Best and Worst of the 2021 Legislature

As 2021 comes to a close, TFN is looking back at some of the best and worst moments in and around the Capitol. But let’s be real, most of the moments are in the “worst” category as the regular legislative session was followed by three additional 30-day special sessions. The result: Texans spent most of the calendar year fighting the far-right’s assault on their rights inside the Capitol.

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Best: Don’t Mess with Texas Abortions


On May 19, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 8, the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country that ended most abortions in the state when the law went into effect in September. A few days after Abbott’s signature, thousands showed up at the Capitol, and across the street at the governor’s mansion, to say that enough is enough. The huge showing in support of abortion rights was another reminder that anti-abortion lawmakers are out of touch with most Texans, who support access to the procedure. And it showed that no matter what the Texas Legislature does, abortion rights supporters aren’t going anywhere and will keep fighting even after 2021 comes to an end. Senate Bill 8 became law along with another bill that banned obtaining abortion medication through the mail. Those two laws, combined with an expected U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a Mississippi anti-abortion law that threatens to overturn Roe v. Wade, means that the state-by-state fight to preserve abortion rights will be even more important in years to come, especially in a state as big and as consequential as Texas.

Worst: Abortion Practically Banned in Texas

Almost all abortions in Texas stopped on Sept. 1. Read that again. It’s not a joke. It’s the harsh reality of what happened to a constitutionally protected right in 2021. And no, anti-abortion extremists didn’t even need the help of a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court to make it happen. This was the result of Senate Bill 8, the most extreme anti-abortion law in the country, which bans the procedure at six weeks of pregnancy. Most don’t even know they are pregnant at six weeks, making SB 8 practically a ban on all abortions. Making the situation worse was the law’s unusual enforcement mechanism designed to make it difficult to be challenged in court. SB 8 allows everyone, in Texans or not, to sue for $10,000 or more anyone who has an abortion after six weeks, or anyone who helps someone else get an abortion. Not only those seeking an abortion are subject to lawsuits but also abortion providers and, for example, anyone who merely gives someone a ride to an abortion clinic. Couple SB 8 with another bill signed by the governor — banning obtaining medication abortion by mail — and a trigger law that would ban all abortion in Texas should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling, and the damage to abortion rights was unquestionably one of the worst moments of the year.

Best: Suppress the Virus, Not the Vote

@texrisingWe came to testify against #HB6, but @briscoecain was so frantic to stop people of color from testifying he blew his own hearing. WE BACK #txraction♬ Spongebob – Dante9k

The year 2021 at the state Capitol was a parade of misplaced priorities that saw top elected officials ignore or undermine the response to very real problems to instead focus on conspiracy theories or outright lies. Such was the case with voting rights. The year started with an insurrection in our nation’s capital that was fueled by the proven lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Rather than show courage and set the record straight, Texas Republicans cravenly used those lies as the excuse to impose more barriers to the ballot box in a state where voting was already more difficult than in most of the country. Still, the fight against voter suppression presented an opportunity to remind Texans of Republican leaders’ misplaced priorities. “Suppress the Virus, Not the Vote,” was a mobilization of activists by TFN, and led by its Texas Rising program. The reality is that while officials like Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick focused most of their attention on finding ways to suppress the voices of Texans at the ballot box, the COVID-19 pandemic continued into its second year. Rather than fight the very real health threat facing millions of Texans with every possible resource, our leaders instead chose to neglect or even undermine the response to the virus. The visual of TFN and Texas Rising activists, some in full hazmat suits, was truly one of the enduring images of this year’s legislature. And it will serve as a reminder, in 2022 and beyond, that when faced with a crisis, people like Gov. Abbott chose lies about stolen elections over the well-being of his constituents.

Worst: Making it Harder to Vote

The efforts by state Republicans to suppress the right to vote had many pivotal moments, most of them falling under the “worst” category. Lies, hurt feels about calling the voter suppression bill what it is and the bungling by one of the bill authors are just some of the worst things we saw at the Capitol on voting rights.

Censoring the word “racism”

It is pretty much universally accepted, except by the supporters of the bill, that the voter suppression law eventually passed by state Republicans will disproportionally and negatively impact the growing communities of color in our state. What would you call that? Well, Texas House Speaker Phelan decided you couldn’t call the law what it is and banned the word during debate on the bill. Your right to vote couldn’t be protected, but the fragile feelings of the bill’s supporters were.

Bungling your own bill

@texrisingIt’s veryyy interesting that Briscoe Cain doesn’t know what’s written in his own bill 🤔👀 ##txraction ##txlege♬ original sound – Texas Rising

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, was the author of a voter suppression bill filed in the regular session. Republicans didn’t do themselves any favors by letting Cain lead the effort. First, Cain bungled procedure in his own committee hearing, on his own bill, and was forced to delay advancing the proposal out of his committee. When the bill eventually made it to the House floor, Cain again bungled things by admitting he didn’t know some of the provisions in his own bill. Reporting by Mother Jones in May uncovered video of a rep for the far-right group Heritage Action bragging about drafting voter registration bills across the country that were similar to the one filed by Cain. Draw your own conclusions.

There is no widespread voter fraud. Period.

If you buy Republican arguments for the voter suppression bill, you would believe that voter fraud is rampant. It is simply not true. But that didn’t stop Republicans from making the claim, including by twisting the words of a top Democrat in the House. State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, wasn’t having it, though.

Best: Dems go to D.C.

Extreme proposals require an extraordinary response, especially with something as critical as the right to vote. In a move that you don’t see often at the Capitol, most Democrats in the Texas House left the House chamber, and eventually the state, in an effort to block the voter suppression bill in the regular session. It worked. In the last few hours of the regular session, enough House Democrats left the state, denying the required quorum to conduct business and putting a stop to the voter suppression bill. Though the bill would eventually pass in a special session, the extraordinary step taken by the Dems brought national attention to what was happening in Texas and brought urgency to the fight to protect voting rights across the country. Though it is long overdue for passage, there is an ongoing push in Washington to pass federal legislation to protect voting rights in all the states.

Best: A Healing Circle for Trans Texans

State leadership has sadly made a priority of attacking transgender Texans ever since the 2017 bathroom bill championed by Lt. Gov. Patrick. It happened again in 2021, this time with legislation aimed at trans youth. The transgender sports ban bill, now signed into law, will ban transgender youth from participating in school sports. TFN’s program for progressive people of faith and faith leaders, Just Texas, once again answered the call. In the Capitol rotunda in September, leaders from diverse faith traditions gather to support and celebrate the trans community. Because our faith does not discriminate.

Best: Blocking Discriminatory Anti-Trans Legislation

When faced with discriminatory legislation, you use every tool in the toolbox against it. For a bill to become law, it must meet certain deadlines throughout the legislative session. That was the case with the transgender sports ban bill, which had to pass the House by midnight on May 26 during the regular legislative session. As the deadline neared, House Democrats slowed the proceedings just enough to keep the bill from hitting the floor for a vote. It worked, triggering a celebration on the House floor when the clock struck midnight. Though the bill would become law in a special session, the initial blockage of the bill gave us one of the best moments that showed that discrimination is not a Texas value.

Worst: Trans People are not a Bargaining Chip

This was one of the worst moments not only in 2021 but in recent legislative years. It was during the regular legislative session that the transgender sports ban bill appeared dead after stalling in the House Public Education Committee. It wouldn’t stay that way. State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, having seen one of his unrelated bills fail the previous day on the House floor, spitefully revived the anti-trans bill and moved it out of his committee. Rep. Dutton made it clear in his remarks that it was payback for his own bill failing. This moment highlighted two things: Politics can be awful and trans people should never — ever — be used as the currency for political payback.

Worst: Discriminating Against Trans Texans and Ignoring Urgent Issues

If you have ever seen a committee hearing, you’ve noticed that the vast majority of testifiers get few if any questions from lawmakers, even on contentious bills. That was not the case when a Texas Rising leader testified against the anti-trans sports bill and asked lawmakers to put politics aside and focus on real and urgent problems facing the state.

Worst: Censoring History

The national push by far-right activists and lawamkers to censor classroom lessons and scare parents about how the history of racism and inequality are taught in our schools made its way to the Texas Capitol. State Republicans passed not one but two bills seeking to limit discussions and lessons about certain topics in schools. HB 3979 — initially blocked by state Rep. James Talarico but revived with an unusual procedural move by Lt. Gov. Patrick — was approved in the regular session. And SB 3 was passed in the second special session after conservatives like Gov. Abbott complained that the first bill did not go far enough. The full impact of these bills remains to be seen. But they threaten to cause a chilling effect on teachers and sow confusion about what they can and can’t teach. Already there is at least one offensive incident in which a school administrator suggested a teacher offer an opposing perspective on the Holocaust in order to comply with the laws. Politicizing public education is always wrong. And these bills highlight why it’s always a terrible idea to allow polticians to micro-manage what’s taught in classrooms from the floor of the Texas House or Senate.

Worst: Unfair Maps

As it does every ten years, the Texas Legislature drew new political maps following the completion of the latest national census. Texas’ population grew thanks in large part to growth in Black and Latino communities. But that doesn’t mean communities of color will be fairly represented in Congress. Republicans drew maps that diminish the voting power of these growing communities in a bid to secure and increase the total number of seats the party holds in Congress. It was the same story with the maps designating districts for the Texas House, Senate and the State Board of Education. The voter suppression bill passed this year combined with unfair maps means progressives will have to work extra hard to register and mobilize voters in 2022 and beyond. As of this writing, multiple lawsuits seeking to overturn the maps have been filed and are pending.

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