On Monday, the 85th Texas Legislative session came to a dramatic close: Protests erupted at the Capitol, a Republican lawmaker called Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the floor to deport a group of alleged undocumented immigrants, and House representatives exchanged alleged threats of violence.
The state’s Legislature meets for only one 140-day session every two years, so its final days are often fast-paced and tense. But the antics this week shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the Texas Legislature churns out bills with reliable efficiency. As stagnation and White House scandals continue to hamper policy efforts in Washington, Texas’ example shows how conservative lawmakers can get a lot of their agenda done, at least at the state level.
Texas is one of 25 states where Republicans have a so-called trifecta of control over the House, the Senate, and the governor’s mansion. By the end of the whirlwind session, Gov. Greg Abbott had more than 1,200 bills sitting on his desk, awaiting his signature, many advancing conservative causes that can set the tone for other states.
“I think we saw the center of gravity moving to the right,” James Henson, director of The Texas Politics Project, explained. “I think from a national perspective there’s no way to look at what happens in the Texas Legislature and not see it as kind of an avatar of conservatism in the country.”
So let’s take a look at what they did.
The 85th was a session primarily driven by the social agendas of conservative lawmakers, like border security and documentation, abortion, gun licenses, and whether transgender Texans should be able to use the restroom associated with their gender identity.
Senate Bill 4 is probably the most infamous bill signed by Gov. Abbott, and it’s now one of the harshest immigration laws in the country. Starting in September, the law will allow police to inquire about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain, as well as ban immigrant sanctuary jurisdictions statewide, and levy fines and jail time on local officials who fail to comply with federal authorities and immigration agents.
Texas also pushed through new restrictions on abortion. Senate Bill 8 requires every health care facility or clinic to bury or cremate fetal remains from abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. Providers are also now banned from a common form of second-term abortion termed dilation and evacuation but provocatively called “dismemberment” by supporters of the bill.
The Supreme Court struck down Texas’ last attempt at a sweeping abortion law. In 2013, House Bill 2 required abortion clinics to meet costly, hospital-level standards and caused half the abortion clinics in the state to close down. This year’s abortion bill concentrates on the fetus, not the clinic, but it is likely to face legal challenges too.
Conservatives successfully got a “religious freedom” bill through to Abbott’s desk, which would allow publicly funded adoption agencies to reject would-be parents whose lifestyles they don’t like. Christian groups will now be able to legally keep Muslim, Jewish, unmarried, and LGBT couples from adopting.
At a time when the Trump administration and Republicans in D.C. are struggling — despite their majority — to execute on much of anything, Texas Republicans are a model of legislative efficiency, passing some of the most conservative bills in the country. That’s thanks in part to a culture of caving to the will of the core electorate they need for re-election.
“The conservative wing that is again oriented toward a relatively small Republican primary electorate put the elected officials, particularly less ideologically driven legislators, on the spot and forced votes on issues that a lot of people had hoped to avoid, and that includes some of these issues like the more controversial abortion measures,” Henson said.
The result? Moderate Texas Republicans think twice about going against party leadership, and legislation that might seem unimaginable at the national level lands on the Governor’s desk.
Politicians on the Democratic side of the aisle have little to do but protest. Democratic Sen. Jose Rodriguez of El Paso described the 85th session as one of the “toughest” in recent memory, as rhetoric and policies filtered down from the Trump administration, which rolled into Washington just as the session began. That said, Rodriguez contends D.C. lawmakers have been less effective than Texas Republicans because of Trump’s style of leadership.
“I think it’s no secret that Trump’s administration has been disorganized from Day One,” he said. “I mean, the fact that he hasn’t even filled a lot of the positions in the State Department and the other major federal agencies tells you that the government is not able to function at the normal level that it does. Whereas in Texas, remember, the Republican Party has been in control now for over 20 years, and it’s pretty much the same people of the same stripe that continue governing the state.”
Conservatives in Texas didn’t get everything they hoped for, including a voucher program in a school finance bill, property tax relief, and Texas’ very own contentious version of a “bathroom bill” that would require transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex, not their gender identity.
But they still have a chance. Not every bill that misses the end of the regular session remains dead. Gov. Abbott can call lawmakers back to Austin for as many special legislative sessions as he pleases, and there has been speculation that the bathroom bill could catch a second wind soon. On that final, theatrical day in session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told senators as they adjourned, “Normally, I would say I’ll see you in 18 months, God willing! But we’ll see you a little sooner than that.”