Analysis: Regulating dangerous practices in the Texas Legislature

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks with lawmakers on the house floor during the legislative session on Sunday, May 23, 2021.
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks with lawmakers on the house floor during the legislative session on Sunday, May 23, 2021.

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Texas Republicans fear ballots more than bullets.

State lawmakers passed permitless carry legislation during their recently ended regular session — letting most adults carry guns in public without licenses, permits or training — and sent it to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature, surprising a fair number of people inside and outside the Texas Capitol. And Abbott’s for it, but it wasn’t on the list of priorities he outlined early in the session.

“Election integrity” was on his list, though — and it didn’t get done.

That one died on a legislative deadline after delays by Republicans who wanted a stringent voting bill created an opportunity for Democrats who opposed it. Time grew short, the Democrats walked out — leaving too few people on hand to conduct business according to the rules — and time ran out.

Tempers were hot.

The Senate and the House — the Itchy & Scratchy of Texas government — tore into each other. Republicans in the Senate blamed their Republican counterparts in the House, where the bill died. House members said the Senate should’ve worked faster or just accepted the House version of the bill.

In a fit of petulance that seems out of tune with the Texas Constitution, the governor — a former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice — posted on Twitter than he’ll veto the part of the state budget that pays for the Legislature. “No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” he wrote.

The relevant constitutional line? “Members of the Legislature shall receive from the Public Treasury a salary of Six Hundred Dollars ($600) per month, unless a greater amount is recommended by the Texas Ethics Commission and approved by the voters of this State in which case the salary is that amount.”

The unelected people who work for the Legislature — the unheralded clerks, lawyers, legislative aides, policy and budget experts, messengers and others who keep the machinery of the legislative branch in operation — could see their jobs and salaries erased, but your elected lawmakers aren’t likely to miss any meals.

In any case, lawmakers will be back for a special session — maybe sooner than they thought — to take another swing at voting. And if they’re successful, the governor will presumably put them back on the payroll.

By comparison, passing that gun legislation was easy.

The conventional wisdom coming into this session was that it would never come to a vote, protecting quiet legislative opponents who would have to support the bill in a public vote. But that public vote came, somewhat unexpectedly, and Republican lawmakers snapped into line.

The House went first, approving it with 87 votes, including just seven from Democrats. Only one Republican, state Rep. Morgan Meyer of Dallas, voted against it. After some backroom politicking to get the votes he needed out of a reluctant Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick got it passed 18-13, with all of the Republican senators on one side and all of the Democrats on the other.

That gun bill made national news. It caused some legislative discomfort. In an April University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 59% of Texas voters said they oppose the idea, though 56% of Republican voters said they support it. But it wasn’t the bill that defined the session, or even a whole month of the five-month session.

The voting bill, on the other hand, got the president’s attention — an indication that it, too, was in the national eye. It’s the Texas component of a widespread push by Republicans here and in other states to tighten voting and election laws after a national election many of them are convinced — without supporting evidence — was not legitimate.

This Legislature, with comfortable Republican majorities in the Senate and the House and with Republicans in each of the statewide elected offices, suffered a political power outage, fumbling an issue dear to GOP voters. They’re on their way to a special session. They have the same political advantage — numbers — that they’ve had all year.

They have national attention on what they’re doing now, whether they wanted it or not. And they remain convinced there is a problem to solve, though the state’s election officials have said that, in 2020, “Texas had an election that was smooth and secure.”

Legislators are tightening requirements and rules for voting while loosening regulations and rules for packing a pistol.

It’s clear which activity they consider more dangerous.