The threats of state troopers arresting Texas House Democrats have yet to materialize

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More than a week after Republicans in the Texas House voted to authorize arrests of their quorum-busting Democratic colleagues, no such roundup has come to fruition.

As of Wednesday, there were no known cases of absent Democrats being arrested, and the chamber was still shy of the 100 members it needs for a quorum to conduct official business. That is despite its Aug. 10 vote to proceed with the arrests, Speaker Dade Phelan's signing of 52 warrants later that day and his announcement two days later that the House sergeant-at-arms had deputized state law enforcement to track down the missing Democrats.

So far, it appears that their bark is worse than their bite: Grand Prairie Rep. Chris Turner, the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that "the only thing that [he's] aware of is that the House sergeant-at-arms has paid a visit to some members' homes."

Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said Wednesday that the House sergeant-at-arms and law enforcement had "already visited several major metropolitan areas" to try and locate absent members "and will continue to do so until quorum is reached."

But it's still unclear whether the situation will escalate to the point of actual civil arrests, which Rep. Jim Murphy of Houston, the chair of the House Republican Caucus, acknowledged during a caucus news conference on Monday at the Capitol.

"I don't know that they're gonna go to that level," Murphy said. "At this point it's more like a jury summons … a paper that's delivered, and that'll be another conversation down the line."

Law enforcement, Murphy added, is "still out there talking to people, visiting homes and businesses, and then hopefully we get enough of them to come back. We don't need all of them to come back, just more."

The House is not publicly tallying attendance every day, but the last time the chamber took a vote that revealed who was there, on Aug. 10, there were 93 members present — seven short of a quorum.

Unlike Murphy, some GOP leaders outside the chamber have used stronger language about securing a quorum, raising expectations for a more aggressive effort. Gov. Greg Abbott said at the beginning of the first special session that the Democrats would be "corralled and cabined in the Capitol," while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz argued there is "clear legal authority to handcuff and put [the quorum-breakers] in leg irons."

No such tactics have come to light so far. And if lawmakers were detained, they could only be brought back to the House chamber and would not face criminal charges or fines.

House leadership might be weighing the optics of physically detaining the quorum-breakers, many of whom are members of color. Democrats themselves have taunted House leadership over those optics, with Rep. Celia Israel of Austin saying leadership is "bluffing" and asking, "Do they really want to arrest a woman of color?"

Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, suggested concerns from his party about those images could be fueling the hesitancy to follow through on arrests.

"We have Republican leadership scared to actually arrest people and bring them back," Slaton said Tuesday. "The Democrats seem to have a lot of power over us."

While there has been a legal battle over the authority to arrest Democrats, the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday, ruling that the state Constitution allows the House to "physically compel the attendance of absent members."

One of the quorum-breakers, Rep. Vikki Goodwin of Austin, said a paper arrest warrant was left on her front porch last week. She said lawyers have told Democrats that if law enforcement tries to arrest them, they should not resist but should make clear they would not be willingly going to the House floor.

"I think it's just an intimidation tactic, trying to get members to come back because there is this outstanding arrest warrant," Goodwin said. "I think it doesn't really show well if they physically detain us."

A House sergeant visited the Houston home of another quorum-breaker, Rep. Jon Rosenthal, on Tuesday, according to his chief of staff, Odus Evbagharu.

Both Goodwin and Rosenthal have declined to share any details about their locations, other than that they are no longer in Washington, D.C. More than 50 Democrats fled to the nation's capital at the start of the first special session last month, protesting the GOP's priority elections bill.

The legislation would, among other changes to state elections, outlaw local voting options intended to expand voting access, further tighten the voting-by-mail process and bolster access for partisan poll watchers. Republicans have characterized the legislation as an "election integrity" proposal that would bring much-needed reforms to the state's voting system. Democrats and voting rights groups have argued the proposal would harm marginalized voters in the state.

The House first voted to authorize arrests when Democrats left for Washington last month. But it was not as consequential then because most Democrats were out of state, where Texas law enforcement does not have jurisdiction.

Now, the group in Washington has thinned out, and an untold number of Democrats are back home but still refusing to come to the House floor.

Last week, copies of the arrest warrants signed by Phelan were distributed in emails from Michael Black, the sergeant-at-arms, who offered to "assist" members in "making any necessary arrangements" to be present in the chamber. Black and other sergeants also delivered the warrants to members' Capitol offices.

Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that the warrants have not changed Democrats' minds over potentially returning to the chamber — and "in fact it's likely had the opposite effect in escalating the situation."

Meanwhile, Republicans have expressed a growing sense of frustration over their absent colleagues, with a number of GOP members pointing to House rules lawmakers adopted unanimously in January that outline the procedure for what the chamber can do to help secure a quorum.

Rep. Tan Parker, a Flower Mound Republican running for state Senate, increased pressure Tuesday on Phelan to make good on the arrests. In a statement, Parker called on the speaker to instruct the Texas Department of Public Safety "to use all means necessary to enforce the civil arrest warrants," saying "the time for niceties and cordiality has passed."

In the meantime, monotony continues in the House, where Republicans have become accustomed to showing up for a brief, formulaic meeting each day. The House comes to order, one of them says a prayer, they say the Pledge of Allegiance and after a lull, Phelan releases them for the day.

On Tuesday morning, the prayer was led by Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano, who invoked his missing colleagues and asked God to "provide them safe travels as they return to the state of Texas," whenever that may be. After the pledge, members sang "Happy Birthday" to one of the parliamentarians, Sharon Carter.

"All the parliamentarian wants for her birthday," Phelan said afterward, "is a quorum."

With special session’s end looming, Texas Democrats and Republicans mull their next moves

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Uncertainty is running rampant among Texas Democrats and Republicans as the final days of the special legislative session dwindle away.

The session officially ends Friday, and lawmakers are already gearing up for a second special session as House Democrats show zero interest in returning from Washington, D.C., and restoring quorum in the lower chamber for this session.

Abbott has promised to call a second special session to pass the GOP's priority voting bill, but the exact timing is uncertain. Abbott also has yet to detail what other items, if any, he intends to include on the agenda for the next special session. And House Democrats have not yet revealed what they have planned after the session ends this week.

At stake is the fate of the elections bill, which prompted Democrats who object to the legislation to leave in the first place, as well as the livelihoods of some 2,100 state workers and legislative agencies that are set to lose funding next month.

Here is how some of the top players are approaching the final days of the first special session:

Gov. Greg Abbott

Abbott has promised to call as many special sessions as needed to pass the elections bill and his other priorities. He has said he would call a second one to begin the day after the first one ends, though as of Tuesday, it was unclear if he will follow through on that.

If the first one goes all 30 days allowed under the Constitution, it would end Friday, and the next day would be Saturday. Past special sessions typically have started on weekdays.

An Abbott spokesperson confirmed Monday that he would call a second special session but declined to confirm the start date.

In any case, Republican legislators anticipate Abbott will want them back in Austin soon.

"I presume it's very quickly," state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, told reporters Tuesday. "I would imagine by next week we'll be back in session."

It remains to be seen if Abbott will add to this agenda in the second special session, though one thing is clear — he does not plan to curtail it. He has said he "will keep calling Special Sessions until we address every emergency item," referring to the 11 issues he laid out at the start of the first special session, such as pushing back against social media "censorship" of Texans and the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

Texas House Democrats

The over 50 House Democrats who left the state in July have been discussing what next steps should be taken as a group as the current special session comes to a close, with members holding hourslong meetings over the past week to consider their options.

Democrats could take a number of routes: They could return to Texas but remain in their districts, head back to the Capitol in Austin, stay in D.C. for the time being or head to another state to continue to prevent a quorum in the lower chamber.

The caucus has remained largely united in both its messaging and numbers since members landed in D.C., where the group has pushed Congress to act on federal voting rights legislation. Since they've been there, only one known member of the core group that fled — Philip Cortez of San Antonio — has broken ranks and returned to Austin, only to head back to D.C. soon after.

Democrats have been optimistic about the progress they say they have made with both Capitol Hill and the White House on that voting rights bill, though they have yet to score a meeting with President Joe Biden and have not appeared to move the needle with senators who want to protect the filibuster.

But last week, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, said Democrats could potentially get around the filibuster blockade by integrating elements of the federal voting rights legislation into the reconciliation process of an infrastructure bill that is moving through Congress.

State Rep. Alma Allen of Houston told reporters Tuesday morning that the caucus likely will make a decision on its next steps based on what happens in D.C. over the next three to four days. And state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso emphasized that a lot could happen between now and Friday.

"I think we're gonna have a lot of success this week," he said.

If Democrats did again break quorum in the next special session, it's less clear what their specific goal would be in doing so. Abbott has said he will keep calling special sessions until the voting bill is passed, and Republicans hold majorities in both chambers.

There's also the question of whether members have the appetite or funding to carry out another potentially weekslong quorum break, which introduces a number of logistical hurdles for some, including time spent away from families and full-time jobs outside of elected office.

Regardless of what Democrats do next, some members say the caucus intends to stick together.

"The group is determined to stay together," said state Rep. Erin Zwiener of Driftwood on Tuesday. "When we return to the [House] floor, we will return together."

House Speaker Dade Phelan and Republicans

Perhaps more than any state leader, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has had to consider both sides in the debate that's ensued throughout the special session.

Phelan has fielded calls from his right flank to reprimand Democrats who broke quorum, such as stripping them of their committee chairmanships. Phelan has said that under current House rules, the speaker does not have the jurisdiction to remove them from such posts.

As punishment for the quorum break, Phelan did remove Moody, the El Paso Democrat, as speaker pro tempore, a position that performs the duties of the speaker in the speaker's absence. Democrats blasted the decision.

Another question facing House members is how the current impasse will impact funding for the Legislature, which is set to expire Sept. 1 thanks to Abbott's veto earlier this year in retaliation for Democrats' initial walkout over the bill.

While the Texas Supreme Court could weigh in, already one House Republican — Dan Huberty of Houston — has asked campaign donors to help pay for his legislative staff, writing that "it requires money in order to fund the budget of a fully-functioning office."

"I hope you will consider giving any amount you are able to help compensate my team," he wrote. "Your support is critical for their continued employment."

House Democrats are also bracing for a potential drop-off in funding. Zwiener, the Driftwood Democrat, told reporters Tuesday that lawmakers are "putting plans together to take care of our own staff," but urged Republicans to stand up to Abbott and ask the governor "to not use our staffs as a weapon against the Legislature."

"You don't negotiate with a bully," she said, "you stand up to them."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate

There is not much Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his Senate can do while they wait for House Democrats to come back to Austin.

A group of Senate Democrats initially joined their House counterparts in Washington, but the number of senators was not enough to break quorum in that chamber, and they have since returned.

The Senate has passed legislation related to Abbott's agenda, but it cannot make it to his desk without a quorum on the other side of the Capitol.

Like Abbott, Patrick is not in the mood for further negotiation on the elections bill and has said it will eventually pass "pretty much in the form that's in."

Frustrated with the standstill, Patrick has pitched lowering the quorum threshold from two-thirds to a simple majority and asked Abbott to add it to the next special session agenda. But the idea is a long shot — even if Abbott adds it to the call and Democrats show up for the second special session, the proposal would require a state constitutional amendment and thus a two-thirds vote to pass each chamber.


A tale of two capital cities: Texas Democrats continue fight for voting rights in Washington as Republicans push them to return

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Outside of the Texas House chamber, state Rep. Briscoe Cain is setting traps for Democrats.

The first was a case of Miller Lite placed under a brown shipping box propped open with a stick, a nod to the now-viral photograph of House Democrats smiling on a bus with a 12-pack visible in one of the seats as they left the state earlier this month to prevent passage of a GOP election bill at the Texas Legislature.

This week, Cain, a Deer Park Republican, swapped out the beer in his trap for a case of Dr. Pepper, first aid supplies, a sewing kit, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a can of hairspray and some Lifesavers.

"Hey Democrats, here's the Care Package you requested," Cain tweeted Monday, responding to a request from Dallas-area Democrats for goods to send the lawmakers camped out in Washington D.C. "It's right outside the House Chamber for you. Get back to work."

Cain's traps are the latest example of the political drama that both Republicans in Austin and Democrats in D.C. have engaged in over the past two weeks, with the two camps battling it out on cable news interviews and social media over the quorum bust and who is to blame for it.

A tweet by State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, related to the Texas Democrats quorum break during the special session. A tweet by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, related to the Texas Democrats quorum break during the special session. Credit: Via Twitter

Unable to pass their priority legislation, Republicans have spent their days in the special session pointing the finger at the 57 House Democrats who left, accusing them of abandoning their jobs and constituents. They've called on their colleagues to return to the Legislature to focus on issues important to Texas voters, such as providing additional money to retired teachers or increasing funding for foster care.

Democrats, meanwhile, have paraded around Capitol Hill, meeting with powerful leaders to convince Congress to pass federal voting laws. They've participated in a marathon of primetime TV appearances defending the decision to break quorum, while criticizing their GOP colleagues for pushing a voting bill they refer to as an attempt at voter suppression.

In a fiery Virginia news conference earlier this month, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson said she will "stay in the fight until I can't fight no more because I'm tired of people picking on us for no reason."

"We are Americans, and we are proud Americans, and we deserve the same rights and respect and considerations that everybody has," the Houston Democrat added. "And I'm going to fight until we get it."

But in their downtime, the Democrats are trying to find some normalcy amid a chaotic situation — one that's taken many of them away from their homes and families, while half a dozen members were sickened with the coronavirus and forced to quarantine in a hotel.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, joined other Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives, who are boycotting …U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, joined other Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives, who are boycotting a special session of the legislature in an effort to block Republican-backed voting restrictions in Washington D.C., on July 13, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Both groups of lawmakers say they are staying busy. Democrats in D.C. have met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other party leaders in an effort to convince Congress to pass federal voting legislation. And Republicans in Austin have held multiple briefings with retired teachers in Texas and providers for the state's foster care system to discuss legislation on the governor's special session agenda.

State Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican, said the current situation has given him more time to dive into the policies on the special session agenda and to meet with stakeholders involved with the legislation.

"We're not sitting around Ranch 616, sucking down Ranch Waters," White said, referencing a local Austin restaurant that's well known for its tequila drink. "There's always real business to do."

Similarly, the Democrats are mostly careful to avoid the appearances that they are treating this stay as a vacation. In the afternoons, the pool at their hotel in the hip Logan Circle neighborhood is mostly occupied by families who seem oblivious to the national political drama playing out in the hotel lobby, conference rooms and television hits taking place in their neighbors' hotel rooms.

It's not been a luxurious getaway, they and their supporters said.

"They have sacrificed to be here for us," said civil rights activist Al Sharpton in an appearance with about a dozen Texas Democrats on Wednesday. "This is not convenient to leave home. This is not a pleasure trip...this is all missing your family."

State Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock did his laundry at a nearby stranger's home who is a friend of state Rep. Julie Johnson of Farmers Branch.

"It's somewhere between taking a trip and moving," he said.

State Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Dallas Democrat, lamented that he was in such a rush to get to Washington, D.C. that he didn't properly pack and arrived without a suit.

"I found separates at Marshall's and put together an outfit for about $65 which is great, and I have used it over and over and over again," he laughed.

Living out of their suitcases and in the hotel, the Democrats have created something of a routine — but concerns about the resurgence of COVID-19 loom large.

The Democrats report downstairs in their hotel at 8 a.m. every morning for a COVID-19 test.

The members who test negative have breakfast together, and then they typically spend their mornings in a room not accessible to the public due to COVID-19 protocols. There they engage in virtual conversations with various secretaries of state and legislators from around the country, union leaders, civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s daughter, Bernice King, Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction, and other like-minded advocates for their voting rights push.

On Wednesday, the group met at the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial for an event with Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea Waters King.

Outside of the scheduled time, the Democrats attempt to catch up on work from their jobs outside of the Legislature and take interviews with local and national press. Lately, they're fixtures on cable news, with frequent appearances on MSNBC, CNN and even Fox News. Most notably, the liberal-leaning MSNBC devoted an entire hour of prime time programming to the Texans last week.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak sickened six of the members last week, they've scaled back their trips to the U.S. Capitol. Early on, the several dozen lawmakers traveled to the Capitol in a bus. But given the heightened precautions and quarantining, the meetings are fewer and smaller.

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks during a meeting with Democratic Texas state lawmakers in the Roosevelt Room o…Vice President Kamala Harris delivered remarks during a meeting with Democratic Texas state lawmakers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington D.C. on June 16, 2021. The Democratic Texas state lawmakers met with Vice President Harris to push for national voting rights and election reform legislation. Credit: Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

Initially, the outbreak among the Texans shocked Washington. The positive tests were the impetus for some Capitol Hill staffers and members to revive mask-wearing at the Capitol.

"Sorry, I'm washing my hands, we're doing a lot of handwashing," said state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin during a phone interview last week.

At some point midday, they take a roll call attendance to ensure everyone is accounted for.

Hinojosa said it's at times been difficult to operate in the constant state of flux.

"I had this desire a few days ago for a dry erase calendar. It was this need I had to try to regain control over our time here," she said. "Having a calendar I can look at because we're building this plane as we're flying it, right? And so, our time commitments are just more fluid here."

The Democrats communicate internally via phone tree, where members are assigned to small groups to quickly disseminate information.

Talarico was on one of his now-regular evening walks last week among the monuments on the National Mall when news reached him about a shooting in broad daylight a few blocks up from the Texans' hotel. He quickly checked in with several members of his texting pod and was relieved to learn that while some Texans were close to the incident, everyone was safe.

He compared the situation to the last time Texas Democrats broke quorum 18 years ago.

"There are a lot of similarities, but that 2003 group did not have to survive a virus or a mass shooting like we have with this quorum break," Talarico said.

Back in Austin, Republicans voted overwhelmingly to issue what's known as a "call of the House," which authorized law enforcement to track down Democrats who fled. The procedural move carried little weight since the Democrats who left are beyond the jurisdiction of the state's law enforcement, though it does prevent members present in the House from leaving unless they have permission in writing from the speaker and promise to return the next day.

Rep. Charles Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson, R-Waco, holds a sign that reads, "Here we are still on the job for the people," on the House floor on July 14, 2021 Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

A day later, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and the remaining members posed for a portrait inside the chamber, with many of the seated Republicans smiling from their desks as rows of empty seats surrounded them.

The picture, at least from their vantage point, sent a message: Republicans had shown up to work on the issues important to Texans, while Democrats had walked off the job, fleeing the state on private chartered jets paid for by their caucus.

"We await the return of our colleagues to work on providing retired teachers a 13th check, protecting foster kids, defending taxpayers, and ensuring dangerous criminals aren't allowed lenient bail," Phelan tweeted with the photo. The 13th check refers to a one-time extra monthly payment the Legislature was planning to provide for retired teachers.

Republicans have since tried to capitalize on that messaging. Cain, the Deer Park Republican, has posted a daily photo — and, more recently, videos on TikTok — that counts how many days the chamber has gone without meeting quorum.

Another House Republican, state Rep. Jared Patterson of Frisco, is keeping track of how much Texas taxpayers are spending on the special session since Democrats' quorum bust. The price tag — it was $649,950 on Tuesday, according to Patterson — is based on items such as legislative per diems for lawmakers and other budgeted costs, the lawmaker has said.

"Texas taxpayers deserve to know what this Democratic walkout is costing them. Every day, House Democrats are costing taxpayers $43,330, or basically, a teacher's salary every day they aren't here," Patterson tweeted earlier this month.

Phelan, for his part, has called on Democrats who left the state to return their per diems — $221 every day lawmakers are in session — and released a list of members earlier this month that had not yet started the process of doing so, according to his office.

The quorum break and subsequent call of the House have upended most lawmakers' plans for the summer, such as family vacations and other scheduled trips.

State Rep. Phil King, a Weatherford Republican, told the Tribune earlier this week that he's been busy with conference calls and virtual meetings with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is hosting an annual conference this week in Salt Lake City, Utah. He also said he had to miss most of his family's vacation, which was in Colorado this year.

King, who sits on ALEC's national board, was unable to attend in-person after a call of the House was issued — a disappointment for the lawmaker who said he already had to miss this year's spring event due to the regular legislative session that ended in May.

The House has continued to meet most days since Democrats have left, though committees cannot meet and members are often released by Phelan within an hour or two as the chamber stands at ease.

Phelan's daily dismissal ritual has become a moment of levity for the remaining members as they crowd around his desk to accept their permission slips to leave. Last week, the speaker described the slips of paper as "harvest grape" on Monday, "Whataburger orange" on Tuesday and "crawfish boil red" on Wednesday.

Legislators talk amongst themselves on the House floor on July 19, 2021.Legislators talked amongst themselves on the House floor on July 19, 2021. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

After he dismisses them, Phelan gives them instructions on when to return the following day. Recently, the speaker has mentioned that the time is in Central Standard Time, a nod to the dozens of Democrats operating in the east coast time zone.

King, who has been through a previous Democratic quorum break, said eventually the Democrats will have no choice but to return and that the Legislature will get back to business.

"I went through this in 2003 — you just have to have patient endurance," he said. "You just wait and eventually they wear out and come back."

Democrats maintain they are determined to wait out this special session. While they express confidence that donors will cover the costs incurred from the hotel and other expenses, being away from home has personal and professional consequences.

Back home, legislators left behind children, partners, ailing parents and pets. Two weeks in, several of the members' children have joined them in Washington.

The trip complicated the summer plans of Rep. Ana Hernandez of Houston, who shares custody of her young son with her ex-husband.

"My son flew up on Saturday, but I'm not sure at what point he'll be returning," she said. "It was a one-way ticket to Washington, D.C."

Hernandez and the other lawmakers also have day jobs outside of their legislative careers. She told the Tribune that she is able to continue to practice law from afar, thanks to the fact that many court proceedings continue to take place virtually, due to COVID-19 protocols.

But other lawmakers are not so lucky.

"Not everyone can work as effectively remotely as others so we have people who are away from a small business they run or a legal practice or whatever, and they are losing money being here," Hinojosa said. "Their families are losing income because they're here."

Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will call lawmakers back for a second overtime round to address the legislation on his agenda that the Legislature wasn't able to tackle during this first 30-day stretch.

Though the quorum bust has caused tensions among some House members, White, the Hillister Republican, brushed off the suggestion that the chamber may enter the next special session as a more polarized body than before.

"You can't walk around in this business with grudges and resentments in your pocket," he said. "I think this is a full-contact sport — this is politics — and that same member that you didn't get on House Bill A may be the member you get to pass House Bill D. You take that vote and you move on."

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Texas GOP mulls options for voter suppression special session after Democrats flee to deny quorum

After House Democrats left the state Monday in an attempt to block passage of a GOP election bill during the special legislative session, attention turned to the Republicans and what they can do to get the priority legislation passed.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement that afternoon that the chamber would "use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum" to pass items on the special session agenda, which was set by Gov. Greg Abbott. And a number of House Republicans indicated that they would support what's known as a call of the House, a procedural move that would allow law enforcement to track down lawmakers who have already fled the chamber.

It's unclear though what impact such an order could have, given that Democrats have flown to Washington, D.C. where Texas law enforcement does not have jurisdiction. Republicans are also keeping their cards close to the vest as to whether there are other tactics they plan to employ to compel members from the state's minority party to return to Austin before the special session ends in 26 days.

Abbott, who has also tasked the Legislature with working on a host of other conservative priorities such as border security funding and abortion-related legislation, said later Monday that he can and will call as many special sessions as needed "until they do their job."

"They will be corralled and cabined in the Capitol," he told KVUE.

The election legislation at hand, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, would make a number of changes, such as banning drive-thru and 24 hour voting options and further restricting the state's voting-by-mail rules. Both House and Senate committees advanced the legislation over the weekend after marathon hearings.

Two-thirds of the 150-member House must be present for the chamber to conduct business. And according to House rules, which were adopted unanimously by members at the beginning of the regular legislative session in January, any member can move to make a call of the House "to secure and maintain a quorum" for legislation. That motion must be seconded by 15 members, one of which can be the speaker, and ordered by a majority vote. The move also allows the speaker to lock the chamber doors to prevent members from leaving the chamber.

"Until a quorum appears, should the roll call fail to show one present, no business shall be transacted, except to compel the attendance of absent members or to adjourn," the House rules state.

At least two House Republican chairmen — Briscoe Cain of Deer Park and Jeff Leach of Plano — have said they will support such a motion when the lower chamber gavels in Tuesday morning. And others, including state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, have indicated support for the procedural move.

"It's a sad commentary that we may have to utilize a procedural rule to try and force most of the Democrats to show up to do the job they were elected to do," Burrows said in a statement to The Texas Tribune, adding that "unfortunately, the siren call of social media fame and fundraising" had lured Democrats to D.C.

The last time the Democrats broke quorum and fled the state in 2003, Texas Republicans asked the attorneys general in Oklahoma and New Mexico if Texas troopers could arrest the lawmakers in their states without a warrant and bring them back to Texas. Both states said no.

Republican leaders at the time also asked whether federal authorities could bring the Democrats back, but the FBI and Justice Department said at the time that they had no justification for intervening.

As news of Democrats' dramatic departure spread across Texas on Monday, a number of statewide Republican officeholders and lawmakers panned their colleagues as attention seekers who were neglecting their legislative duties and abandoning constituents who had elected them to work on issues facing the state.

In a statement, Abbott said the Democrats' move to "abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve" and said they left on the table important issues like property tax relief and funding the state's foster care system to "fly across the country on cushy private planes."

Republicans also have another pressure point: funding for the legislative branch, including legislative staffers, will run out on Aug. 31 after Abbott vetoed its funding following the failure of two of his priority bills during the Democratic walkout in the regular session.

Democrats have challenged in court Abbott's decision, which puts in jeopardy the livelihood of about 2,100 legislative staffers. But if they do not return to Austin to reinstate funding during the special session, Republicans could blame them for not paying those staffers.

"[The Democrats are] walking out the door right when they have an opportunity to get their staff paid when they've been complaining about it," said Corbin Casteel, a GOP strategist. "It's a double-edged sword. They may be able to hold off on the voter integrity bill but they're also screwing their own staff."

Other House Republicans reacted Monday by filing legislation that would penalize lawmakers in the future for attempting to break quorum.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, who chairs the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he had filed a constitutional amendment proposal that would remove protections for a lawmakers' salary if that legislator has an unexcused absence when a quorum is not present. He also filed legislation that would prevent lawmakers from campaign fundraising during a special session.

Middleton's move came on the heels of state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a fellow Freedom Caucus member from Arlington, filing a House resolution that would allow the chamber to strip lawmakers who leave of their chairmanships and committee assignments as well as open the door for revoking "perks like large offices and coveted parking spots" that are typically doled out based on member seniority.

State Rep. Andrew Murr, a Junction Republican who is spearheading the House's election bill, said in a statement to the Tribune that "it would be extremely disheartening" to see Democrats "make efforts to avoid debate on this topic." He also said he's "been as transparent as possible" to help "create the smartest and most effective policies."

"I know both myself and other representatives would welcome the opportunity to continue the debate and work together to pass a strong election integrity bill," Murr said.

Casteel said the state's minority party could be trading a short-term gain for a long-term loss with their latest walkout.

"This is one of those kinds of deals where you're looking at the battle versus the war," he said. "They won the first battle during the regular [session], they're trying the same thing here, but eventually their time is gonna run out and they're gonna have to come vote."

In 2003, House Democrats left the state during the regular session to prevent a redistricting plan by Republicans who had just taken both chambers of the Legislature. Senate Democrats stalled for two special legislative sessions, until the redrawn maps were finally passed during the third special session called by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

Jon Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Abbott could do the same thing if Democrats do not return before the end of the special session.

"It's the old adage of elections have consequences," Taylor said. "When you're not in the majority, they still at this point can't stop this stuff."

But Taylor said even if Democrats can't stop the elections bill, they can still bring attention to their cause.

"The point is to get it across to voters, to Congress, to the nation because this is not just something happening in Texas, it's happening in other red states," he said. "We see it in Georgia, Florida, we've seen it in Oklahoma and we'll probably see it in other states."

Still, the maneuver is a calculated risk.

"You're already seeing it," Taylor said. "[Democrats are] viewed as heroes on the Democrat side and the focus of all evil on Republican side."

Texans line up by the hundreds to testify in Republicans' voter suppression special session

The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is working rapidly in its second bid to pass new restrictions on voting, considering legislation in overlapping committee hearings that are expected to go late into the night.

Nearly 300 members of the public were signed up to testify on the legislation that makes up the GOP's renewed effort to further tighten state voting rules. The House committee is expected to vote to advance its bill at the end of its hearing, putting the bill on a path to be voted on by the full chamber next week.

The legislation filed in each chamber is similar to the GOP priority voting bill from the spring regular legislative session that prompted Democrats' to walk out and break quorum. That action effectively killed the bill, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to call the special session that began Thursday. In Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, Republicans have already dulled some of the edges of the legislation, dropping controversial provisions to restrict Sunday voting hours and to make it easier for judges to overturn elections.

The bills' authors are still moving to ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting options, enhance access for partisan poll watchers and prohibit local election officials from proactively distributing applications to request mail-in ballots. Both bills also include language to further restrict the state's voting-by-mail rules, including new ID requirements for absentee voters.

"You'll notice that most of the security measures in Senate Bill 1 are not aimed at individual voters," state Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Republican authoring the Senate legislation, said in presenting his bill. "By and large, individual voters are trying to vote. They're trying to do the right thing. We want them to do that. The security measures in this bill, by and large, are directed at vote harvesters or folks who are trying to steal votes."

Falling in line with the GOP's nationwide response to former President Donald Trump's false claims of widespread voting irregularities, Texas Republicans have pitched their voting bill as part of an effort to bolster the security of Texas elections — even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud and state officials described the 2020 election as "smooth and secure."

But the proposals have been met with concerns from civil rights organizations and voting rights advocates who have argued that efforts geared toward improving security would instead complicate the voting process, particularly for marginalized voters. Significant portions of both bills focus on shutting down local expansion of voting options meant to make it easier to vote, like the drive-thru voting and overnight early voting hours used by Harris County in the 2020 general election. Local officials have said both initiatives proved particularly successful in reaching voters of color.

Upon questioning by Democrats, Keith Ingram — the top elections official for the Texas Secretary of State — told lawmakers he was not aware of evidence of fraud tied to voting that occurred overnight or as part of Harris County's drive-thru efforts.

On Saturday, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, questioned why the Legislature would prohibit options to increase voter access altogether instead of working to address the concerns Republicans may have about how they were implemented.

"Surely, we should be able to find ways to resolve those issues, especially if it's a convenient model for people to be able to vote," West said. "When we stand up and say, 'We can't fix it but we don't even want to look at trying to fix it,' I think it's inconsistent with the intent of the bill."

Hughes defended the ban by arguing it would not limit voter access because the state offers a long early voting period and that requiring voters to go into polling places to cast their ballots in person was "not a radical concept."

As of nearly 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the House committee considering the legislation had not yet turned to public testimony.

The Senate committee, meanwhile, was still listening to the over 200 people who had signed up to testify on the legislation, including former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso. O'Rourke, who called the legislation "a solution in search of a problem," told lawmakers there are more pressing matters facing the state and referenced a deadly winter storm earlier this year that has since prompted concerns about the reliability of the state's electric grid.

"If you're looking for something, more than 700 of our fellow Texans died because we couldn't keep the power on in February," he told the committee. "There are very real problems that require our attention and our focus, and [SB 1] just does not happen to be one of them."

Debate over the election bills comes as Republicans at the Legislature push a number of other issues on Gov. Greg Abbott's special session agenda — an 11-item priority list that appeals largely to conservative voters and includes legislation that did not pass when the Legislature convened earlier this year.

Democrats so far haven't ruled out another quorum break to again block the election bill, with party members in both chambers saying all options remain on the table. Though House Republicans have changed some of their approach for the special session in an apparent effort to appease opponents, Democrats say the legislation is still flawed and insist they plan to fight the bill at every opportunity.

Senate Democrats have echoed those sentiments, though a number of them have rallied around a counter proposal to SB 61 filed by West. The legislation would allow for online and same-day voter registration and expand the early voting period, among other provisions.

West acknowledged during a Friday news conference that while the legislation likely won't receive a hearing in the GOP-dominated Senate, he hopes Democrats and Republicans can "strike compromises to make certain that all people in the state of Texas are able to vote, that it's transparent and that it's secure."

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State 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.

Texas Dems may walkout again during voter suppression special session: 'Everything is on the table'

Outnumbered and virtually powerless to block conservative priorities they oppose, Democrats in the Texas Legislature say they are keeping their options open as they prepare for a special session that is expected to revive the GOP elections bill they killed last month.

The line coming from Democrats across the spectrum: "Everything is on the table." That includes another walkout like the one that doomed Senate Bill 7 in the final hours of the regular legislative session when Democrats broke quorum. But this time, such a move could now imperil the pay of their staffers, since Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the funding for the legislative branch while telling lawmakers they could restore it in the special session that starts in less than a week.

"From a caucus perspective, since we're going into the unknown, we have to keep every option open, which includes denying quorum," said Rep. Jessica González of Dallas, vice chair of the House Elections Committee. "I think a lot of folks want to see what would be in [the elections bill] before making a decision."

She said House Democrats are "trying to get a sense of where the majority of our caucus is," but that consensus is "to be determined." Similarly, Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth said during a Texas Tribune event Tuesday that "right now, there has not been any type of resolution or concerted efforts."

"Everything is on the table," Collier said. "We're not going to remove any options at this point."

There are still a number of unknowns before Democrats can settle on a strategy, including what the full agenda will be for the special session, how Abbott will structure it and what the elections bill will look like. Abbott announced June 22 that the special session will begin July 8 but offered no other details, only saying the agenda would be announced before the session starts.

Democrats will also have to consider Abbott's veto of funding for the Legislature for the two-year budget cycle starting Sept. 1. That gives lawmakers an incentive to participate in the special session — or potentially sacrifice their staffers' pay. Abbott's veto was in retribution for the Democrats' walk out, but it affects more than 2,100 legislative staffers and individuals working at legislative agencies. (Abbott has acknowledged the lawmakers' salaries are protected by the state Constitution.)

Last week, Democrats and staffers sued over Abbott's veto, asking the state Supreme Court to reverse it. Abbott's office faces a Monday deadline to respond to the lawsuit.

The elections bill is unlikely to be the only proposal that Democrats will have to strategize against in the special session. In addition to vowing to bring back the voting legislation, Abbott has also said he would resurrect Republican priority proposals to crack down on "critical race theory" in Texas classrooms and punish social media companies for allegedly censoring Texans for their political views.

House Democrats sought to regroup for the coming battles during a meeting Monday at the Hotel Van Zandt in Austin. Roughly half of the 67-member caucus attended, according to three people who were present.

The head of the caucus, Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, said members "had a productive meeting, discussing our litigation challenging Gov. Abbott's unconstitutional veto of the Legislature, as well as the upcoming special session."

"House Democrats are united and prepared to fight for all Texans, especially when it comes to defending the sacred right to vote," Turner said in a statement.

SB 7, the bill that Democrats derailed in the regular session, would have put new limits on early voting hours, local voting options and mail ballots. Critics of the bill have called it an attempt at voter suppression that disproportionately affects Texans of color.

Whatever Democrats decide to do, it could only cause another temporary delay in consideration of the election bill given that they remain in the minority at the Legislature and only one Republican — Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — has shown interest in splitting with his party.

Abbott's veto only further backed them into a corner.

Rep. Armando "Mando" Martinez of Weslaco, one of the Democrats who walked out, said in an interview Wednesday that Abbott's veto was "extremely juvenile" but that the potential loss of staff pay was "absolutely" weighing on him as July 8 nears. Still, he expressed optimism that Democrats would be able to navigate the conundrum.

"I think Democrats have always been resilient in the way that we use the rules to our benefit," Martinez said, adding that he was "very confident" that Democrats would ultimately coalesce around a strategy.

The special session also presents potentially tough choices for some Republicans, namely House Speaker Dade Phelan. After the walkout, he drew the wrath of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who charged Phelan with mismanaging the House calendar and allowing Democrats the opportunity to break quorum. Phelan has denied that.

At the same time, Phelan has said he will not resort to the most drastic of measures — locking the chambers doors and dispatching state police — if Democrats seek to abandon the chamber again. His office is nonetheless emphasizing its commitment to finishing the job on the voting legislation.

"If it takes a hundred special sessions, the Texas Legislature will pass an election integrity bill that instills further confidence in the accuracy of our elections," Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said in a statement for this story.

Both Texas Republicans and Democrats will have to deal with more national attention than they did during the regular session. That is particularly true as voting rights battles shift even more to the states after Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked Democrats' far-ranging elections overhaul last week. Democratic state lawmakers in Texas had tried to leverage their walkout to force a breakthrough on the federal legislation, known as the For the People Act.

Among Democrats organizing outside the Texas Capitol, there has been virtually unanimous deference to lawmakers in the special session beyond voicing support for their everything-on-the-table approach. Beto O'Rourke, who spent weeks touring the state about voting rights after the walkout, said during a recent interview that Democratic legislators "have done so much so far, and I'm confident they're gonna do whatever it takes in any special session."

"There's nothing that they shouldn't consider," said Glenn Smith, senior strategist for Progress Texas, the Austin-based Democratic group.

One question for Democrats is how much they should work with Republicans on the elections legislation, especially after they were largely cut out of negotiations over the final version of SB 7 at the end of the regular session. Those talks produced a bill that GOP negotiators later admitted was flawed, saying they made mistakes with regard to the early voting window for Sundays and a process for overturning elections.

"Building that trust back would be a hard thing," Smith said, adding that he thinks Democrats "will talk [with Republicans], but I think we'll be very weary of what they're saying."

To be clear, House Democrats were not unanimous in their decision to break quorum over SB 7, and several appeared to stay behind, including a group of border-area representatives.

One of them, Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass, said in a text message Tuesday that he "supported and will continue to support" fellow Democrats who walked out, but in his case, he felt it was best to remain on the floor with other Democrats from the border region and argue against the bill in person.

"As far as this special session goes," Morales said, "I need to visit with the rest of my colleagues and leadership to see what strategies we plan on using."

Texas House Democrats and legislative staffers take Gov. Greg Abbott to court for defunding Legislature

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A group that includes Texas House Democrats and legislative staffers is asking the Texas Supreme Court to override Gov. Greg Abbott's recent veto of a portion of the state budget that funds the Legislature, staffers there and legislative agencies.

More than 60 Democratic members of the House signed a petition for a writ of mandamus, which was filed Friday morning, as did the House Democratic Caucus and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, four state employees and the Texas AFL-CIO.

"The state is in a constitutional crisis at this moment," said Chad Dunn, an attorney involved with the petition, during a briefing with reporters Thursday.

The governor had vowed to veto the Legislature's funding in the final hours of the regular legislative session in May after House Democrats broke quorum and left the chamber to prevent passage of a controversial elections bill. That legislation, an Abbott priority, would have created new limitations to early voting hours, increased voting-by-mail restrictions and curbed local voting options.

The petition argues that Abbott exceeded his executive authority and violated the state's separation of powers doctrine. The parties involved with the petition are asking the all-Republican court to find Abbott's veto unconstitutional, which would allow Article X of the state budget, the section at issue, to become law later this year.

"Governor Abbott's veto is an attempt to coerce, and thereby direct, how the Legislature discharges its functions — far exceeding the usual mechanism of the veto as a check on legislative excess," the petition says. "If accepted, it would allow the governor to indirectly commandeer the Legislature by making its very existence contingent on its willingness to enact the governor's preferred agenda. And it would set the precedent for the governor to do the same to the judiciary."

In a statement later Friday, a spokesperson for Abbott called the Democrats' argument "misleading and misguided."

"The Constitution protects the legislative branch, and as the Democrats well know, their positions, their powers and their salaries are protected by the Constitution," Renae Eze said. "They can continue to legislate despite the veto."

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party's caucus in the lower chamber, told reporters Thursday there are roughly 2,000 employees in the state's legislative branch that would be affected by Abbott's veto if it stands.

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.

"This isn't about [lawmakers'] paychecks," Turner said during the briefing. "What he's doing is hurting our staff and hurting our constituents."

Abbott's veto pertains to the upcoming two-year state budget that takes effect Sept. 1. The issue could get resolved next month when state lawmakers return to Austin for a special legislative session starting July 8. If Abbott includes legislative funding on the agenda, lawmakers could pass a supplemental budget to restore funding and prevent employees potentially going without a paycheck. That document, if the Legislature passed it, would also need a sign off from Abbott before it could go into effect.

In the meantime, the petition asks the court to proceed on an expedited schedule to help resolve the issue by Sept. 1.

"That's what happens when one branch gets in a conflict with another — the third leg of the stool steps in and resolves it," Dunn, the plaintiffs' attorney, said. "That's what we're doing here."

Texas House Democrats and legislative staffers take Gov. Greg Abbott to court for defunding Legislature

A group that includes Texas House Democrats and legislative staffers is asking the Texas Supreme Court to override Gov. Greg Abbott's recent veto of a portion of the state budget that funds the Legislature, staffers there and legislative agencies.

More than 50 Democratic members of the House signed a petition for a writ of mandamus, which was filed Friday morning, as did the House Democratic Caucus and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, four state employees, and the Texas AFL-CIO.

"The state is in a constitutional crisis at this moment," said Chad Dunn, an attorney involved with the petition, during a briefing with reporters Thursday.

The governor had vowed to veto the Legislature's funding in the final hours of the regular legislative session in May after House Democrats broke quorum and left the chamber to prevent passage of a controversial elections bill. That legislation, an Abbott priority, would have created new limitations to early voting hours, increased voting-by-mail restrictions and curbed local voting options.

The petition argues that Abbott exceeded his executive authority and violated the state's separation of powers doctrine. The parties involved with the petition are asking the all-Republican court to find Abbott's veto unconstitutional, which would allow Article X of the state budget, the section at issue, to become law later this year.

"Governor Abbott's veto is an attempt to coerce, and thereby direct, how the Legislature discharges its functions — far exceeding the usual mechanism of the veto as a check on legislative excess," the petition says. "If accepted, it would allow the governor to indirectly commandeer the Legislature by making its very existence contingent on its willingness to enact the governor's preferred agenda. And it would set the precedent for the governor to do the same to the judiciary."

Abbott's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party's caucus in the lower chamber, told reporters Thursday there are roughly 2,000 employees in the state's legislative branch that would be affected by Abbott's veto if it stands.

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.

"This isn't about [lawmakers'] paychecks," Turner said during the briefing. "What he's doing is hurting our staff and hurting our constituents."

Abbott's veto pertains to the upcoming two-year state budget that takes effect Sept. 1. The issue could get resolved next month when state lawmakers return to Austin for a special legislative session starting July 8. If Abbott includes legislative funding on the agenda, lawmakers could pass a supplemental budget to restore funding and prevent employees potentially going without a paycheck. That document, if the Legislature passed it, would also need a sign off from Abbott before it could go into effect.

In the meantime, the petition asks the court to proceed on an expedited schedule to help resolve the issue by Sept. 1.

"That's what happens when one branch gets in a conflict with another — the third leg of the stool steps in and resolves it," Dunn, the plaintiffs' attorney, said. "That's what we're doing here."

Texas governor defunds the legislature after Dems walked out to block voter suppression bill: report

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday followed through on a threat to veto a section of the state budget that funds the Texas Legislature, its staffers and legislative agencies.

The governor's move targeting lawmaker pay comes after House Democrats walked out in the final days of the regular legislative session, breaking quorum, to block passage of Senate Bill 7, Abbott's priority elections bill that would have overhauled voting rights in the state. The move also killed bail legislation that Abbott had earmarked as a priority.

In a statement, Abbott said that "funding should not be provided for those who quit their job early, leaving their state with unfinished business and exposing taxpayers to higher costs for an additional legislative session."

"I therefore object to and disapprove of these appropriations," the governor said.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner of Grand Prairie called the move by Abbott an "abuse of power" and said the caucus "is exploring every option, including immediate legal options, to fight back."

"Texas has a governor, not a dictator," Turner said in a statement. "The tyrannical veto of the legislative branch is the latest indication that [Abbott] is simply out of control."

Since Abbott issued his threat earlier this month, other lawmakers and political leaders have raised concerns over how the move could impact staffers and legislative agencies that are funded by Article X, which is the section of the budget he vetoed, such as the Legislative Reference Library and the Legislative Budget Board.

"I'm just concerned how it impacts them because they weren't the ones who decided that we were going to break quorum, it wasn't their decision, right?," said House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, in an interview earlier this month.

Questions have also been raised about the constitutionality of the move, which according to the Legislative Reference Library is unprecedented.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate, had expressed support for Abbott's proposed veto, saying the move could force Democrats to come back for a special session.

The biennial budget at hand covers the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1. If lawmakers are back in Austin for a special session before then, they could pass a supplemental budget to restore that funding.

Lawmakers are paid $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session, during both regular and special sessions.

The Legislature is expected to convene for at least two special sessions, Abbott has said in interviews. One, set for September or October, will focus on the redrawing of the state's political maps and the doling out of $16 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds. Before that, the governor has said he will call lawmakers back to work on the elections and bail bills as well as a number of other issues he has not yet announced.

Texas legislature wraps up for now — but will be restarting soon for special session

The Texas Legislature closed out its regular 140-day session Monday with sniping among the state's top political leaders and lawmakers already well aware they will be back this calendar year for an overtime round.

"We will be back — when, I don't know, but we will be back," House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told members from the speaker's dais. "There's a lot of work to be done, but I look forward to doing it with every single one of you."

Talk of a special session — and questions about how soon one may happen or what additional issues Gov. Greg Abbott could task legislators with — has largely defined the last weekend of the Legislature's 140-day stretch after lawmakers left unfinished a number of GOP priorities and tensions between the two chambers escalated.

That drama reached new highs Sunday night when House Democrats staged a walk out and broke quorum, making it impossible to give final approval Senate Bill 7, a massive GOP priority voting bill that would tighten the state's election laws, before the midnight deadline.

Abbott quickly made clear that the bill, along with another other priority legislation that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash, "STILL must pass" — and said that the two issues "will be added to the special session agenda."

The governor, who is the only official who holds the power to convene a special session, has not yet specified whether he plans to order one ahead of an overtime round already planned for the fall to handle the redrawing of the state's political maps. An Abbott spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment earlier Monday.

Before lawmakers adjourned though, Abbott made clear he intends to reprimand the Legislature over its unfinished business by vetoing the section of the state budget that funds the legislative branch.

"No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities," he tweeted. "Stay tuned."

Shortly after lawmakers adjourned for the final time, Abbott released a lengthier statement in which he applauded the Legislature for pushing through a series of conservative victories, while doubling down on his demands that lawmakers pass voting and bail legislation. But the governor also left open the possibility that other topics could be added to the agenda for the special session.

House Democrats earlier this week successfully killed proposals that would've banned local governments from using taxpayer dollars to pay lobbyists, prohibited social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoints and barred transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity. Abbott had previously said he would sign those bills.

"I expect legislators to have worked out their differences prior to arriving back at the Capitol so that they can hit the ground running to pass legislation related to these emergency items and other priority legislation," he said.

Aside from handling last-minute, typical end-of-session to-dos — such as correcting technical errors in already-passed legislation and recognizing Capitol staff — House members were busy Monday taking photos with one another and with family members who were in town. Members, led by state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, also applauded Phelan over his first term as speaker.

"We always go through ups and downs — that's the nature of the Legislature — but what we're really here to tell you is: You did a great job," Hunter told Phelan from the chamber's back microphone. "Thanks for standing up for the Texas House."

Even before Sunday night's Democratic walkout, tension had been high in the Capitol.

Frustrated that the Senate had not moved fast enough on House leadership's priorities, the House recessed for several days of the session's home stretch. Later, three of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick missed a key deadline in the House, leading Patrick to call for an immediate special session this summer. When the voting bill failed Sunday night, Patrick pointed the finger squarely at Phelan, saying "clock ran out on the House because it was managed poorly."

Mentions of an imminent special session were sprinkled into conversations throughout Monday in the House. Before Hunter asked the chamber to applaud Phelan, the lawmaker asked whether it was the last day of the regular session — and added that he had heard "we may be getting a coastal breeze in the fall."

Phelan during his speech also alluded to the special session, telling members that while he hoped that the Legislature would not return until the fall, the decision was not his.

"Let's just have a restful, peaceful summer and hopefully be back here in the fall," Phelan said. "But that's not my decision, that's someone else's decision."

Phelan also emphasized abiding by legislative rules, an apparent dig at Patrick and the Senate, which moved in the early hours of Sunday morning to suspend its rules and jam through a series of last-minute additions to the expansive voting bill.

"No matter the external forces that tried to distract us or diminish the work of this body, we are the Texas House," Phelan said. "In this House, we work hard — and our rules matter. Our rules matter."

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, senators slowly filled the chamber Monday morning — many with family members in tow — as they exchanged cordial handshakes and friendly smiles. Clusters of bipartisan conversation presented a stark contrast to the late-night partisanship that largely defined a strange legislative session.

The first order of business as Patrick gaveled in the final regular session meeting of the upper chamber was the election of the body's president pro tempore during the interim — a largely ceremonial role reserved for the longest-serving senator who has not previously served in such a capacity. This year, that honor fell to state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.

Members, each wearing a yellow rose in homage to Campbell, took turns commending her heart, her perseverance and her faith. "Many people consider her an iron first in a velvet glove, perhaps because of her firmness and her brevity," said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Campbell was flanked by her four daughters as she addressed her colleagues from the dais, the events from a tumultuous session seemingly weighing on her mind.

"We are chosen leaders of this great state of Texas at a time of great challenges," she said. "We came into our position, our position of leadership, for a time such as this."

After approving a series of memorial resolutions and technical changes to bills, the Senate prepared to gavel out for the final time this regular session. A hint at unfinished business rang out in Patrick's closing remarks.

"I normally say I'll see you in 18 months, but I might see you in 18 days or so," he said.

The trouble with Texas

The 2021 Texas legislative session is heading into its final weekend fraught with uncertainty and tension between the two chambers that could lead to a special session.

After three of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's priorities effectively died Tuesday night in the House, the Senate presiding officer called for a special session to pass them, jolting the final several days of a session that was already on track to be the most conservative in recent memory. The last day of the session is Monday, and procedural deadlines have been increasingly cutting off opportunities to hash out key issues.

In some ways, it is a familiar story from past sessions: Tensions between the two chambers are peaking, and Patrick is putting pressure on Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session for unfinished business on conservative priorities. Patrick got his way in 2017, forcing a special session in an ultimately failed push to pass legislation to regulate bathroom use by transgender people.

Patrick specifically wants a June special session — prior to the special session that Abbott is widely expected to call this fall to address redistricting and COVID-19 relief funds. Abbott indicated Wednesday he was not immediately on board with Patrick's demand, and he put a finer point on his resistance Thursday afternoon during an unrelated news conference in Fort Worth.

“That's pretty goofy because everybody knows there's only one person with the authority to call a special session, and that's the governor," Abbott said of Patrick's push for a special session, adding that those agitating for a special session should be careful what they wish for.

During special sessions, lawmakers are only allowed to consider legislation on subjects selected by the governor. Abbott said that if he initiates a special session, he would not load up the agenda with multiple items for lawmakers to address at once but would “go one item at a time."

“So if anyone tries to hold hostage this legislative session to force a special session," Abbott said, “that person will be putting their members, in the Senate or the House, potentially into a special session for another two years because I'm gonna make sure that we get things passed, not just open up some debating society."

Patrick appeared caught off-guard by Abbott's “goofy" comment later Thursday, asking a TV interviewer multiple times if the governor had really said it. Patrick went on to say it was “not goofy" to request a special session, arguing it was the only option left to him at this point in the session, despite Abbott's insistence that there is still time to salvage the three items.

Also in TV interviews Thursday afternoon, Patrick denied that the Senate was purposely sitting on legislation to trigger a special session. Speculation ramped up around that possibility overnight when the Senate missed a deadline to consider a seemingly must-pass bill to extend the life of state agencies.

“I support the governor but I'm pointing out that, and clearly he's the person that can call it, only person, but I have a right and so does everyone else to ask him to call it and that's what I'm doing," Patrick told Spectrum News in Austin. “And there was a reference about holding hostage, I'm not holding anything hostage."

At the Fort Worth news conference, Abbott insisted he “strongly" supports the three incomplete priorities that prompted Patrick's call for a special session: Punishing social media companies for "censoring" Texans based on their political viewpoints, outlawing transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity and banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. The issues cap a session that has already seen a slew of long-sought wins for conservative activists, including permitless carry of handguns and a “heartbeat" bill that could ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Despite the high-stakes staredown with Patrick, Abbott downplayed any perceived disunity among the state's leaders, saying the back and forth was to be expected in the final days of a session.

“If the leaders in the Legislature will stop fighting with each other and start working together," Abbott said in Fort Worth, “we can get all of this across the finish line."

Abbott and Patrick traded comments as lawmakers Thursday afternoon sent Abbott a roughly $248 billion spending plan for the state for the next two years, which is the only legislation constitutionally required to pass during a regular session.

But the comments between the two also came after tensions had been simmering inside each chamber for days. Last Thursday, the House stopped work for the week out of frustration that the Senate wasn't passing enough of its priority bills.

Patrick hardly concealed his disdain for the House in remarks to the senators from the dais on Wednesday night, speaking hours after his special session demand.

"As you all know, the House was not here Friday," Patrick said. “The House was not here Saturday. The House has already quit for today. So we're working hard, we're passing bills— they weren't here for two days in the last five. They're gone now. They killed key bills of yours last night, because they weren't here."

The Senate ended up working hours past midnight Wednesday.

As the senators worked, House Speaker Dade Phelan attempted to enter the chamber to watch proceedings but was denied entry because he did not have a wristband proving he had tested negative for the coronavirus, as Quorum Report first reported. Members, staff and the general public have been required to have a negative COVID-19 test before entering the chamber floor or gallery as part of the Senate's pandemic protocols that have been in place throughout session.

Phelan “ is always welcome in the TxSenate and was not denied entry [tonight]," the lieutenant governor's office tweeted early Thursday morning. “Messengers offered to get him a wristband, but the Speaker declined and left."

In a jab at the Senate later that morning, Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and top lieutenant of the speaker, rattled off statistics comparing the number of House bills and Senate bills the two chambers have taken action on in a series of questions from the chamber's back microphone.

Is it true, Burrows asked Phelan, that “less than 50% of the House bills that we sent over were passed by the Senate, are you aware of that?"

“The chair is not advised," the speaker replied.

“By comparison," Burrows said, “of those bills considered and passed, is it true that we passed 75% of the Senate bills sent over to us?"

“75% is a lot of Senate bills and sounds accurate, Mr. Burrows," Phelan said.

Burrows' line of questioning seemed to reflect the frustration felt by some House members such as Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican, who told the Tribune on Thursday that the Senate had not yet acted on three of his legislative priorities for the session.

White, who chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, said his committee “did not delay one damn Senate bill" this session.

“Tension is good sometimes," White said. “We're all working hard, and I'm proud of the work my committee did."

Other House members were not afraid to take shots at the Senate on Thursday, including Rep. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican.

“The GOP senate bashing the GOP house last night for not working late," Larson tweeted, referring to Patrick's comments made in the Senate the night before. “DP Ego .. ugh."

House Democrats had been most focused on killing Senate Bill 29, which would require transgender student athletes to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. Waving blue and pink transgender pride flags, Democrats celebrated when the midnight deadline to pass the bill came before a vote had been held.

In a radio interview the next morning, one Senate Republican vowed that the issue of transgender student athletes would remain front and center.

“It's not going away," Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills said, speaking minutes before Patrick issued his call for a special session. “You can delay this, but this is not going away."

Abbott has not been outspoken about bills targeting transgender youth this session, though he said during a Fox News appearance last month that he would sign a bill like SB 29.

Like in 2017, Abbott again finds himself facing intraparty pressure to call a special session ahead of a reelection year. This time, though, Abbott is facing more opposition from his right: He has already drawn a primary challenger in former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, and Texas GOP Chairman Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller have not ruled out bids against Abbott.

Huffines said Wednesday he backed “calls for an imminent special session," while West voiced support for a special session as long as it addresses the state party's legislative priorities. One of those priorities is abolishing taxpayer-funded lobbying.

Miller, meanwhile, said in an email to supporters Wednesday that a special session to pass Patrick's three unfinished priorities “now looks likely."

Reese Oxner contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/27/texas-legislature-special-session/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

A false date rape drugging accusation against a lobbyist exposed claims of his role in the Texas Capitol’s culture of sexual harassment

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Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.

Although it had not been officially released, the investigative report began ricocheting around computers and cellphones at the Texas Capitol early Tuesday evening, and it made one thing unambiguously clear: Rick Dennis, a lobbyist with one of Austin's most prominent firms, was not guilty of using a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers during a night out in Austin.

Rumors that Dennis had been accused of doing so rocked the Capitol in late April, prompting outraged reactions from legislative leaders and state lawmakers. But a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation found the allegation baseless. Authorities soon after said they would not seek charges.

The DPS report, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, concluded that the false allegation was fueled by two female legislative staffers, one of whom was trying to cover up behavior of her own that had nothing to do with Dennis.

Still, the incident laid bare larger questions about a Capitol culture that many female staffers say often leads to allegations of misconduct and harassment being brushed under the rug by those with the power to act.

Dennis has faced multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior with women as both a legislative staffer and lobbyist — and in at least two instances has been banned from visiting certain Capitol offices because of them, according to current and former staffers and documentation reviewed by the Tribune.

Those past allegations include offering graphic descriptions of sex acts inside a House member's office, openly speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees, and creating "an office contest" in which Dennis demanded that he, as winner, would be able to "shoot white yogurt" onto the face of the loser, a female subordinate.

Those complaints, though, appeared to have little effect on his stature at the Capitol.

Dennis, through his attorneys, largely denied previous allegations to the Tribune. He did express regret about his time in state Rep. Tan Parker's office during the 2015 legislative session, which he characterized as a stretch that "had too much of a locker room environment."

Dennis' history does not include accusations involving physical behavior or sexual violence, according to current and former staffers interviewed for this story. But his reputation for inappropriate comments, in part, explains why the date rape drug allegation took hold fiercely when it surfaced.

While lawmakers appropriately expressed outrage over fears that a staffer had been drugged, Capitol workers say, they're bothered that years of documented complaints about sexual harassment didn't meet the same threshold for those in power.

The latest incident has sent a message about what isn't acceptable in the culture of state government. And what apparently is.

The false allegation

In the early evening of April 1, the two female legislative staffers joined a group of lobbyists for drinks at the Austin Club, a nearby haunt frequented by the Capitol crowd. According to the DPS report, the two women had recently received the coronavirus vaccine.

After a short time there, one of the women began to feel ill and left soon after. Her condition prompted a trip hours later to the emergency room, where the report says she was treated for dehydration, stomach pain and nausea. The second woman, meanwhile, had stayed with the group, and later left with another Capitol staffer she was romantically involved with, the report says.

In text messages later shared with the investigator, the second woman told her boyfriend and her co-worker's mother that she had tested positive for the date rape drug GHB at a medical clinic the next morning.

Her co-worker soon after contacted DPS and raised the possibility that someone had put GHB in their drinks while at the Austin Club. DPS opened an investigation and briefed certain state leaders and lawmakers about the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Although he was not named publicly, word spread quickly through Capitol circles that Dennis, a lobbyist employed by HillCo who had been at the Austin Club gathering, was a target of the investigation.

But the accusation fell apart under investigation. The second woman had not been tested for GHB, the investigator found. According to his report, he found inconsistencies in her story and "observed [her] to be very deceptive" during an interview.

Throughout that interview, the investigator noted, she "attempted to sell … the reputation of Richard Dennis rather than articulate facts as to why Dennis or any other lobbyist or person at the table would have placed an adulterant" into the two staffers' drinks. Her story, according to the report, "contradicted most if not all facts" that the investigator had learned.

The other staffer, meanwhile, also made references to Dennis not having "a great reputation" in interviews with the investigator, the report says.

The staffer began to cry, the report says, when the investigator told her about the second staffer's inconsistencies and asked her if she thought Dennis could have drugged the two aides.

"I don't," she said, according to the report. "I don't think I would've filed anything if I would've known from the beginning it wasn't what I thought it was."

The second woman, the investigator concluded, had manufactured the date rape drug story in an effort to conceal from her boyfriend the fact that she had gone home that night with another man. The ill effects both women felt may have been a result of drinking alcohol after receiving the coronavirus vaccine, the report said.

After authorities announced no crime had occurred, Dennis' lawyers, David and Perry Minton, called the allegation "a devious plan to frame our client by an unscrupulous individual or individuals to cover up their own indiscretions." And Buddy Jones, co-founder of HillCo Partners, said in an email to state lawmakers that "unfortunately, the lives of innocent people were adversely affected, most especially Rick Dennis."

The Capitol machine had already expressed outrage over the allegation, though. Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, delivered a speech on the House floor, saying he was "disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol." A number of lawmakers and lobbyists wore pink one day "to stand in support and solidarity with" the alleged victim. Several House members declared their offices off limits to the accused lobbyist or the lobby firm. And most of the House's female members signed on to an open letter that said they hoped "sends a clear message that we will not tolerate sexual harassment or abuse."

In a statement for this story, Bill Miller, the other HillCo co-founder, said the firm would not discuss Dennis "or any other employees of our firm." He also said the allegation was "perpetrated by unscrupulous people for nefarious reasons to frame an innocent party."

"An unbearably hostile work environment"

The atmosphere at the Texas Capitol has been well-documented in recent years. In 2017, the Daily Beast reported accounts of sexual harassment and misconduct in and around the Capitol and included allegations made against a number of current and former state lawmakers such as state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. A spokesperson for Miles at the time called the allegations "unfounded and implausible."

Later, reporting by the Tribune and interviews with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and staffers revealed that sexual harassment regularly goes unchecked at the Capitol — and that policies in the two chambers often relied on people in power with little incentive to enforce them.

Dennis has been a presence at the Capitol for years. He worked for Parker — a Republican House member whose office declined to respond to a list of emailed questions for this story — from 2007-15, according to Dennis' LinkedIn profile. Dennis also held a role as a strategist for the House Republican Caucus, his LinkedIn shows.

As the 2015 legislative session wrapped up, Julie Young, who at the time was working in Parker's office, said she endured or witnessed multiple instances of harassment from Dennis, the lawmaker's chief of staff. Young wrote a letter to Parker detailing incidents involving Dennis in the office and shared it with other staff members. Young said she brought a hard copy of the letter to discuss with Parker at a June 2015 meeting the two had scheduled.

The letter, a copy of which was shared with the Tribune, said the instances listed "made [the office] all extremely uncomfortable" and made Parker's "office an unbearably hostile work environment."

"We are under direction to discuss these issues with you first," the letter said, "and then if the situation is not handled internally, we are told to go straight to House Personnel who will take the issue to [then-House Administration Chair] Charlie Geren."

The letter described Dennis speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees in front of other members of the office. The letter said he repeatedly told two staffers they would "sleep together before session is over." Dennis also "repeatedly said to multiple people" that Young has "Fuck me eyes," the letter said.

The letter also described "an office contest" Dennis held "in which he demanded that the winner be able to 'shoot white yogurt onto the loser's face.'" A female staffer lost "and had white yogurt thrown in her face by Rick, in the office," the letter said.

In the two weeks after receiving the letter, Parker met individually with staff members and confirmed with each of them the incidents detailed in that letter, Young told the Tribune. Soon after that, she said, Parker held a meeting with staff in his office and apologized, saying they wouldn't have to come in contact with Dennis moving forward.

Parker, though, continued to pay Dennis and did not sign paperwork terminating his employment until five months later, in November 2015, according to House personnel and payroll records reviewed by the Tribune.

Dennis, in response to an emailed list of questions for this story, largely denied the allegations and said he felt the letter was "unfair." But he did say that, "during that period of time," Parker's office "had too much of a locker room environment."

"I admit that and regret it on behalf of all of us," Dennis said. "However, it is absolutely false that I engaged in any of this activity that wasn't being engaged in by all of us, male and female. The very same kind of banter was pointed at me as well."

In response to the yogurt-throwing allegation, Dennis said it "was not a contest, but rather an agreement" with a friend and office colleague who had a birthday close to his.

"Instead of exchanging birthday gifts, we agreed that on her birthday she could throw a spoon of yogurt at me and I could do the same to her on my birthday," he said. "Neither the instance where one spoonful of yogurt was tossed at me or at my colleague was done in a demeaning manner."

Dennis said the idea came from the TV show "Modern Family" "and the fact that my colleague loved eating yogurt in the afternoons." Staff members from other offices were present, as was his wife, he said.

"It was a joke in which we all engaged in willingly," Dennis said.

Dennis said he asked Parker after the letter surfaced if he could work from home, which he said he did until he left the office in November.

Asked to describe what led to his joining HillCo in early 2016, Dennis said he had decided that he "was ready for a new professional challenge" and "wanted to move to work outside the capitol."

He then "sent out an email to my many professional contacts to inform them that I had decided to pursue new opportunities."

One of those recipients, he said, was a friend who worked at the firm and suggested Dennis consider joining.

"I was interviewed and took a position," Dennis said.

"I was not congenial"

When Dennis started at HillCo in early 2016, he was joining one of the most prominent and lucrative lobbying firms in the state. Texas Monthly once included Miller, one of HillCo's co-founders, on its list of the most powerful people in Texas, calling him "the fixer." In 2004, the magazine noted, Miller arranged a meeting between then-House Speaker Tom Craddick and Pope John Paul II.

Jones, the firm's other founder and a former chief of staff to former House Speaker Gib Lewis, is tied for first on Capitol Inside's "Hired Guns" ranking of the state's most powerful lobbyists.

Texas Ethics Commission records show the firm's stable of lobbyists have roughly 200 clients — including H-E-B, Microsoft, Eli Lilly, United Airlines and the Dallas Cowboys — during the 2021 legislative session, bringing in at least $5 million. Dennis alone listed 27 clients this session, who have paid at least $221,000 for his services, though those contracts ended April 26, records with the ethics commission show.

Since Dennis' hiring, the firm has been approached on at least two occasions by lawmakers or legislative aides expressing concern about Dennis' behavior at the Capitol.

One legislative staffer, who asked not to be named to protect her career, told the Tribune that during the 2017 session, Dennis would visit the House Democrat's office where she worked so often that "it felt like he'd come to seek me out." While there, she said, he would often ask about "inappropriate things," such as imploring her to name "the top five representatives [she'd] fuck."

One day that spring, she said, Dennis walked over to her while she was standing near a copy machine. He stood behind her shoulder, she said, and whispered in her ear: "That's how daddy likes it."

Dennis said in a statement to the Tribune through his lawyers that such words "have never come out of my mouth" and called the allegation "absolutely false."

His reason for visiting that office, he said, was "because a very dear male friend of mine worked there and we enjoyed catching up with one another on a frequent basis."

The staffer shared the incident with Young, who had worked with Dennis during the 2015 session in Parker's office and in 2017 was serving as committee clerk for the House Environmental Regulation Committee. Young relayed the information to her boss, then-state Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat who chaired the committee.

Pickett told the Tribune that he then called HillCo. He reached out to Vilma Luna, a woman at the firm and a Democratic former state lawmaker, in hopes that she would better convey the situation to her colleagues, he said. Pickett told Luna he did not want to see Dennis enter the House Democrat's office for the rest of the legislative session. Luna said the firm would take care of it, he recalled.

"It was a very candid conversation," Pickett told the Tribune. "I didn't beat around the bush, and I was not congenial."

Around the same time, Pickett said, he received a call from Dan Pearson, a lobbyist with HillCo, who told the lawmaker he would take care of the situation. Pearson did not return a request for comment for this story.

A day or two later, Pickett said, he called Luna again and asked whether the situation had been conveyed "to those who need to know."

Luna said in a statement to the Tribune that she "was alerted of the situation in March 2017" and "immediately reported through the appropriate channels."

"To my knowledge, it was handled by the office management," she said.

The staff member who initially complained about Dennis told the Tribune that Dennis stopped by her boss' office after Pickett's conversation with HillCo, but that the visit was "extremely brief" once the lobbyist saw the staffer there. Dennis did not return again to the office for the rest of the session, she said, at least while she was there.

Dennis told the Tribune that he "never made the statement referenced" but "was made aware that a staffer had complained about me." One of his bosses at HillCo, he said, "felt the best way to handle the situation was for me not to return to that office for the remainder of the session, which was about three weeks." Dennis said he "was happy to honor that request."

"It felt like standing up for myself and other staffers got Rick Dennis rewarded," Young told the Tribune. "Tweeting supportive statements doesn't show solidarity when you continue to pay a bad actor and keep him on state payroll. Listening to staffers and not rewarding bad actors shows solidarity."

"We will address this quickly"

In 2019, after Pickett retired from office, Young landed a role as committee clerk for the House Higher Education Committee, which was chaired that session by state Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat and head of the House Democratic Caucus.

Young said that as the 2019 session got underway, Dennis, who had clients in the higher education realm, would stop by her office or walk into the committee hearing room while the Higher Education Committee was holding a hearing.

Young said the visits made her uncomfortable because of their history, which prompted her to tell Turner about it and share her experiences with Dennis. Once Turner was made aware of the situation, the lawmaker told the Tribune, he called Jones, the HillCo co-founder. Turner said Jones assured him Dennis' visits to Young would stop.

Around the same time, Pearson, a lobbyist with HillCo, reached out to Young. Text messages reviewed by the Tribune indicate he told her "you have my word that we will address this quickly and remove any chance of this [recurring]."

The two met later that afternoon, Young said. Afterward, Pearson told Young he had already spoken with Jones about the matter and that the two planned to speak with Dennis later that day.

"At a minimum," Pearson said in a text message to Young, "we will assure you he will not come in contact with you in the Committee process."

Young said Dennis stopped coming by her office after that. Dennis offered the same response to this alleged incident as he did to the one in 2017 — that while he "never made the statement referenced," he "was made aware that a staffer had complained about me" and "was happy to honor" a request from HillCo to not return to that office for the remainder of session.

"Standing up for decency"

Although the DPS investigation has concluded, leaders in the House have said conversations about improving the culture at the Capitol should continue.

"The Texas House remains firm in our commitment to move forward with legislation and administrative policy changes that create a safer work environment and culture for our entire Capitol community," said Phelan, the House speaker, and state Reps. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and Donna Howard, D-Austin, in a statement after the investigation ended.

Earlier that week, Phelan delivered a speech on the House floor and called for reforms to the chamber's sexual misconduct policy. He said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to create an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace. Phelan also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to begin changing the chamber's recently implemented sexual harassment prevention training from a virtual experience to an in-person one.

The committee "has prepared and distributed signage" to member and committee offices that outline the new email hotline, said state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, chair of the Administration Committee, in a May 6 statement to the Tribune. The committee, he said, "is also currently in the process of implementing the new in-person workplace conduct training program."

In the meantime, lawmakers in both chambers have taken legislative action on bills related to sexual harassment prevention training. On the House side, legislation spearheaded by Thompson, the Houston Democrat, passed the chamber earlier this month that would require sexual harassment prevention training for state lawmakers, statewide elected officials and registered lobbyists.

The bill passed the chamber 145-2, with Phelan casting a rare vote for it and Republican state Reps. Matt Schaefer of Tyler and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington voting against the bill.

In a statement submitted to the House journal, Schaefer said that while he supported the intent of the legislation, "the deficiency in due process for an accused citizen" prompted his opposition to it. Tinderholt said in his own statement submitted to the journal that he also "fundamentally" agreed with the intent of the legislation but disagreed with the jurisdiction it would give the director of the Texas Ethics Commission.

As she laid out the bill, Thompson asked members to applaud Phelan "for standing up for decency, for integrity."

"It wasn't pillow talk," she said. "It was ... the right thing to do for a leader of this body."

Jolie McCullough and Carla Astudillo contributed to this report.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.

Disclosure: HillCo, H-E-B and Microsoft have been financial supporters 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.


Texas House speaker calls for reforms after allegations of 'predatory behavior' by lobbyist who allegedly drugged Capitol staffer

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber's policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

"These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core," the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, "and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol."

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation has prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter. One co-founder of the firm, Bill Miller, later told The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been "tipped off" that one of its employees "is a person of interest" in the investigation.

"If facts come to light that anyone associated with HillCo partners had any involvement with such conduct, that person will be immediately terminated," HillCo co-founder Buddy Jones wrote, adding that the firm would also cooperate with the DPS investigation.

Phelan said during his speech that he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace. The move, he said, was aimed at making it easier for people to report cases of harassment confidentially.

"Victims shouldn't have to decide between their career and coming forward," Phelan said. "That has to change."

The speaker also fcalled for the chamber's sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually, saying such a change would be "far more effective." Phelan said he had directed the House Administration Committee to begin changing the protocol.

"I stand here today having to address these disgusting, detestable allegations that are a symptom of a culture that has been festering in this building for far too long," Phelan said during his speech. "There is an active investigation underway, and we must let that process play out. However, this sort of behavior has no place in this Capitol, and moving forward, we can and will do better."

For years, the Legislature has been under scrutiny over its handling of reports of sexual misconduct of harassment. Lawmakers in recent years have revised their sexual harassment policies after reports surfaced that previous protocols were flawed and offered little protection for victims.

In 2017, the House updated its sexual harassment policy to include language that strengthened protections against retaliation and provided specific steps to report inappropriate behavior. And in 2019, the chamber voted to create and strengthen investigations related to sexual harassment, which included moving misconduct complaints to a committee with subpoena power and cementing the use of independent investigations of elected officials.

The Senate, meanwhile, revised its sexual harassment policy in 2018 to better detail how to report inappropriate behavior, among other things.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway could get a fee from every power customer in Texas: report

As the Texas Legislature debated how to respond to last month's winter storm-driven power crisis, executives at billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy were pitching lawmakers an idea: The group would spend over $8 billion to build 10 new natural gas power plants in the state. Lawmakers would agree to create a revenue stream to provide Berkshire a return on its investment through an additional charge on Texans' power bills.

Representatives for Berkshire Hathaway Energy have been in Austin meeting with lawmakers and state leaders for the past week and a half, according to a person working closely on the issue.

The proposed company, which would likely be known as the Texas Emergency Power Reserve, would build and maintain plants that sit idle during normal times, according to a slide deck obtained by The Texas Tribune. Whenever demand for power in the state threatened to surpass supply, these new plants would kick in to make up the difference, if ordered to do so by the state's grid operator.

"When you flip that switch and say, look, demand has exceeded supply, it has to come on in 10 minutes," Chris Brown, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, said in an interview Thursday with the Tribune. "That's the Texas Emergency Power Reserve Promise — that's the promise that we're making to the citizens of Texas."

In the presentation, the representatives estimated the cost of that new charge to consumers as $1.42 per month for residential customers, $9.61 for commercial customers and $58.94 for industrial customers. The pitch to state leaders also included a poll conducted by Republican pollster Mike Baseslice suggesting that Texans would be broadly supportive of paying a little more on their power bills to increase reliability. The poll was conducted from March 17-21 among 800 likely voters in Texas, according to toplines of the poll obtained by the Tribune.

Over the past week, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, part of Buffett's multinational conglomerate company Berkshire Hathaway, has hired eight lobbyists in Austin at a cost of more than $300,000, according to records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. One of those lobbyists is Allen Blakemore, a Houston political consultant who serves as a top strategist to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Blakemore did not respond to a request for comment.

Executives also met privately with key legislative leaders, including the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, and new House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

A senior adviser for Patrick confirmed the lieutenant governor met with Berkshire Hathaway executives earlier this month. And a spokesperson for Phelan said the speaker met with the executives recently. A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott, who has so far pushed for the weatherization of power generators as a legislative solution, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If approved, the deal would signal a move away from decades of a competitive electricity market in Texas in which all power generators in Texas are paid for the energy they produce and sell, rather than the power they could potentially generate. Berkshire Hathaway Energy executives say their plan would not create a "capacity" market, but instead, serve as highly regulated back-up electricity generation.

The company says that building extra power generation in Texas would help ease fears of a repeat of the February power outages during which dozens of people died.

"We're not in favor at all of getting rid of [the deregulated market]," Brown said. "We think competition is to Texas' benefit. We're not dipping into the market at all."

Power grids must keep energy demand and supply in balance at every moment or risk uncontrolled blackouts. The February outages were ordered by the grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, in a move to prevent a bigger catastrophe that could have left most of the state without power for weeks.

Under Berkshire Hathaway's plan, ERCOT would control when the new power plants are activated to avoid the threat of such widespread power outages, and customers would pay a fixed fee only to cover the project's costs, while the price for energy supplied to the market would go to the state, not the company. It's a similar model to how transmission and distribution utility companies are regulated.

Brown said that while the company is not against the state's procurement process, it believes it's "uniquely suited" to carry out the idea because of its $8.3 billion investment and a commitment to have those 10 plants, totaling 10 gigawatts of additional generation capacity, operational by November 2023. Under its proposal, the company would also owe the state $4 billion if it did not have the plants online by then, Brown said.

"Certainly there's other entities out there that could potentially do it," he said, "that list is pretty short."

Texas deregulated its electricity market decades ago, theorizing that the price of electricity in the market — based on demand — would attract a sufficient amount of power supply. When demand for power is high, the price for power increases, and companies that can supply electricity to the grid make more money. The more cheaply a power plant can generate electricity, the higher the profit margin when they sell it in the wholesale market. Conversely, a plant that has been expensively weatherized to be able to operate in the extreme cold, or a plant that only operates on the few hottest days of the year, represents a big upfront investment for what may be little return in Texas.

Other regions of the country, including New England, tackle this potential mismatch by using government funds to subsidize the cost of plants that sit dormant for much of the year but turn on when demand is high. That's the type of plant Berkshire Hathaway Energy wants to build in Texas — but instead, grid operators would decide when the plants ramp up.

Since a deadline to file legislation at the Legislature has already passed, the proposal would likely get tacked onto existing legislation. It was unclear Thursday which specific bill the pitch could be added to if lawmakers decided to act on it, though the company said it was talking with lawmakers about multiple pieces of legislation and working toward getting a committee hearing on the proposal sometime next week.

Texas' competitive and deregulated market structure has come under criticism in the aftermath of the February power crisis. Power companies did not prepare plants to withstand severe winter weather, in part because companies build plants as cheaply as possible to maximize their profit margins. When the plants tripped offline during the winter storm, unprepared for the extreme cold, there wasn't enough power generation available to the grid. Power prices spiked, and the Public Utility Commission of Texas ordered ERCOT to set prices at the artificial cap — $9,000 per megawatt-hour — to signal to power companies that any and all power was desperately needed.

But energy experts have expressed doubt that merely having more power plants would have prevented the crisis. Electric generation tripped offline due to freezing temperatures and a shortage of natural gas, which fuels many plants in the state.

"We didn't have a shortage of power plants, we had a shortage of power plants that could work in the cold, and the gas to run them," said Dan Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. "Texas has an enormous amount of natural gas plants already. It's not at all clear that there's a need to have more power plants built."

Berkshire Hathaway's presentation argues that adding power generation capacity would be more cost effective for the state than upgrading existing plants to withstand extreme weather. Brown, the CEO, said that the natural gas plants would be winterized and maintain seven days of natural gas storage on site to ensure it could operate during an emergency.

Lawmakers in recent weeks have quickly moved on legislation to address the February power crisis. Last week, the Texas House State Affairs Committee moved forward a bill that would mandate the weatherization of power plants, or mandate that power plants can function under extreme weather conditions. On Thursday, the Texas Senate Jurisprudence Committee advanced Senate Bill 3, a wide-ranging winter storm bill that also mandates winterization for power plants and the natural gas supply chain.

Another bill and a joint resolution filed in the House by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would aid power companies in funding those upgrades. But that legislation, as filed, includes language that would allow the low-cost loan program outlined in the bill to be used for building new power plants as well. It would direct the funds to prioritize projects that prepare facilities for cold weather, but it would also prioritize projects that provide excess power to the grid for periods of high demand — in other words, new power plants.

J.P. Urban, senior vice president and acting CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, a trade association of electric companies in the state, warned lawmakers earlier this week against subsidizing new power plants in their response to last month's outages.

"We believe the program should only focus on bolstering resiliency and existing facilities to avoid disruption in the competitive market," Urban said during a committee meeting Tuesday.

But lawmakers responded that they want more power generation on Texas' grid, not just for future storms, but generally for the growing state population.

"We're going to be a little bit more open to the types of investments that need to be made," said Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, responding to Urban. "We're going to need more power in Texas, period. Freeze or no freeze." The committee left the legislation pending on Tuesday, but witnesses and lawmakers indicated they would support the Huberty bill.

Even with the support of the Legislature's top leaders, the Berkshire Hathaway deal will need to win the approval of the rank-and-file members — a lesson Buffett learned in a past session. In 2017, after the billionaire met with Abbott and Patrick at the Capitol, the Senate used emergency powers to quickly craft legislation that became known as the "Buffett Bill," a special interest carve-out allowing Buffett to be exempt from a state law that was barring people from owning both a vehicle manufacturing company and auto dealerships. The bill was effectively killed after Tea Party activists blasted it — and the attempt to fast-track it — as special treatment for a rich and powerful business owner.

Other lawmakers and officials have expressed doubts about letting Buffett and his companies play too big of a role in Texas.

Speaking at Texas Energy Day at the Capitol Wednesday morning, Texas Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, one of the state's oil and gas regulators, criticized President Joe Biden over his energy policies and in doing so, swiped at "Warren Buffett's company." Christian said canceling oil and natural gas pipelines would put more trains on railroad tracks, and "Warren Buffett's company makes a lot of money from it."

Mitchell Ferman and Shawn Mulcahy contributed to this report.

After House stalls on readjusting electricity prices, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urges Gov. Greg Abbott to use emergency powers

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Thursday pleaded for Gov. Greg Abbott to take executive action on reversing billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during last month's deadly winter storm after the Texas House adjourned for the week without taking up the issue.

"The governor of Texas is a very powerful person," Patrick said at a Capitol news conference, ramping up his dayslong campaign to get Abbott to intervene. "He can do anything he wants."

After the Senate moved at a breakneck pace Monday to pass Senate Bill 2142, electricity repricing legislation prompted by the storm, the House indicated that it would not take action on the proposal. The lower chamber instead stressed it planned to take a more deliberative approach. And, while the bill was referred to a House committee Thursday morning, the House gaveled out until Monday afternoon.

The bill would have forced the state's energy grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to reverse roughly $4.2 billion in charges after an independent market monitor found ERCOT artificially inflated prices and overbilled energy companies by $16 billion. And included in the legislation was a March 20 deadline for the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, to take action to reverse such charges.

Patrick on Thursday said Abbott could, using his emergency powers, order the commission to tell ERCOT to either correct the charges or that such charges were under investigation, which the lieutenant governor said would extend the deadline.

"The House said they wanted more time — that would give them more time," Patrick said.

Patrick told reporters he met "at length" Thursday with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and they had a "good discussion." Referring to House members, Patrick said he thought the Senate was "able to get there faster than they were" — passing an electricity repricing bill — "because we can move quickly" by suspending the rules in the Senate.

After the Senate passed the repricing legislation, Phelan had expressed skepticism toward reversing such charges, saying in a statement that doing so "based on disagreement with PUC and ERCOT's management decisions is an extraordinary government intervention into the free market." Phelan also said there had been "no error" in the operator's pricing, contrasting himself with Patrick, who has repeatedly referred to those billions of dollars in charges as a mistake.

Despite Patrick's pleas, Abbott had still not clearly taken sides in the debate as of Thursday evening. In response to Patrick's news conference, an Abbott spokesperson issued a statement that did not address Patrick's latest requests of the governor but reiterated the emergency items that Abbott announced after the storm, including "inaccurate and excessive charges." The statement also pointed to movement in the House on Abbott's emergency items, noting that a lower-chamber committee was expected to vote Thursday night on multiple proposals related to the power grid.

The House State Affairs Committee did just that on Thursday, passing a slate of bills that would address the power grid's vulnerabilities and change the governance structure of ERCOT, among other things. But lawmakers admitted those bills were still works in progress. And none of them addressed the ERCOT billing dispute.

While statements suggest Abbott is more aligned with the House, he still has not shot down the Senate bill and avoided explicitly endorsing either chamber's strategy. Asked Wednesday whether he agreed with the House or Senate's approach to electricity repricing, Abbott said he had "already made multiple comments about that."

It was not entirely clear which prior comments Abbott was referring to, but on Monday, as the Senate was preparing to rush through SB 2142, Abbott seemed to urge a more deliberative approach — and one left up to the Legislature.

Texas is currently under multiple disaster declarations, including one that Abbott issued Feb. 12 in response to the winter storm. For over a year, the state has also been under a disaster declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic — and Abbott has taken heat from some in his own party over how he has wielded his emergency powers during that time.

The winter weather last month caused failures in every type of power source, creating an electricity crisis during which nearly 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses were without power. For days, ERCOT charged the maximum amount allowed for wholesale electricity — $9,000 per megawatt-hour — in order to incentivize generators to send power to the grid.

It's still not clear how much the current billing dispute will impact average Texans. At least some of the additional costs incurred by retail electric providers would likely be passed on to customers through rate increases. But the impact varies by company — and those that sent power to the grid while rates were inflated stand to lose money if ERCOT reprices.

Abbott said the Legislature needed to investigate the issue and "weed through all these complexities," specifically whether repricing was in conflict with two sections of the Texas Constitution.

On Wednesday, though, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that said the PUC has "complete authority" to reprice and downplayed the same exact constitutional issues that Abbott brought up.

"A court would likely find that such corrective action by the Public Utility Commission" would not conflict with the state constitution "provided that such regulatory action furthers a compelling public interest," Paxton wrote in the nonbinding opinion, which Patrick requested two days earlier.

Patrick also scored a win Tuesday night, when Abbott announced the resignation of Arthur D'Andrea, who had recently been tapped by the governor to serve as chair of the commission. The governor said he had asked for D'Andrea's resignation, which is effective upon the appointment of a successor. Abbott said he would name D'Andrea's replacement "in the coming days" — an appointment that, if made during the 2021 legislative session, will need to be confirmed by the Patrick-led Senate.

Abbott, whose office had defended D'Andrea on Friday, did not provide a reason for why he had requested D'Andrea's resignation. But the news came hours after Texas Monthly published a story Tuesday saying D'Andrea had told out-of-state investors on a call he would work to throw "the weight of the commission" behind stopping calls for repricing.

At a news conference in Dallas the next day, Abbott did not offer much new detail when asked why he had wanted D'Andrea to step down.

"We want to make sure that we are going to show the vision to our fellow Texans that we are charting a new and fresh course for the Public Utility Commission, and the action that I made is one of many steps that will be taken to achieve those goals," Abbott said.

Despite the House's difference in approach, which includes a package of proposals the House State Affairs Committee was considering Thursday, some lawmakers in the chamber indicated this week they would have at least liked to have a conversation about repricing.

While the House was in session Wednesday, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, asked Phelan whether the House could assemble as a committee of the whole the next day to consider SB 2142. Phelan said he would not recognize Martinez Fischer for such a motion.

And, asked at Thursday's news conference whether he had spoken with House members sympathetic to his position on repricing, Patrick said, "Yes, I'll leave it at that."

Disclosure: Texas Monthly 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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