Texas Supreme Court denies Democrats’ request to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of Legislature’s funding

The Texas Supreme Court on Jan. 15, 2020.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday denied a request from several Democratic House members and state employees asking the justices to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of legislative funding in the upcoming two-year state budget.

Abbott vetoed the funding in June after House Democrats walked out during the final days of the regular legislative session in May, killing two of his priority bills on elections and changing the state’s bail system. Abbott then brought the Legislature back for a special session to get the bills passed, but more than 50 House Democrats again broke quorum — denying the lower chamber of the number of present members needed to move bills — by decamping to Washington, D.C., until the 30-day session ended Friday.

Democrats challenged Abbott’s veto in court, saying it stripped their power as a “co-equal branch of government.” But the Texas Supreme Court on Monday sided with Abbott on his veto that will effectively defund the Texas Legislature, its staffers and legislative agencies later this year.

State officials on Friday extended the funding for another month, meaning 2,100 legislative employees will continue to be paid through Sept. 30.

In an unsigned opinion, the all-Republican court said the lack of funding for the legislative branch “continues to exist not because of a dispute between the Governor and the Legislature, nor even because of one between the Governor and a minority of House members. Rather, the principal dispute is among the members of the Legislature.”

“This political dispute within the legislative branch is not an issue of separation of powers that we can decide,” the court said in its opinion.

Abbott’s office celebrated the decision and urged the Democrats to return to the Capitol, saying the additional month of funding for the Legislature meant the lawmakers had “run out of excuses.”

“The Texas Supreme Court has again recognized that ‘the Governor has power to disapprove any bill’ and upheld the governor’s veto power granted under the Texas Constitution,” Renae Eze, an Abbott spokeswoman said in a statement. “It’s time to stop the charades and get back to work doing the job they were elected to do—voting on critical legislation on behalf of their constituents, including funding Article X, potential funding for COVID-19 healthcare response, providing property tax relief, funding our retired teachers, protecting our foster children, and securing the border.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Chad Dunn, the group’s lawyer, said the court’s ruling had not fully gone against them.

“We’re disappointed the Court chose to not get involved in Gov. Abbott’s tyrannical violation of the separation of powers, but make no mistake — the high Court clearly states the governor vetoing funding for the legislature in the future raises serious constitutional concerns,” they said in a statement. “Texas House Democrats will continue to fight back against Gov. Abbott’s systematic undermining of our democracy.”

The court said House Democrats could have worked with other lawmakers during this year’s first special sessions to reinstate Article X of the state budget, which covers legislative funding, without having to pass any other bills. They also could have worked with their fellow lawmakers to pass the bill more than 10 days before adjournment, which would have made it veto-proof. But they chose not to do so.

“Relators argue that the Governor is unconstitutionally coercing them to vote for legislation that he favors. But the Governor has not forced the Legislature to enact his priorities before addressing its own funding,” the opinion read. “The Legislature was free to use the special session to reinstate Article X funding. It could have done so without addressing any of the other items listed in the Governor’s call.”

“[T]he Governor’s veto of Article X followed by his call of a special session neither prevents the Legislature from funding itself nor forces the Legislature to enact legislation of the Governor’s choosing,” the opinion read.

The court noted that Abbott was trying to advance his favored pieces of legislation but that a majority of lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Legislature also supported those bills.

The court said the Democrats’ alleged injury may have started with Abbott’s veto, but continued only because they could not agree with their fellow lawmakers “over the order in which to consider legislation.”

The move comes after more than 60 Democratic members of the lower chamber, four state employees and other groups signed on to a petition that was filed last month.

The parties involved asked the court to find the veto unconstitutional, arguing Abbott exceeded his executive authority and violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine.

Had the court sided with Democrats, Article X of the state budget, the section at issue, would have been reinstated when the upcoming two-year state budget takes effect Sept. 1.

Instead, future funding for over 2,100 state employees and legislative agencies such as the Legislative Reference Library and Legislative Budget Board remains in limbo — especially as House Democrats continue to stay away from the state Capitol during a second special session that began Saturday, one day after the first special session ended.

The court said Democrats “again have the opportunity to vote to appropriate revenues to the legislative branch.”

But 26 House Democrats said Saturday they would remain in Washington.

On Monday, the House did not meet quorum requirements when it gaveled in at 4 p.m. But House Speaker Dade Phelan said the chamber would stand at ease for an hour in anticipation of the arrival of more lawmakers.

Earlier, House Democrats won a temporary restraining order in a state district court that barred their arrest and forced transport to the Capitol. That order cleared the way for the Democrats still in Washington to return to the state without fear of arrest.

Before the order was granted by a Travis County judge, state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, told Dallas-Fort Worth television station KXAS that she did not plan to attend the second special session.

Lawmakers receive $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session for both regular and special sessions. Those payments are constitutionally guaranteed and are not affected by Abbott’s veto.

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