Power grid not among issues prioritized by Gov. Abbott for Texas special session agenda

AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the agenda for the special legislative session that begins Thursday, asking lawmakers to prioritize 11 issues that largely appeal to conservatives who wanted more out of the regular session.

The announcement of the agenda came just over 24 hours before lawmakers are set to reconvene in Austin.

Most of the issues were anticipated after they did not pass during the regular session and Abbott faced pressure to revive them or had already committed to bringing them back. Those issues include his priority bills related to overhauling Texas elections and the bail system, as well as pushing back against social media "censorship" of Texans and critical race theory.

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"The 87th Legislative Session was a monumental success for the people of Texas, but we have unfinished business to ensure that Texas remains the most exceptional state in America," Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott is also asking lawmakers to get him legislation that prohibits transgender Texans from competing on school sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. Abbott had voiced support for that during the regular session but had not given any indication he would add it to a special session despite a campaign by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to do so.

The special session agenda also includes funding for the legislative branch, which Abbott vetoed last month. He did so after House Democrats staged a walkout in the final hours of the regular session that killed the priority elections bill. The inclusion of the legislative funding raises the possibility that lawmakers could restore paychecks for their staff - and other staff at the Capitol - before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1.

Late last month, House Democrats and legislative staffers sued over the veto, asking the state Supreme Court to override it. The court had not ruled in the case yet.

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The Democrats' walkout prompted a flood of national attention, and now the minority members must decide how to try to derail it in the special session with their staff pay on the line. At the same time, Republicans are set to tweak the election bill after they claimed they made two mistakes in the final version from the regular session.

The special session is set to start at 10 a.m. Thursday. It is one of at least two expected this year, with a later one coming on redistricting and the spending on federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Abbott's agenda for the first special session notably does not include anything about the state's electric grid, which was exposed as deeply vulnerable during a deadly winter weather storm in February that left millions of Texans without power. Lawmakers made some progress in preventing another disaster during the regular session, but experts - as well as Patrick - have said there is more to do.

Despite Abbott's recent claim that the grid is better than ever, the governor sent a letter Tuesday to the state's electricity regulators outlining a number of steps he would like them to take to "improve electric reliability." But it appears Abbott does not want to reopen legislative debate on the issue for now.

Democrats panned the special session agenda as out of step with most Texans and politically motivated.

"The governor's agenda for the special session shows he is more concerned with pandering to die-hard Trump supporters and right-wing extremists than he is with serving everyday Texans," Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. "Abbott's agenda proves one thing: he is clearly panicked about his upcoming primary election."

Abbott is indeed facing more pressure from his right than he has in recent memory. He has drawn at least three primary challengers who have argued he is not conservative enough, including former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas and Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, who announced this campaign Sunday.

Beyond funding for the Legislature, Abbott wants lawmakers to look at several other areas of the budget in the special session and find additional money. The agenda calls for "additional available general revenue" for property tax relief, the state's foster-care system and cybersecurity defenses.

The agenda also devotes one item to border security, calling for "funding to support law-enforcement agencies, counties, and other strategies as part of Texas' comprehensive border security plan." Under President Joe Biden, Abbott has been more focused than ever on fortifying the state's Mexican border, and the governor invited former President Donald Trump to tour the area last month and see his plan to finish the border wall that began in Trump's presidency.

In less politically charged topics, the agenda calls for legislation to educate Texas teens about family violence prevention. There is also an item on a "thirteenth check" for the state's retired teachers, referring to an additional one-time payment of benefits.

But the call is otherwise dominated by red meat. Even after lawmakers did more than ever to restrict abortion during the regular session - passing a "heartbeat" bill that bans abortion as early as six weeks - Abbott issued a request for legislation cracking down on abortion-inducing drugs, banning people from getting them through mail or delivery service.

While the special session call include 11 items, there is little doubt that Abbott cares the most about the first two that were listed - the bail and elections bill. Both failed in the final hours of the regular session after Abbott designated them as emergency items months earlier.

The bail proposal that died during the regular session would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash.

The elections bill would have instituted new rules around early voting hours, local voting options and mail ballots. It is unlikely to look the same in the special session after GOP negotiators claimed after the regular session that they erred in provisions related to the Sunday early voting window and a process for overturning elections.

In addition to Democrats, Abbott's special session agenda received scrutiny from close observers of the power grid. The issue returned to the forefront last month when Texans were told to turn their thermostats to 78 degrees during the afternoon and evening for a whole week because some power plants were unexpectedly offline, and the grid operator did not say why.

Virginia Palacios, executive director of the nonprofit Commission Shift, a group focused on environmental and consumer issues at the state's oil and gas regulator, said she is disappointed that Abbott did not include any items related to "strengthening the electric grid," among other energy issues.

"Already this summer we have seen the electric grid tested, and Texans deserve a functioning energy infrastructure that keeps businesses going and protects our communities," Palacios said in a statement.

Mitchell Ferman contributed reporting.

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