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Multiple Senate GOP priorities fail in Texas House after last-ditch effort by Democrats to run out the clock

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, asks a question during session on the House floor. Credit:
State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, asks a question during session on the House floor. Credit:(Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)
Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 8:24 AM CDT
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In the final 14 hours before the final midnight deadline for advancing Senate bills in the Texas House, Democrats pulled out all the stops Tuesday to keep the body from considering GOP-backed legislation they opposed, spelling death for some of the Senate's priority bills.

The House had on its calendar several of the Senate’s priorities, including a bill banning social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoint or their location within Texas, another that would ban local governments from using public funds to pay for lobbyists, and another that would force transgender student athletes to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity.

Republicans control all branches of Texas government, and Democrats have been trying to fight back these bills since the beginning of the legislative session in January. The midnight deadline to pass the bills was the minority party’s last hope. And though they ended the night with hoarse voices, House Democrats landed a rare victory this session, killing all three of those bills, and only ceding one other Senate priority bill that banned cities and counties from requiring companies to pay workers more than the federal minimum wage or provide them with benefits like paid sick leave.

The failure of several of the Senate's priorities is likely to continue the rift between the two chambers, which differ on their legislative priorities. Last week, the House took a break from lawmaking for a few days ahead of key legislative deadlines, imperiling Senate priorities, because the Senate was not moving House priority bills on criminal justice and health care.

The House started Tuesday at 10 a.m. with 129 bills on its agenda, setting up a marathon of debating, voting and political maneuvering. Members spent the first half of the day giving final approval to bills the House had initially passed Monday, a usually procedural move that went beyond banking hours Tuesday as Democrats barraged their fellow lawmakers with questions, compliments and tactical procedures to slow down the chamber’s progress.

The tactics in the House caught the attention of lawmakers in the Senate, whose bills floundered with each passing minute the House Democrats delayed because legislation must get approval in both chambers before becoming law. With plenty of House bills locked up in the upper chamber, the senators also began slowing their progress and ribbing state representatives who visited them during a lunch break.

Senators began making dog puns as Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, laid out a House bill that dealt with where pet store owners in large counties get their dogs and cats from, in an effort that targeted puppy mills.

“We don’t want it to be a dog-eat-dog world,” said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

Menéndez called to Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, the bill’s author who walked into the chamber, to show him that the Senate was passing House bills.

“It’d be nice if we could get some good Senate bills passed as well,” Menéndez said.

Back in the House, groups of Democratic and Republican lawmakers huddled in different parts of the chamber, planning their strategies for the rest of the day: Democrats to stop bills they opposed, and Republicans to get as many of the bills that they’d worked on over the top.

Outside the chamber, opponents of the bill to restrict the participation of transgender student athletes in school sports held banners that read, “Stop SB 29,” and chanted, “Protect trans kids!”

Around 6 p.m. the House began taking up legislation that had been postponed by lawmakers on Tuesday in efforts to make last-minute tweaks or work out deals to ease the passage of those bills through the chamber.

But the tweaking was not done, as lawmakers continued to postpone bills. The bills banning social media content moderation because of viewpoint and the use of local government funds to pay for lobbyists were among those delayed. The social media bill had the backing of Gov. Greg Abbott, who traveled to Tyler to promote it with its author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in March.

Further down the list — and therefore in more peril — were the measure related to transgender student athletes, which Abbott had also indicated support for, and a bill that would require people seeking an abortion in Texas to consult a state contractor about support services and other available resources before the procedure could be performed. None of those bills ended up receiving a vote.

Near 7 p.m., the House took up Senate Bill 14, a measure banning cities and counties from requiring companies to pay workers more than the federal minimum wage or provide them with benefits like paid sick leave.

The bill is a revival of a similar measure that died in the 2019 legislative session. Supporters say it will prevent regulatory confusion in a way that helps businesses with locations in multiple Texas cities regain their footing as the economy tries to recover from the pandemic’s devastating financial effects. But opponents say it reduces workers’ access to paid sick leave after they’ve been navigating the pandemic for more than a year.

The bill does not apply to municipalities’ employees or conditions of government contracts. It targets attempts by several Texas cities to mandate benefits for employees. In the past three years, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio passed paid sick leave ordinances, but court rulings have kept them from being enforced.

Democrats, who largely oppose the bill, were attempting to tack on amendments to soften its effect on the large counties where their party holds control of local governments. With each amendment, more time passed and the deadline inched closer.

A little after 9 p.m., a procedural concern was raised about the bill that could have spelled doom for it. After more than two hours, the chamber postponed the debate on it until 10 p.m.

By then, time was running out. Before the bill could be revisited, House lawmakers made surprise moves to postpone debate on the bill restricting transgender student athletes in school sports until 11:30 p.m., leaving it with only 30 minutes to pass before the midnight deadline.

When the House picked up SB 14 again, lawmakers added an amendment by Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Garland, that exempted local nondiscrimination ordinances that banned discrimination on the basis of hair texture. Bowers had previously filed the Texas CROWN Act, to prevent race-based hair discrimination that often affects Black Americans in school and in the workplace.

The House then gave the bill its initial approval.

By 11 p.m., the bill that would restrict how governmental entities use public money on outside lobbyists had been killed because the bill's author could not find agreement on it with other lawmakers. The bills dealing with social media companies and transgender student athletes never returned for a hearing.

As the clock ticked towards midnight, the House gallery began to fill with onlookers, including supporters of transgender children who had been advocating against SB 29 all session.

Democratic lawmakers spent the last 15 minutes ostensibly trying to tack on an amendment to a bill about prevailing wage rates, but really just coordinating with one another to run out the clock.

As the clock struck midnight, Democratic lawmakers stood at the front of the chamber waving transgender pride flags and celebrating with onlookers in the gallery.

House Speaker Dade Phelan announced that his desk was clear and the chamber recessed until 9 a.m. Wednesday, when it will take up its final calendar of Senate bills that are largely local or uncontested.

Megan Munce contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/25/texas-house-democrats-chubbing/.

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