Sunday, May 28, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Texas lawmakers reconvene for third special session focused on redistricting

After two special sessions this summer focused on pushing through voting restrictions, Republican Governor Greg Abbott has called lawmakers back to Austin for a third session to redraw election maps.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas’ third special legislative session of the year began Monday with lawmakers returning to Austin to use recently released census data to redraw state political maps and take up other issues laid out by the Republican governor.

Governor Greg Abbott announced on Sept. 7 his call for an additional special session, with an agenda focused on redistricting, appropriating funds from the American Rescue Plan, and banning transgender youth from participating in school sports. Other issues include Covid-19 vaccine mandates and criminal penalties for unlawfully restraining a dog.

At the top of the list is redistricting. During debate over the controversial Republican-backed election reform bill that was passed in the second special session, the issue of partisan gerrymandering and redrawing of maps was also raised. Democrats who objected to the GOP voting restrictions argued Republicans will use their majority control to draw maps that favor them in the third session.

The redistricting debate began in earnest at the Texas Capitol a week after the second special session ended and weeks before the third began. Organizations and residents gave their testimony to a special Senate committee on the issue, pleading with lawmakers to draw equitable maps and have proper representation for Texas’ urban, more liberal voters.

Lawmakers must redraw maps for the 150 House and 31 Senate districts in the Texas Legislature, the congressional maps for the state's 36 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and those for the members of the State Board of Education. Two new congressional districts must also be created for new seats gained due to the state's population growth, which will be up for grabs in the 2022 midterm elections. Many on the left are calling for those two new seats to go where Texas’ population has grown the most, in the urban areas that typically vote for Democrats.

Over the weekend, the Texas Senate released its first draft map of the state legislative districts. It drew swift criticism from the anti-gerrymandering group All On The Line, which accused state senators of employing tactics that give a partisan advantage to Republicans.

“Texas Republicans have no interest in representing the people of the Lone Star State – their only concern is maintaining power, even if it comes at the expense of our democracy,” said Genevieve Van Cleve, Texas state director for All On The Line, in a statement.

Even before the release of the draft map and the start of the third special session, Democrats in the Texas Senate filed a federal lawsuit against Abbott’s plans to address redistricting that also challenges the existing district maps. State Senators Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio and Sarah Eckhardt of Austin argue in their lawsuit that the current maps are malapportioned and violate the 14th Amendment's “one person, one vote” principle. They also argue redistricting cannot be addressed during the new special session because the Texas Constitution states it must be addressed during a regular session first before the matter is referred to a special session. If the suit is successful, the work of redrawing state political maps would be set aside until the next regular session in 2023, with interim maps being drawn by the courts.

Aside from redistricting, Abbott has asked lawmakers to pass legislation regarding four other issues, including appropriations of funding from the federal coronavirus relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan Act, determining whether state and local government can mandate people to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, limiting transgender youth from participating in school sports teams that align with their gender identity, and tightening laws on the proper way a dog can be restrained.

The governor has issued multiple executive orders surrounding the topic of mask and vaccine mandates as well as the implementation of so-called vaccine passports. Texas Republicans have firmly taken the stance that people should not be required to get the vaccine or wear a mask in public spaces. Cities and counties across the state have defied Abbott’s orders by issuing mask mandates in schools or for city employees.

Banning transgender youth from participating on certain sports teams has been a priority for GOP members of the Texas Senate and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Senate Bill 3, the current version of the legislation, would bar Texas students who participate in sports from joining a team that aligns with their gender identity. Students would only be allowed to join the team that matches the gender on their original birth certificate. If passed, the law would cover both K-12 students and college athletes who participate in the NCAA.

Lastly, the issue over proper restraint of a dog arises out of a law passed during the regular session that Abbott vetoed. Senate Bill 474 would have required dog owners in Texas to provide ample space, shelter and water to their pet that is restrained outdoors by a leash or cage. The governor, in a statement, criticized the bill for being a “micromanaging” of Texans and their pets. His decision to veto the bill sparked backlash online with “Abbott hates dogs” trending on Twitter in June. The governor hopes to see lawmakers send him a similar bill that addresses his concerns over the rules being too strict.

The first day of the third special session began with several bills being referred to committees. Lawmakers have 30 days, until Oct. 19, to address the issues Abbott added to the agenda. After that date, the governor can continue calling new special sessions until his priorities are addressed.

Follow Kirk McDaniel on Twitter

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.