The Texas State Capitol building in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy Tony Webster, Flickr; no changes were made to this image.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that a second special session of the Texas Legislature will convene on Saturday with an expanded 17-item agenda

The current special session was waylaid when Texas House Democrats left the state to deny the lower chamber the necessary quorum needed to consider a controversial voting bill Democrats said adversely affects people of color. The entire El Paso delegation went to Washington, D.C., though state Sen. Cesar Blanco eventually returned.

Abbott has vowed to call as many special sessions as needed for state lawmakers to pass his legislative priorities. A special session can last up to 30 days, with the current session ending Friday. 

The new agenda includes many items from the current session, including: the contentious voting bill, bans on teaching critical race theory in public schools, border security, bail reform, and restrictions on abortion-inducing drugs and transgender students’ participation in sports. 

With Abbott up for reelection in 2022, many of the special session items are linked to issues that are seen as key rallying points for the GOP voter base.

The new agenda tasks lawmakers to pass legislation prohibiting the mandatory wearing of face coverings in public schools — despite calls from superintendents, teachers’ associations, parents, doctors and El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser for school districts to be able to decide whether to require masks. Health experts say face coverings are a key defense against the spread of COVID-19. The agenda also calls for lawmakers to codify policies that make vaccines voluntary. 

Abbott also wants legislation passed that ensures “in-person learning is available for any student whose parent wants it,” which the Dallas Morning News reported would allow for legislation that funds virtual instruction. Parents have increasingly asked for remote learning options as new coronavirus cases in the state surge, and a handful of Central and North Texas districts have decided to make virtual instruction available to select students.

Another new item seeks to change current legislative rules regarding quorums — a response to Democrats’ departure from the state.

It is unclear whether the more than 50 lawmakers who left will decide to stay out of state for the duration of the next legislative overtime period. All five El Paso members of the Texas House remain in the nation’s capital as of Thursday.

State Rep. Joe Moody, D- El Paso, said in a July 30 interview with El Paso Matters that  “so many variables” are at play in determining when Texas House Democrats will return to the state. 

Moody was relieved of his position as speaker pro tem in July as punishment for breaking quorum.

It’s unknown how the quorum break will impact the potential for bipartisan efforts when Democrats eventually return. “I don’t know what the tone, or what the energy or what the emotion is going to be like on the floor when we get there,” Moody said. 

“I’ve always had the ability in my time in the legislature to talk through very tough things and as a member of the minority party, to work to mitigate harm and to try to promote the best public policy as I can,” Moody said. “That’s the same energy I’ll talk back to the capital when we get there. But whether the environment’s changed or not, that’s something I can’t really speak to.”

Cover photo: The Texas State Capitol building in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy Tony Webster, Flickr; no changes were made to this image.

Molly Smith reports on K-12 education and other issues for El Paso Matters. René Kladzyk reports on immigration and other issues.