked for a special session before tanking the sunset bill, Abbott responded by urging lawmakers to instead “work together to get important conservative legislation to my desk” in the remaining days of the regular session.

Texas Senate didn’t pass critical bill needed to keep key state agency alive, potentially forcing a special session
Source: Texas Tribune