Texas lawmakers adjourned their third special session early Tuesday morning, sending bills related to redistricting, COVID-19 relief, dog restraints and transgender athletes to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, but a vaccine mandate ban and election audit legislation didn’t cross the finish line.
Abbott called lawmakers back to Austin three times for special sessions. Most of his agenda items passed through the Legislature, but a few didn’t reach his desk before lawmakers gaveled out. A spokesperson for Abbott said there are no plans for a fourth session.
“Property tax relief, appropriating funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and redrawing legislative districts were at the forefront of the agenda for the third Special Session,” Abbott said in a statement. “Texans tasked the Legislature with delivering on these priorities, and I am proud to say not only did we deliver on these priorities, but the Legislature went above and beyond to solve other critical issues to ensure an even brighter future for the Lone Star State.”
Redistricting maps sent to Abbott
Every 10 years state lawmakers draw new boundaries for Texas House, Senate, State Board of Education and U.S. House of Representative seats. The process is usually done earlier in the year, but census delays related to COVID-19 pushed redistricting into a special session.
Redistricting was at the forefront of much of the session as lawmakers crafted and debated the maps that are now subject to Abbott’s approval. A lawsuit challenging the new maps are already the subject of litigation, even though they had not yet been signed as of Tuesday. In the lawsuit, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund argues the new boundaries dilute the strength of Latino voters.
COVID-19 relief dollars
Lawmakers allocated billions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars. According to the offices of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, the funding includes:
$7.2 billion for unemployment insurance.
$2 billion for nursing surge costs and other costs related to COVID-19.
$500 million for broadband infrastructure.
$300 million for a new state operations emergency center.
More than $300 million for COVID-19 public safety salary compensation.
$286 million for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. The bill states the money would be used for COVID-19-related claims.
$95 million for food banks.
$75 million in funding for rural hospitals.
$35 million for veterans homes.
More than $100 million for a sexual assault fund and crime victims’ compensation.
Other funding areas include hundreds of millions for metal health services, project costs related to higher education, health and science, and nearly $180 million for tourism, travel and hospitality.
Transgender student athletes
After failing in previous sessions this year, lawmakers sent to Abbott a bill that bars transgender athletes in public schools from competing on a sports team consistent with their gender identity. The bill goes further than UIL rules as it bases a student’s gender on what is stated on a birth certificate “entered at or near the time of the student’s birth.” The UIL bases gender on a student’s birth certificate but accepts changes.
The law has faced opposition from LGBTQ advocates. In a Sunday statement after the bill was passed, Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of Equality Texas, said “this cruel and grotesque ban puts a target on the backs of transgender children and adults, erases intersex people and sends a clear message that transgender and intersex people aren’t welcome or safe in Texas.”
Supporters of the bill have argued it’s necessary for school sports’ fairness.
“In Texas, we refuse to deny any woman or girl athlete the right to compete on a level playing field, and to be the best in their sport,” Patrick said in a Sept. 22 statement. “We cannot allow our women to be pushed out of athletic scholarships and out of sporting excellence.”
Dog safety legislation
Earlier this year, Abbott vetoed a bill that established rules for dog restraints. The move was met with backlash in the form of a trending hashtag: #AbbottHatesDogs. Abbott said he vetoed the bill because it micro-managed and over-criminalized dog owners.
Abbott later added a call for a similar bill to be passed in the special session that “addresses the concerns expressed in the governor’s veto statement.”
The bill signed in the House and Senate early Tuesday states that a dog owner can’t leave their pup outside and unattended with a restraint unless the dog has access to adequate shelter, shade and an area to avoid standing water. Owners also must not restrain dogs outside and unattended with a chain or a restraint that has weights attached to it. The law also addresses the length of restraints and says they must be properly fitted to a collar or harness.
Unlawfully restraining a dog would be a a Class C misdemeanor if the bill is signed into law.
Property tax relief
Voters will decide whether to increase the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000 for school district property taxes after lawmakers approved a proposed constitutional amendment. The bill would save the average homeowner about $176, according to the Texas Tribune.
The Legislature approved billions in bonds for capitol improvement projects at higher education institutions. This includes more than $52 million for renovation of the of the Life Science Building at the UT Arlington, more than $273 million for the University of North Texas system and $13.5 million for expansion of Texas State Technical College’s North Texas campus.
Lawmakers also passed a bill expanding eligibility for education benefits for the children of fallen first responders.
Vaccine mandate, election laws and other failed measures
Abbott called on lawmakers to pass legislation barring vaccine mandates for any “entity” in the state. His executive order doing just that remains in place, but legislation didn’t make it out of the Legislature before lawmakers adjourned. A proposal for a constitutional amendment related to setting and denying bail didn’t pass.
Lawmakers also didn’t pass legislation increasing the penalty for illegal voting. An election bill that passed in the previous special session reduced the penalty from a second degree felony to a class A misdemeanor. After he signed the bill Abbott called on lawmakers to increase the penalty.
“The State of Texas has made tremendous progress in upholding the integrity of our elections,” Abbott said in a Sept. 30 statement. “By increasing penalties for illegal voting, we will send an even clearer message that voter fraud will not be tolerated in Texas.”
Despite support from former President Donald Trump, election audit legislation wasn’t added to the special session agenda.