Last week, the Texas House Democrat Caucus, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, the Legislative Study Group, and employees of the state Legislature represented by the Texas chapter of the AFL-CIO labor unions filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the Texas Supreme Court.
This is an attempt to block Gov. Greg Abbott, who employed his line-item veto power whilst considering the overall state budget for the next biennium. In doing so, he got rid of Article X, which funds the Texas state Legislature, various agencies, and legislative staff.
State Rep. Terry Canales (D–Edinburg) took to Twitter to say, “This veto is unprecedented and will harm 2000+ state employees. During the pandemic, my staff helped with over a 1,000 constituent issues from unemployment insurance to COVID-19 testing and vaccines. The veto endangers our community and must be overturned.”
The Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said, “In the union movement, we say an injury to one is an injury to all. Gov. Abbott’s bogus power grab has created one mighty large Texas injury involving 2,000 victims ranging from lawmakers themselves to legislative staffs to an infrastructure that makes law writing possible.”
House Democrat Caucus Chairman and State Rep. Chris Turner (Grand Prairie) said, “Abbott’s veto is an abuse of power, an act of legislative coercion and a threat to democracy, the result of which is clear and immediate harm to the people of Texas.”
The Broader Context
All of this is taking place with the backdrop of an impending special session that Abbott announced would begin next week on July 8, but he has thus far not given specifics about what will be on the agenda.
Based on Abbott’s previous statements, it is widely assumed that issues like election integrity and bail reform—two emergency legislative priorities that died in the waning days of the 87th regular legislative session—will be among the issues on the call.
The issue of election integrity is what caused House Democrat lawmakers to “bust quorum” in the first place after being enabled to do so by House Republican leadership.
When vetoing Article X of the budget, Abbott said, “Texans don’t run away from a legislative fight, and they don’t walk away from unfinished business. … Funding should not be provided for those who quit their jobs early, leaving their state with unfinished business and exposing taxpayers to higher costs for an additional legislative session.”
It begs the question: What incentive do Democrat lawmakers have to show up for a special session?
Already, some House Democrats have indicated that they may decline to appear for a special session, in an attempt to deny the quorum (100 lawmakers are necessary to pass bills). There are 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats in the House of Representatives.
The Question of Constitutionality
The petition also claims that the veto used by Abbott is unconstitutional because it interferes with the legislative salaries clause and clearly violates the separation of powers.
Article III, Sec. 24 of the Texas Constitution states:
“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. Each member shall also receive a per diem set by the Texas Ethics Commission for each day during each Regular and Special Session of the Legislature.”
Additionally, the small salary pales in comparison to the campaign accounts held by most members.
Abbott released a statement in response to Democrat lawmakers:
The governor’s veto power is granted by the Texas Constitution, and the Texas Supreme Court has recognized that “the Governor has power to disapprove any bill.” Also, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has made clear that the Constitution does not “impose any restriction on the [governor’s] veto power.” More to the point, that court also ruled that “the governor’s power to exercise a veto may not be circumscribed by the Legislature [or] by the courts.” This is not the first time, and undoubtedly will not be the last time, that a governor vetoes funding for government positions and salaries. Any limitation on that authority directly contradicts the Constitution and decades of vetoes by governors.
What is Next?
Those who signed on to the petition also requested an expedited decision from the Texas Supreme Court ahead of the beginning of the next biennium, which is September 1, 2021.
It is widely assumed that Abbott is using the withdrawal of funding as an incentive to only restore the funding once his priorities pass the legislative process.
It is unclear if he will be successful in those efforts.