More Government or Less? “Pass Them All” Vs “Sunset and Sine Die”

A political tug-of-war is about to break out at the Texas Capitol as Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session kicks off Tuesday. At Abbott’s behest, lawmakers will be back in Austin at a potential cost of roughly $2 million of your tax dollars, to debate as many as 20 topics including school vouchers, property taxes, and the “bathroom bill.”

The first order of business, as declared by Abbott this week, is to avoid a looming partial shutdown of government caused by the Texas Senate’s failure to adopt a bill to extend the life of state agencies like the Texas Medical Board. The Medical Board performs a core function of government: licensing doctors across the state. This is known as "Sunset" legislation because state agencies must be reviewed from time to time and if lawmakers decide not to renew them, the “sun sets on them,” so to speak.

It’s a genuine crisis but also a cleverly engineered one. 

During the regular session of the Legislature earlier this year, the Texas House adopted language that would have staved off the crisis. But because the House was late in doing so, it created an opportunity for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to engage in some crafty and frankly brilliant political brinkmanship to force Gov. Abbott to call a special session so that lawmakers would have one more crack at a “bathroom bill,” property tax legislation, and more.

Abbott succumbed to pressure from Patrick by calling a special session that will include Patrick's priorities on one condition: The Senate under Patrick's leadership must first pass the Sunset bill. Abbott has said he will take Patrick at his word that the Sunset language can be passed in a few days. 

This scenario has sparked a fundamental debate over how much more government we want in Texas and how much power should be centralized in Austin.

Gov. Abbott, with his 20 items – many of which are Patrick’s pet causes like the proposal to restrict restroom access by gender – argues the government in Austin is best positioned to make decisions about the everyday lives of Texans.

Others, though, argue the legislature should honor the time-honored conservative value of less legislation equaling less government. Abbott himself has previously said "this is good" that lawmakers did not pass very many bills this year as compared to the past two decades. 

That’s why lapel pins were created that read “Sunset and Sine Die,” reflecting the argument that lawmakers should pass the Sunset legislation – the only “must-pass” bill on the agenda – and then adjourn “Sine Die.” That simply means lawmakers would leave and not return to the Capitol to write more laws for all of us to live under until the next regular session in 2019 or whenever Gov. Abbott might call another special session.

In an editorial, the Houston Chronicle called the “Sunset and Sine Die” pins "the must-have accessory for the sartorially inclined legislator during the special session." 

"The only thing legislators will need is a shiny little button that reads 'Sunset and Sine Die," the Chronicle's editorial board said. "Those lapel pins represent a call for sanity during the special session, which begins July 18 and lasts up to 30 days: Approve the must-pass sunset bill and adjourn."

Shortly after that editorial was released, Gov. Abbott answered with a lapel pin of his own that reads “20 for 20” as he urges the House and Senate to "Pass Them All." This is probably a better pep talk than when he called Republican lawmakers “lazy” if they do not pass bills for each of his topics. By the way, none of the bills Abbott's now demanding on his desk were listed as his priorities during the regular session. 

For weeks, Gov. Abbott has refused to answer questions about whether he would call lawmakers back again for another special session if the 20 items are not addressed. He’s also said nothing about how many bills would need to pass for him to decline to call a second special session. 

When it comes to "Sunset and Sine Die" versus "Pass Them All," the reality is lawmakers are likely to end with a result somewhere in the middle. And by pledging to quickly pass bills addressing all of the topics in about 10 days, Lt. Gov. Patrick has essentially ceded legislative power to the House, which will have the option of passing as many or as few bills as can be addressed in a 30-day special session with a mishmash of topics on the agenda. 

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