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Texas This Week: Texas Tribune political reporter discusses third special session

For the fourth time this year, Texas lawmakers will convene at the Capitol.

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas lawmakers will return to the State Capitol on Monday for a third special session.

Three things to know in Texas politics

Texas senators and representatives are set to gavel in at 10 a.m. Monday to get to work on Gov. Greg Abbott's agenda for the third special session. Work on the big item on the call, redistricting, has been happening for months now, with both chambers holding committee hearings.

Lawmakers will also decide how the State spends nearly $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan. The governor is also asking lawmakers to pass legislation deciding whether governmental entities can mandate COVID-19 vaccines and, if so, what exemptions should apply.

Lawmakers will also address laws related to enhancing dog cruelty penalties and whether to require public school students to play on sports teams according to their biological sex at birth

Once again, State leaders are at odds with the federal government over the Texas-Mexico border. On Thursday, Gov. Abbott directed the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard to shut down six points of entry along the border. 

Hours later, a change. The governor releasing this statement: "Six hours after U.S. Customs and Border Protection requested help from Texas to close ports of entry and secure the border, the Biden Administration has now flip-flopped to a different strategy."

Meanwhile on Friday, Abbott signed a bill passed by the Legislature allocating another $1.8 billion in state funding for border security.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has another challenger in the primary election. Fort Worth Rep. Matt Krause is joining the crowded field of Republicans looking to unseat the embattled state attorney general. 

Texas Tribune Political Reporter James Barrágan talks third special session

For the fourth time this year, Texas lawmakers will convene under the pink dome. This time, to work on another one of the governor's agendas. 

James Barrágan, political reporter for The Texas Tribune, joined KVUE Political Anchor Ashley Goudeau to look at each issue on the call.

Ashley Goudeau: The third special session is about to get underway. Of course, the big item on the call is redistricting. The work to draw new political maps has been going on for quite some time now, a few months. But I want you to give us some insight on what's at stake, considering Texas' changing demographics.

James Barrágan: "Yeah, I mean, what's really at stake is, one, the political lives of many of the lawmakers that we know have represented the state. But the second thing – and really what I think is most important – is how fair of a representation are Texas voters going to get when the maps are redrawn? We know that lawmakers like to protect their incumbency, they like to protect their districts that they've already won and like to keep as comfortable of a race as they can. But what's really more important is will voters be able to have a, an option to choose the candidate of their choice? And that's really what this is all about."

Goudeau: "You know, when we think about the big 'G' word, gerrymandering, it's just one of those things that I think a lot of folks have come to expect and feel as though it just is what it is.

Barrágan: "Yeah, I mean, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Over the last decade, we had a big fight in federal courts over the previous redistricting session in 2010, I'm sorry, in 2011. And that, that legal battle lasted up until 2018, 2019. It's technically still going on today because they're fighting about attorney fees. But in those legal cases, the courts found that the State of Texas had intentionally discriminated against voters of color by packing them into districts where their votes would be diluted or cracking them by breaking them up into different districts so that their vote wasn't as powerful. And that happened to both Black voters and to Hispanic voters. And people of color have driven the biggest part of the state's growth over the last 10 years. So, one of the big questions is, will those gains be reflected in some opportunity districts for voters of color?"

Goudeau: You know, another big item is allowing lawmakers to have a say in how the State will spend nearly $16 billion in federal COVID relief funding. What ideas are on the table right now [for] how to use that money?

Barrágan: "I think for the Republican majority, a lot of the talk that I've been seeing is about putting some more money into the state's unemployment insurance fund so that it doesn't tax businesses that have had to lay off workers to replenish that fund. Instead, they'd like to use some of those federal COVID relief funds to just plug that money in there so that there wouldn't be an adverse effect on employers that have had to let employees go during the pandemic. 

I think what Democrats would like to see is more spending on public health, more spending on infrastructure, more spending on reimbursing schools for some of the costs that they've had. I think that there is, you know, some of those are pretty bipartisan issues. And I think that there are some Republicans who would be willing to go there. But I think the No. 1 priority there is going to be on reimbursing the unemployment insurance fund."

Goudeau: The last item that I'm going to bring up that's on the call is particularly interesting to me because of the language that's in the call, and it has to do with vaccine mandates. Gov. Abbott has been very vocal about not supporting vaccine mandates. He banned them in an executive order. Just this week, his campaign came out with an ad attacking President Joe Biden for vaccine mandates. And initially, on a previous call, he wanted legislation that banned vaccine mandates. He's now, in my opinion, kind of stepping that back a little bit by saying, and putting it on the call, letting lawmakers decide whether vaccine mandates are appropriate for cities and local governments. And if they are, what exemptions should apply. Are we seeing him pivot at all on this issue?

Barrágan: "Well, according to the experts that I've talked to, they're seeing the same thing, they're seeing him back off a little bit. And I think, what I've heard from people, is that with kids going back to school, that is a bad look if you've got what we have been seeing recently, which is school districts shutting down, whole schools shutting down for a day, just or for a couple of weeks because of the number of COVID cases that there are there. And when you're in that situation, it's very hard to be the person pushing the no vaccine mandates. 

And so, I think he's taken a step back, sort of washed his hands of it a little bit here, so to say, in this session and left it up to the legislators. So that if something happens, that goes awry and COVID all of a sudden picks up, especially with kids – which are such a sensitive subject, you know, parents love their kids – he can sort of say, 'Hey, it wasn't me. I left it up to the hands of the legislators and the legislators took X, Y or Z action.' So, I think there's definitely some sort of removal of himself, which I think is probably a smart political move. Now, the interesting thing will be to see what the legislators actually decide to do because they're facing the same dilemma, right?"

The Last Word

In this week's edition of The Last Word, Ashley Goudeau addresses the comments Gov. Greg Abbott recently made about eliminating rape in Texas. Some Texas rape victims say the governor's comments are a slap in the face as years-old rape kits sit on shelves waiting to be tested.

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