House Speaker Dade Phelan speaks with legislators on the opening day of the special session at the Texas Capitol on July 8, 2021. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

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A growing number of Texas Republicans are pushing for lawmakers to return to the state Capitol for a fourth overtime round of legislating to pass laws banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

As those calls continue to build, it remains unclear whether Gov. Greg Abbott — the only official with the power to convene special sessions — will order state lawmakers back to Austin and what issues he would include on the agenda.

Lawmakers already met for the biennial regular session that ended in May before convening for three special sessions over the summer and into this fall to tackle redistricting along with a number of GOP priorities, including a law that further tightens the state’s election rules.

Abbott last week declined to say whether he intends to call another special session, but he left the door open, reminding reporters at a news conference that one “can be called anytime.” On Monday, an Abbott spokesperson, contacted for comment, referred to a previous statement from the governor’s office that said “there is no need for another special session at this time.”

Still, at least two dozen Republican lawmakers have so far called for a fourth special session, with many focusing on efforts to ban vaccine mandates. Abbott had named it as a late priority in the third special session that ended in October, but legislation that would have banned any Texas entity from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for employees failed to gain traction in both chambers after business groups rallied against the proposal.

Another Abbott priority — increasing the penalty for illegal voting — also did not pass in the last special session. The governor called for the stiffer penalty weeks after he signed into law a bill that reduced it. Shortly after the Legislature adjourned the third special session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Republican leader of the state Senate, pushed for another session to focus on that as well as passing an election audit bill.

In September, President Donald Trump, who won Texas in 2020, called for a “Forensic Audit of the 2020 Election” in the state. Abbott resisted adding the item to the special session agenda and instead backed a more narrow review of the 2020 election by the secretary of state’s office, which announced it was conducting a “full forensic audit” in four of the state’s biggest counties. There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas in 2020. And earlier this year, an official in the secretary of state’s office called the 2020 election in Texas “smooth and secure.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Dade Phelan, the Beaumont Republican who heads the lower chamber, has not weighed in on whether he supports a fourth session, saying through a spokesperson that the decision to convene a special session is up to Abbott.

Vaccines

While Patrick’s push for another special session last month focused on those elections-related issues, other Republicans in recent weeks have rallied largely around banning vaccine mandates. The lieutenant governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about whether Patrick supports adding the vaccine mandates issue to a potential special session agenda.

In October, Abbott issued an executive order outlawing COVID-19 vaccine requirements by any entity in Texas, including private businesses and health care facilities. The governor has said his order will remain in place until lawmakers pass a bill related to the issue.

In the meantime, the state has sued the Biden administration over its coronavirus vaccine mandates for federal contractors, private businesses and health care workers.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Texas, which last month called for a fourth special session, is campaigning on a “Four-Day 4th,” referring to a four-day special session. The group says that short of a stretch would be all that’s needed to address vaccine mandates.

“We know legislators are tired and nobody wants an extended special session,” Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi said in an interview Monday, pointing to states such as Tennessee and Florida that recently passed legislation on vaccine mandates on short timelines.

As of Tuesday, at least 25 GOP state lawmakers have publicly called for a special session related to banning vaccine mandates. While those calls began with members aligned with the further right faction of the party, other Republicans have in recent days also signaled support, including state Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, who tweeted last week that “medical decisions should be made by the individual, not by their employer or the government.”

Oliverson, an anesthesiologist, said Tuesday that lawmakers during the third special session didn’t have enough time to work on the issue or “build consensus around an approach.”

“I think there’s an appetite to do something,” Oliverson said. “I don’t know exactly what that something will be. I don’t think this is a conversation you have quickly — it needs that full process of deliberation, a kind of let the cream rise to the top sort of thing.”

Another House Republican, state Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, has also called for a fourth special session over banning vaccine mandates, writing in an Oct. 26 Facebook post that he was ready to return to Austin despite spending the past 10 months in the state’s capital.

“While I am happy to be home after three special sessions in Austin,” Cain wrote, “I would happily return to Austin if called upon to protect the rights of my fellow Texans.”

Cain, a member of the hardline conservative Texas House Freedom Caucus, told The Texas Tribune on Monday that the state could benefit in its legal fight with the Biden administration if it already had a law addressing the issue.

“From a litigation standpoint,” Cain said, “I think it would help the state’s position when claiming that the federal government is interfering with an area of state rights if the state had a law on the books that the feds were interfering with.”

Rinaldi, the Texas GOP chair who’s also a former state House member, said that while legislation to ban vaccines failed during the most recent session, Republicans have since galvanized over the issue.

“When this was put on the special session call during the last special session, the issue was fairly new — people weren’t facing imminent threat of being fired at the time,” Rinaldi said. “I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding it because of the immense damage that these vaccine mandates do, both to individual lives and to our economy.”

State health officials have said that the vaccine greatly reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission. And state data shows that unvaccinated Texans made up 85% of coronavirus cases and deaths from Jan. 15 to Oct. 1, 2021. About 54% of Texans are fully vaccinated.

Abbott is also fielding pressure over banning vaccines mandates by at least two of his GOP primary challengers: former state Sen. Don Huffines and Allen West, a former Florida congressman and Texas GOP chair.

Weary Legislature

To be sure, most lawmakers have not publicly weighed in on whether there should be another session before the Legislature convenes for its next regular session in January 2023.

The last time a governor convened a fourth special session was in 2004, when then-Gov. Rick Perry again ordered lawmakers back after the Legislature had worked overtime from June to October that previous year following its regular session.

This year, members returned to their districts in mid-October weary from the past 10 months that featured some of the most conservative legislating in recent memory. After House Democrats aimed to block a GOP elections bill by walking out of the chamber in the final hours of the regular session that ended in May, Abbott called lawmakers back for another overtime round focused on passing that legislation along with a number of other Republican priorities.

But business stalled over the summer after Democrats again broke quorum over that elections proposal, with enough members flying to Washington, D.C., to prevent lawmakers in Austin from moving any legislation during the first special session.

That impasse lasted for weeks, though once work resumed, the GOP-dominated Legislature passed its elections legislation in a second special session before turning to the redrawing of the state’s political maps during the third.

Some Democrats, such as state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, say Republicans may try to use another special session to rally their party’s base heading into primary election season.

“Texas taxpayers should not be asked to bankroll another unnecessary special session simply because Republicans want to prolong the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, in an email through a spokesperson. “Republican legislators should explore other strategies to win their primary elections.”

Another issue that has gotten attention in recent days is the renewal of Chapter 313, a decades-old law that Abbott was asked about at last week’s news conference in Austin announcing that Samsung Electronics Co. will build a roughly $17 billion chipmaking plant in Williamson County.

Chapter 313, one of the state’s largest corporate tax break programs, is set to expire at the end of 2022 after the Legislature did not renew it. Under the program, Samsung would save an estimated $250 million in taxes over the next 15 years.

So far, according to Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers & Research Association, there have not been any signs to suggest there is interest among leadership at the Legislature to extend the current program in a special session.

“The politics of the issue really haven’t changed since the regular session,” Craymer said, adding that, “it would be challenging to take extraordinary measures to extend the program at this time.”

Craymer, whose group has supported the program in the past but isn’t “making a big push to get a temporary extension at this point,” said that lawmakers may tackle something related to property taxes during a special session given the state’s economic surplus and roughly $3 billion left in federal COVID relief money.

“But I’d be surprised if Chapter 313 is a part of that discussion,” he said.

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