With the ink barely dry on the bills passed during the 83rd Legislature's regular session, Gov. Rick Perry on Monday called lawmakers back into an immediate special session to consider redistricting measures for the Legislature and the Texans who serve in the U.S. Congress.
“We can all be proud of the responsible steps made this session to invest in our citizens, fund water infrastructure, and build an even stronger foundation for the future of our economy and Texas families,” Perry said in a written statement.
“By lowering taxes on job creators, opening the door to more higher education opportunities in South Texas, investing in a skilled workforce and keeping our state government efficient and accountable, hardworking taxpayers have freedom, opportunity and peace of mind. However, there is still work to be done on behalf of the citizens of Texas.”
Perry ordered lawmakers back to work at 6 p.m. Monday, about an hour after the final gavels came down on the 140-day regular session.
Speculation had been mounting for days that he would follow Attorney General Greg Abbott's recommendation to reconvene the Legislature so lawmakers can approve the court-drawn maps currently in place for legislators and members of the U.S. House. Republican leaders believe that would help the state's case in court and forestall any delays of next year's primaries.
For now, the agenda for the 30-day session only includes redistricting, though that could change.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who gaveled in the special session on the Senate side Monday evening, wants Perry to add to the agenda a host of conservative measures that failed during the regular session. Dewhurst has also said he would not adhere to the so-called two-thirds rule, which the minority party can use to block divisive legislation.
Many conservative activists have advocated for the state Senate, where the GOP has a 19-12 edge, to jettison the rule, which has kept many of their initiatives bottled up but also has reduced the threat of open partisan warfare.
In a letter to the governor Monday, Dewhurst said he needed to the flexibility to pass a variety of pet conservative issues, including abortion restrictions, expanded gun rights and "school choice" legislation.
"Given that a number of members from both chambers have demonstrated their unwillingness to find consensus on these important legislative items, I can see no other alternative than to operate under a simple majority vote in the special session," Dewhurst wrote.
That pronouncement is already causing a stir. Though the two-thirds tradition has been lifted in redistricting measures during special sessions, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said it generally remains in place for other issues. Watson said the Legislature shouldn't be used to bolster Republicans' political fortunes with issues that failed to get approved in the regular session.
“Middle-class Texans have a lot on their plate right now,” Watson said. “What they don’t need is to worry about somebody’s party primary. We need to be doing the business of the state and not wasting taxpayer dollars trying to carry out a political agenda just because they didn’t get it achieved during the regular session.”
The Senate has recessed until Thursday. The House is set to gavel in for the special session on 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Abbott wants lawmakers to cut away some of the legal bramble on redistricting, abandoning the maps drawn by the Legislature in 2011 and instead adopting the maps that were drawn by the courts and used in the 2012 elections. One incentive is that doing so would reduce uncertainty about the legal process — even though it would continue, using different maps — and would reduce the chances of another set of delayed elections in 2014.
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who was targeted by Republicans but survived under the current redistricting map, said that she is happy with efforts to implement the Senate interim map but that the House and congressional maps would meet stiff resistance.
"I know that Lt. Gov. Dewhurst understood the impact of having a primary election date move outside the normal course of business, and I think he is anxious for this to be resolved so that won't happen again," she said. "I think the attorney general, for political reasons, is also anxious for this to occur. But I don't think this is going to solve their problem."
Only Perry can decided what additional items can be added to the agenda, but Dewhurst isn't the only one urging him to include other items.
More than 60 GOP House members have called on the governor to include anti-abortion measures that did not get passed during the regular session.
“Despite an overwhelming pro-life majority in the House, not a single pro-life bill filed during this 83rd session reached the House floor,” said the letter from the representatives. “Since pro-life values are fundamental to us, and since the majority of Texans share these convictions, we are not willing to give up the fight. In the struggle to defend life, we cannot take a day off — much less a legislative session.”
Democrats have plenty of special session ideas, too.
State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who sponsored Senate Bill 1718, an education measure, said that "several of us" had asked the governor to include the legislation that would create a special statewide school district managed by a Texas Education Agency-appointed superintendent to manage chronically low performing campuses. The bill is one that was pushed by Texans For Education Reform, a newly formed advocacy group whose founders include tort reform heavyweights Dick Trabulsi and Dick Weekley.
And state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, said Monday that he would request that Perry add a measure creating a driver's permit for undocumented immigrants. During the regular session, Alonzo filed House Bill 3206, which would have required that applicants pay a fee, submit to a background check and be fingerprinted in order to apply for the permit. The measure garnered the support of state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and was voted out of the House Committee on State Affairs. It never made it to the House, however.
There is also hope among some lawmakers that they might be able to revive efforts to issue tuition revenue bonds for campus construction. SB 16, which would have issued nearly $2.7 billion in bonds for campus building projects, found itself irretrievably stuck in the regular session after the Senate refused to concur with House amendments to the bill, and the House declined to acknowledge the Senate's request for a conference committee.
Bond packages for campus construction are typically expected to pass every other session, but the Legislature has not approved one since 2006.
While lawmakers and higher education leaders are hoping to revisit the matter in a special session, there is also some speculation that if the governor adds tuition revenue bonds to a call, he may tie the initiative to something like outcomes-based funding — one of the governor's priorities that universities are less enthusiastic about.
Perry had kept the decision on a special session under tight wraps — so tight that some lawmakers were beginning to wonder if they had time to go home or if they needed to stick around. When word finally did leak it came not from Perry but from Dewhurst.
The immediacy of the return to work cut short the celebration and self-congratulation that always accompanies the end of a legislative session.
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, speaking to a group of reporters in the Senate, jokingly asked reporters if they enjoyed their post-session break, which lasted about an hour.
"How did you spend your interim?" she said.
Becca Aaronson, Morgan Smith, Ross Ramsey, Julian Aguilar and Reeve Hamilton contributed to this story.