Abbott called a special session for his GOP agenda. Why not for a pandemic?

by | Apr 1, 2020 | Coronavirus, Policy

As Texas scrambles to respond to the coronavirus pandemic after a delayed response by the governor, the state is sitting on top of more than $10 billion dollars in its Economic Stabilization Fund, better known as the state’s rainy day fund.

To tap into those desperately needed funds, which could be used to quickly ease up shortages in protective medical equipment or ventilators, Gov. Greg Abbott would need to call a special session and return lawmakers to Austin.

A special session would also be a timely opportunity to pass legislation to shore up gaps in Trump’s response. And if Republicans are feeling generous and intelligent, they could even work with Democrats to expand Medicaid using Obamacare dollars, something 36 states have already done prior to the outbreak.

As shocking as it is in the face of such extraordinary circumstances, Abbott has stalled on calling for a special session. 

Almost two weeks ago when Abbott first issued the closure of restaurants and schools, and when the number of confirmed cases was barely above 100, he said every option, including a special session, remained on the table. He also said he would consider using the state’s rainy day fund at the “appropriate time … when we know the full extent of the challenge that we’re dealing with.”

If Abbott doesn’t call a special session, the only appropriate time would be January 2021, the next time the legislature meets for a regular session. By then, it would be far too late to act to save lives.

Unsurprisingly, other states are moving far beyond Texas in their legislative response to coronavirus. Arkansas just concluded a three-day special session that saw lawmakers unanimously create a COVID-19 Rainy Day Fund as well as a legislative panel to oversee the funds. Last week, Utah’s governor called for a special session to protect the state’s health and safety, as well as plan for an economic recovery. A special session by Wyoming lawmakers also appears likely and pressure is mounting in other state legislatures across the country too. And despite population differences, it’s worth noting all of these states mentioned above have far fewer confirmed cases than Texas, currently sitting at almost 4,000 positive tests. 

Unfortunately, throughout his tenure as governor Abbott has refused to call a special session for anything that isn’t a controversial Republican agenda item. Last year, he refused to call a special session to address gun violence in the wake of a rash of mass shootings in the state (even former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus pressured the governor, who ultimately refused). He also declined to call a special session and tap into the rainy day fund after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Gulf Coast.

In fact, the only time Abbott has ever called a special session was in 2017 after being bullied by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Freedom Caucus into trying to force the passage of right-wing bills, chiefly anti-transgender bathroom bills, multiple anti-abortion bills, and property tax “reform” that limited the ability of local counties and cities to adjust property taxes.

To try and get those items passed during the regular 2017 session, Patrick and his Tea Party allies in the Texas House frequently threatened to deny passage of “sunset” legislation, or a critical set of bills that needed to be passed in order to keep certain state agencies from closing, like the Texas Medical Board. They eventually got their way and a politically-charged special session was called by Abbott that saw almost zero items at the top of Patrick’s agenda passed. 

It’s been the only time Abbott has called for a special session. And unlike the self-induced crisis of 2017 caused by what can only be described as a legislative coup from the Texas Legislature’s most right-wing elements, the pandemic Texas faces now is far more serious, and far more demanding of rapid action by lawmakers.

If grocery store workers, delivery drivers, first responders, medical personnel can risk breaking social distancing to keep Texas running smoothly, lawmakers should too.

Photo: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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