Analysis: Texas government has to put Humpty Dumpty together again

A legislator holds his head in his hand while sitting on the House floor on July 19, 2021.

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Nobody in state government could count shutting down the Texas Legislature as a political win.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of the legislative branch’s budget was successful in getting him some favorable headlines last month — as he lashed out after more than 50 House Democrats decamped to Washington, D.C., to block consideration of voting legislation they oppose.

It sounded pretty cool at first, poking a stick in the eye of state lawmakers, bullying a group that’s often seen as trying to boss the rest of us around. But following through by sending around 2,100 state employees home without pay, health insurance and benefits would make Texas government and the governor look incompetent — or goofy.

And it would be bad for Texans.

Unless the budget is put back together, the people who do most of the work in the Texas Capitol — the staffers who do the paperwork and most of the thinking for lawmakers — will be out of work on Sept. 1. It would probably be temporary, but with state officials bickering with each other, that’s an open question. Normal operations would come to pieces; these are the people who draft legislation, who draw the actual political maps used for elections — the redistricting job that lies just a couple of months ahead.

Shutting all of that down just doesn’t have a political or governmental upside. It worked as an expression of anger from a thwarted politician, but not as a practical manager’s tactic. It’s an ultimatum that punishes both sides instead of forcing one to do the other’s bidding.

Hopefully, it will end soon. The special legislative session that started on July 8 can’t last more than 30 days — a deadline coming up next week. The governor can call another session right away if he wants to (and as he has promised), but it won’t necessarily have the same items on the agenda.

Abbott could set aside the voting bill, if only for a few days, to get lawmakers to pass a legislative budget and get the urgent part of the standoff out of the way. The Democrats would have reason to come home for that. Without any sign that their temporary relocation has done anything to change the content of the voting legislation or the likelihood that Republicans will pass it into law, one reason to stay out of state is gone. And unless Congress changes course and decides to pass its own voting law to preempt what Texas is doing, the Democrats have little reason to hang around in Washington, D.C.

Those quorum-busting games aren’t over; state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, has asked the attorney general for a legal opinion on whether the Democrats’ work stoppage is legal and whether, at some point, the legislators left behind can kick their decamped colleagues out of the Legislature.

The legislative budget veto has been challenged in court, too, on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional for one branch of government to wipe out another branch of government. The high court has pretty good political reasons to want to stay out of the fight, but also has institutional reasons to weigh in: A governor who can veto funding to get his way with legislators could someday use the same threat with judges.

Republican lawmakers, who outnumber Democrats and who employ more of the threatened staff than the Democrats do, aren’t crazy about the veto, either. One, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, has proposed a constitutional amendment that would take away the governor’s power to veto line items in the state budget — like the one that wiped out the section funding the Legislature.

They’ll still have plenty left to fight about even without that, or without bringing up the voting bill that started the summer standoff. Redistricting is always a political melee, and the state still hasn’t distributed billions in federal COVID relief funds — something Abbott has said will happen during that special legislative session on redistricting.

Not enough? The University of Texas at Austin’s attempt to leave the Big 12 athletic conference for the more lucrative and prestigious Southeastern Conference has stirred public and private Texas colleges and their alumni and representatives in the Texas Legislature. Abbott hasn’t put those issues on the Legislature’s agenda, but they’re drafting bills to stop it and the Senate formed a committee to chew on it.

They don’t want to do that alone, and probably can’t. They’ll need staff. They’d look stupid without it. The state’s elected officials are plenty mad at each other, but they don’t want that. Putting the budget back together quickly is the only way out — for legislators and the governor.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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