Politics

Funding For Texas Legislative Staffers Is Set To Expire Oct. 1. How Far Will Gov. Abbott’s Veto Go?

Governor Greg Abbott and other state leaders have engineered a temporary fix, but Abbott’s veto of the Legislature’s budget may have permanent ramifications for the balance of power in Texas politics.

Empty seats are seen in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Austin, Texas. Texas Democrats left the state to block sweeping new election laws, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened them with arrest the moment they return.

Nearly two months after Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the Legislature's budget — a move to punish Democratic lawmakers who walked out and blocked a vote on his priority election bill at the end of the regular legislative session — that veto remains hanging over the second Texas special session, and was upheld by the state Supreme Court this week.

The governor and other state leaders recently came up with a temporary fix, but that doesn't solve what some lawmakers are terming a constitutional crisis.

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Abbott announced the temporary funding deal last Friday, in a joint statement with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and House Appropriations Committee Chair Greg Bonnen, R-Friendwood. It's not entirely clear where the interim money for the Legislature is coming from after the governor’s veto of Article X of the state budget, or under what authority Abbott and other state leaders are moving the funds.

The end result, though, is that the Legislature will continue to function until Oct. 1.

That at least postpones a doomsday moment for more than 2,100 full-time government employees, a scenario outlined in a memo by Republican House Administration Committee Chair Will Metcalf of Conroe.

Those employees include legislative staffers, staff that assist the Legislature such as the Legislative Budget Board and the Texas Sunset Commission, and service workers such as Capitol grounds crew and custodial staff. The salaries of lawmakers themselves are guaranteed by the Texas Constitution.

Houston Public Media reached out to both Metcalf and the governor’s office. Both declined to comment.

The threatened cutoff would not just affect staff salaries, but also insurance benefits.

"I have a really rare brain condition that I go to the Mayo Clinic (for), and so it is somewhat concerning...that we’ll be having to pay COBRA," said one legislative staffer, who asked not to be identified. "I'm lucky that I’m in a position that I can, but I have many of my colleagues who can’t, and a number of legislative female staffers that I know are expecting children late in the summer or early in the fall, and it affects them."

Many of those staffers write the bills on which Abbott is counting on lawmakers to vote in the special session.

Then there's the matter of constituent services.

"Most of what we do on a daily basis in our offices is take care of our constituents, solve people’s problems, help people who have been evicted, help people who need help getting care, help them with their state issues day in and day out. That’s going to be gone, because those offices now are going to be required to shut," said state Rep. Gene Wu of Houston, one of the many Democratic members currently breaking quorum.

Wu of Houston — who just returned to Texas from Washington, D.C. in order to challenge the warrant Phelan issued for his arrest to compel his presence at the Capitol — said a longer-term concern is that state credit rating agencies could downgrade Texas’ bond rating.

"This would end up meaning hundreds of millions of dollars of increased costs for not only the state, but for counties and for cities, because you’re now a government within the government that is unstable," Wu said.

The Dallas-based director of S&P Global Ratings, Oscar Padilla, was skeptical that the stalemate would drag on long enough to compromise Texas' credit rating, which all three major rating agencies currently rank AAA.

"Does this change our view of the state's willingness or capacity to fulfill its financial obligations? In this case, at first, I would say unequivocally no,” Padilla said. “If it did, we would be having a different conversation."

But Padilla acknowledged the situation could change.

"It certainly would be unusual if they did start the beginning of the fiscal year without (legislative funding) in the budget, and the state would be crossing into new territory, which we don’t have a precedent for, and at that point (we would have to) assess the degree to which, if at all, there’s disruptions to state operations," Padilla said.

In fact, there are few precedents for a governor vetoing the funding for another branch of state government.

Ann Bowman, who teaches at Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service, said the most recent notable example came in Minnesota in 2017, in which the Democratic governor did a line item veto eliminating the House and Senate’s operating budgets

"The Supreme Court sided with the governor and said the governor did have the power, the line item-veto power to wipe out the legislators' budget" Bowman said. “Basically, the legislators agreed to settle with the governor, come back to work, and retroactively restore funding."

All of this assumes that Texas Democrats maintain their walkout, denying Republicans a quorum to vote on anything in the House, including funding for the Legislature itself. There is, however, a real possibility that enough Democrats will return to allow the House to conduct business – several already have.

If or when that happens, expect both chambers to quickly vote to restore legislative funding.

But perhaps the biggest lasting implication of Abbott's legislative funding veto is a disruption of the separation of powers between the three branches of state government.

"This is really something akin to a nuclear option in terms of the relationship between the branches," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. "This fits into the rubric (first) of Governor Abbott’s sustained efforts to strengthen the executive branch within the Texas political system, and second, the degree to which the resistance from the legislature has been pretty feeble.”

That isn't to say there's been no pushback. Republican state Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, for one, is furious over Abbott's action.

Seliger has authored a bill to eliminate the governor's line-item veto power. It's not on the special session agenda, so it isn't eligible for consideration this summer, but he's convinced that in the wake of Abbott's action the Legislature must pass it at some point in the future.

"It is absolutely destructive of the separation of powers, between the three branches, and it was a horrible idea to begin with," Seliger said of the governor's line-item veto power. "It’s horrible now. Nobody knew how horrible it was, but now we do."

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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