(The Center Square) – More than 60 House Democrats who fled Austin Monday to prevent a vote on election reforms will be arrested when they return to Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said.
“Once they step back into the state of Texas, they will be arrested and brought to the Texas capital and we will be conducting business,” Abbott said.
The 67 Democratic lawmakers flew on chartered flights to Washington D.C. in protest of proposed legislation seeking to reduce the chances of fraud in future elections. The legislation is one of a number of measures being considered during a July special session called by Abbott.
“Texans oppose walkouts to avoid votes," Abbott said. "No one else gets paid to walk off their job. Quitters never win. We will continue successive Special Sessions until elected representatives do what they were elected to do – debate issues and cast votes.”
According to a recent Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) poll, by a two-to-one margin, Texans oppose legislators using procedural maneuvers to prevent the Legislature from voting. Fifty-four percent polled said they oppose members staging walkouts in order to deny the Legislature the quorum it needs in order to hold votes. Only 27% polled said they support legislators walking out.
The state's Constitution requires two-thirds of 150 members in the Legislature to be present in order to conduct business. With 67 Democrats leaving, they ensured that the House could not conduct business when it was to reconvene Tuesday.
“Walkouts are only supported by the extreme left,” TPPF’s chief communications officer Brian Phillips said in a statement. “Most Texans see it as a childish and desperate move, and they don’t like temper tantrums. We can have respectful disagreements and energetic debates. But the process must move forward. There will be a side that gets the votes and a side that doesn’t. If one side can abuse the rules to prevent votes, then we cease to have a functioning democracy. The left is embarrassing themselves and Texas.”
According to the poll, more than one-third of Democrats, 53% of Independents, and 44% of moderates oppose the walkout. The majority of Republicans polled, 68%, and conservatives, 67%, oppose it. Forty-three percent of Hispanics and 42% of Blacks oppose the walkout.
Abbott told Fox News Monday night that a procedure called “Call of the House” would be used to ensure that Democrats return to the Capitol to do their jobs once they are back in Texas.
State legislative rules allow House Speaker Dade Phelan and Senate leader Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to call on law enforcement to arrest truant lawmakers when the Legislature is in session. Those who refuse to attend the session can legally be restrained, handcuffed and brought back into their respective chambers. The speaker and lieutenant governor can also order the doors of the chambers locked, ensuring that those who try to leave are not physically able to do so.
The Democrats who left for Washington D.C. “put at risk state funding that will deny thousands of hard-working staff members and their families a paycheck, health benefits, and retirement investment," Phelan said. "The Texas House will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously passed House Rules to secure a quorum to meaningfully debate and consider election integrity, bail reform, benefits for retired teachers, Child Protective Services reform, Article X funding, and the other important measures Gov. Abbott placed on the special session agenda.”
This week's walkout could have been avoided if Phelan had invoked the Call the House in May, critics say, a decision criticized by Patrick.
In an interview with WBAP-AM radio, Patrick said Phelan knew House Democrats were planning to walk out to break quorum at the 11th hour and told them that he would not invoke Call of the House.
In the interview, Patrick said that he locked the doors of the Senate during an SB7 conference committee debate and increased DPS presence in an effort to prevent Democrats from leaving to intentionally break quorum.
Patrick also said Phelan met with House Democrats and told them he was not going to lock the chamber doors or send DPS to arrest them and that Phelan appeared to have mismanaged the House calendar.
“The calendar was mismanaged,” Patrick said. “I hate to say on purpose, but there is a pattern here.”
Because the Democrats broke quorum in May, the Legislature failed to pass two legislative priorities of Abbott’s: election reform and bail reform. Since then, Abbott called a special session to now address 11 legislative items. Special sessions last for 30 days and can be extended for additional 30-day periods.
Abbott also partially vetoed a portion of the budget that funds the salaries of lawmakers, their staffs and the salaries of agency employees.
“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,” Abbott said.
Monday was the second time Democrats broke quorum in two months.
“Isn't that the most un-Texan thing you have ever heard? Texans running from a fight?” the governor said.
Attorney General Ken Paxton said Democrats’ behavior was “a disgrace to democracy. House Democrats have hurt their constituents and demonstrated that when they’re faced with a problem, they run away – literally. It’s shameful and they have failed as elected officials.”
Brownsville Democrat Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. said he wasn’t leaving Texas.
"I have decided to stay at my post and do what I can from there," Lucio told the American-Statesman. "I respect members and their choice of how best they should represent their districts."
Lucio said he was concerned about staff members who aren’t being paid their salaries and benefits and risk losing them unless lawmakers convene and vote on the budget before Sept. 1. In order to do so, Abbott said they must first address priority legislative items.
"We need to address ... the state's budget," Lucio said.