The Texas House Appropriations Committee voted unanimously (21-to-0) to pass House Bill 1 to restore funding to the state Legislature, in a hearing that lasted just 14 minutes.
HB 1 and its counterpart, Senate Bill 10, would each reverse Gov. Greg Abbott’s line-item veto of Article X of the state budget. Abbott explicitly tied his veto to the walkout of Democratic House members on the last Sunday of the regular session. That walkout effectively killed two of Abbott’s legislative priorities – election reform and bail reform – and led the governor to call the current special session.
In a statement, Abbott said, “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.”
House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner of Grand Prairie called the governor’s action an “abuse of power.” Subsequently Turner, along with several legislative caucuses, more than 60 individual House members, various state employees and the Texas AFL-CIO petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to override the veto, arguing the governor’s action was unconstitutional.
The petition charges that the governor’s veto violates the Texas Constitution’s guarantee of separation of powers – that is, that governor and the Legislature are coequal branches of government.
The Texas Constitution guarantees state lawmakers $600 a month, plus a per diem of $221 for every day the Legislature is in session, including special sessions. So, the governor’s veto cannot affect the pay of lawmakers themselves.
However, the constitution provides no such guarantee to the roughly 2,100 state employees who support the Legislature. That includes everyone from office staff who actually write bills to the employees of the Legislative Budget Board and Legislative Reference Library to the cafeteria workers and grounds crew of the Texas Capitol.
If the Legislature is not able to restore its funding during the special session, all these employees will cease to be paid when the fiscal year ends on August 31. That would bring the Legislature to a dead stop just before it’s set to begin a second special session, in order to deal with legislative redistricting and the allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Much of the discussion in the House committee hearing focused on the impact on state employees of the governor’s veto of legislative funding. Jerry McGinty II, executive director of the Legislative Budget Board, testified that employees’ benefits would also cease at the end of the fiscal year if the funding for the Legislature were not restored.
“My understanding, with those employees separated from employment on (August 31), their insurance benefits, it would cease to exist,” McGinty said. “Essentially, they’d be separated from the state payroll.”