June 10, 2009
Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday that he plans to call the Legislature back for a special session but didn’t say when it would be. Lawmakers ended their 140-day regular session last week without passing legislation needed to extend the lives of five state agencies, including the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Insurance. The agencies are set to expire as soon as September 2010, but the shutting-down process would begin a year before. Capitol speculation about when the special session would be held has shifted to July.
“We’ll talk about when a special session would be appropriate,” Perry said Tuesday as he began a meeting with business leaders about energy.
The governor controls which issues the Legislature takes up in a special session, but Perry did not spell out those issues.
“When I decide on the date, I’ll let you all know what we’re going to discuss, but it’s a little bit premature,” Perry said.
Perry is unlikely to call a special session this month because he is focused on reviewing legislation for possible vetoes. He has until June 21 to issue vetoes. After that, lawmakers and Perry have a little more than a week to raise campaign money before a critical June 30 fundraising deadline.
Perry faces a potentially tough Republican primary race for re-election in 2010 against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The timing of a special session affects his ability to raise money for that expensive campaign.
He cannot collect campaign cash during a regular or special legislative session. He also must wait to hold fundraisers until after the veto period for the regular session. Hutchison faces no such fundraising constraints.
The governor typically calls special sessions for 30 days at a time, and most of the cost of a special session comes from the $168 per day that each lawmaker receives. The sessions typically cost about $1 million per month.
Perry indicated the day after the regular session that he and advisers would look for ways to keep the agencies operating without a special session. But they haven’t found a way to make that work. For now, the agencies – the Insurance and Transportation departments, the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, the Texas Racing Commission and the State Affordable Housing Corp. – are operating as usual.
Four of the agencies are set to expire in September 2010. The fifth – the Racing Commission – could stay in business a year longer.
Republican senators refused to pass legislation temporarily extending the five agencies on June 1, the last day of the regular session, after the House adjourned without authorizing $2 billion in transportation bonds. The senators also criticized the way House members drafted the legislation to keep the agencies open.
Perry could narrowly craft his orders for the session so that lawmakers simply pass a so-called safety net bill to keep the agencies open for two more years and authorize the transportation money. That could get lawmakers in and out of town in a week or so.
More comprehensive legislation extending the agencies and making reforms in insurance and transportation policies didn’t pass during the regular session, but Perry could put it back on the agenda. The agencies needed to be reauthorized because they had been under “sunset” review, the process by which lawmakers must periodically vote to keep agencies open. Lawmakers often use this process to make changes at agencies.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said Tuesday that lawmakers could tackle those reforms and still finish their work quickly.
Some Republicans will want legislation boosting voter identification requirements added to the special session call. At the end of the regular session, House Democrats talked for days about noncontroversial bills to keep the voter ID legislation from coming up. Perry declined to speculate about whether he would make voter ID part of the special session.
Voter ID should be kept out of the special session, Watson said.
“If he keeps his eye on the ball and limits the call so that we don’t get into distractions, I think we can get this done quickly,” Watson said.
Perry will also be pressed to add other items to the special session. After Perry’s comments Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston issued a letter he wrote Perry asking that several criminal justice issues be placed on the agenda, including witness identification changes. He said mistaken witness IDs are the leading cause of wrongful convictions.
Ellis also wants the Legislature to try again to pass a measure that could allow the governor to approve posthumous pardons, as in the case of Timothy Cole, who died in prison while serving time for a rape he didn’t commit.
Meanwhile, the agencies that are at risk of closing are still trying to figure out what steps they need to take to stay open.
“We’re still looking at our options,” said Chris Lippincott, a spokesman for the Transportation Department. “There are a lot of people who need to be consulted about this.”
Officials at the Racing Commission aren’t starting to wind down operations.
“We are to continue our work as usual,” said Charla Ann King, the commission’s executive director. “I anticipate that we will be back in special session in the coming months. We will be ready when the time comes.”