State of Texas: ‘All options on the table’ for Democrats and Speaker Dade Phelan in special session

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The special session began this week at the Texas Capitol. Democrats in both chambers were present, but there are still questions of whether they will attempt another walkout, similar to the tactic used to block election legislation at the end of the regular session.

“Many are eager to get back to work,” said Speaker of the House Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) of the members in the House.

Phelan acknowledged the challenge of balancing the priorities of Democrats in the chamber and the governor’s agenda for the special session. Though he added agenda items dealing with dating violence and funding for Child Protective Services have broad support.

“Caseworkers are going out into the homes and seeing these young men and women and children in Texas, and the child removals are skyrocketing. Sleeping in CPS offices is through the roof,” Phelan explained.

He expects action on property tax relief because lawmakers from both parties are hearing from people getting “sticker shock” from their home appraisals.

For Article X of the state budget, it is “near and dear to all members,” so everyone wants to pass legislation which would allow staff members to be paid after Sept. 1.

After Democrats walked off the House floor to break quorum and prevent Senate Bill 7 from passing at the end of the regular session, Phelan stood by his decision not to stop members from leaving the chamber.

“I told them [Democrats] that, you know, I understand, there’s a rumor that there’ll be a quorum break tonight, I have the ability to lock the doors and arrest House members, I was not going to do that,” explained Phelan at the beginning of June, two days after the regular session ended.

Phelan suggested he will take a tougher approach if Democrats try to break quorum during this special session.

“My Democratic colleagues have been quoted saying that, you know, all options are on the table, and you know, respectfully, all options are on the table for myself as well,” said the Speaker in his interview this week.

While this is not a confirmation that Phelan would “lock the doors and arrest House members,” if Democrats attempted to walk off the floor to prevent a bill from passing, it does suggest that Phelan is willing to take more drastic measures to keep Democrats present for the entire thirty days of the session.

Despite this insinuation, Phelan also said he is willing to work with Democrats on legislation in a “very, very respectful, open dialogue.” He elaborated that the point of being a legislator was to represent your district, “so I wanted to show up and represent the districts.”

A common narrative surrounding this special session is that Gov. Greg Abbott is focusing on the wrong issues, such as voter regulation instead of the Texas power grid or health care reform. Phelan responded that the House is more productive than the public realizes.

“We can talk about a myriad of topics and get them done, you know, there’s not a limited amount of oxygen in the room,” he said, elaborating that “we did quite a bit on grid reform, we passed some massive changes to the PUC for more accountability, more route reliability, more communication.”

Phelan also said that grid reform is not an overnight transformation, and if more changes are needed, they can be done in the fall when the lawmakers return to the Capitol for redistricting.

“I think we need to give those agencies the opportunity to implement the changes we’ve made in a very short period of time,” asserted Phelan.

The Speaker commented on why education has the most topics on the agenda for the special session.

“We spend more money on education than we do anything else, so it is a top priority,” he said.

The agenda regarding education includes family violence prevention training in middle and high schools, a thirteenth check to the monthly payouts for retired teachers, transgender athletes and critical race theory.

Aaron Philips, an Amarillo ISD elementary school teacher, is happy about the thirteenth check, but nothing else.

“We’re seeing more effort to meddle politically in our classrooms and to have a say, politically, what happens rather than letting us be honest, in our teaching,” asserted Philips.

Representative Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) agreed with Philips’ sentiments.

“We need to come back and focus on concrete bread and butter issues, like access to health care, learning disruptions our students have faced and making sure our grid is reliable and efficient,” said Zwiener.

One thing that all lawmakers can agree on is there is a lot to do in the next thirty days.

“I think we have our plates full,” Speaker Phelan put it simply.

One Republican lawmaker is retiring, while another is running for higher office

Two Texas lawmakers have decided to go in a new direction. The most senior Republican in the State Senate is retiring after this term, and a Republican in the House is challenging the Agriculture Commissioner incumbent in the 2022 Republican primary. 

State Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), who has served in the Texas Senate since 1993, announced she will retire in 2023 after her term is complete. During her tenure, Nelson has served as chair of the Senate Finance Committee and has been the Senate’s top budget writer for the past four sessions.

Cassandra Pollock, a reporter with the Texas Tribune, reported Lt. Governor Dan Patrick asked Nelson to remain in her role as Senate Finance Chair through the end of the year.

“So, I think the assumption there is just that Nelson will remain in generally the same role that she has been serving in, at least to the end of the year,” explained Pollock.

Senator Nelson wrote on her website that she is honored to have served in the Senate over the past 28 years.

“It has been a great honor to represent our community in the Texas Senate. I promised to listen, work hard and deliver results and have strived to fulfill that pledge. Our accomplishments have improved the lives of Texans, which makes me proud,” said Sen. Nelson. “I love my constituents, my staff, and my colleagues in the Senate and owe them, as well as my family, a debt of gratitude. As this chapter closes, you can count on me to keep working to build a better Texas.”

The other Republican making a change is State Rep. James White (R-Hillister), who is challenging Sid Miller in the 2022 Agriculture Commissioner’s race. White said he decided to run because he believes rural Texas is vital to the state’s agriculture.

“The freedom of Texas, the prosperity of Texas, is really on the shoulders of rural Texas. So, our friends in Austin, San Antonio and Houston and Lubbock, we want to remind them of that. And we want to bring them to the table to help us,” said White in an interview on Thursday.

Rep. White has served six terms in office, and he is the only black Republican in the Texas Legislature.

The primaries for the Agriculture Commissioner’s race are in February and the general election is in November.

Congressman McCaul addresses threat of ransomware attacks and a shortage of semiconductor chips

Congressman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who is the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the co-founder of the Congressional cybersecurity caucus, is pushing for the U.S. to take more direct action in response to the growing number of ransomware attacks.

McCaul explained since the beginning of the year, the number of incidents have “gone up about 300%.” He believes these debilitating attacks can be tracked directly back to Russia.

“I don’t think it’s by chance. I do think that Mr. Putin is behind this, I think he tacitly approves, whether it be the Russian mafia or state sponsored attacks. It’s all coming out of the Kremlin,” said McCaul in an interview.

When asked about what should be done, McCaul asserted that the United States needs to retaliate when ransomware attacks are linked to Russia.

“I think we have to be punitive,” McCaul said. “I think, again, sanctions on the oligarchs where it counts – this money, this ransomware, goes through Bitcoin to these Russian mafia groups, then to the oligarchs and then ultimately ends up in Mr. Putin’s coffers.” The Representative emphasized that “bad behavior will continue with impunity, unless they know that there will be a response.”

There should also be communication and cooperation in the international community on the topic of cybersecurity and ransomware attacks, according to McCaul. He did not expand much on this thought, but did say there needs to be a set of “international norms and standards” for what the U.S. and its allies finds acceptable.

McCaul’s final thought on this topic was that “we have tremendous offensive capability, but the President has to order that.”

Another issue which presents a potential national security threat is the shortage of semiconductor chips available in the United States.

These chips are found in appliances, phones, cars and other technology, including some of the U.S.’ most advanced weapons systems at the Pentagon. The issue is that these chips are mainly produced overseas, in nations such as China and the supply train can be easily disrupted.

“Anything that’s in the national security realm, we need to break our supply chain out of the region [China] and bring it in either into the United States, or with allied nations where we can better protect it,” explained McCaul on Thursday.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) expressed these similar sentiments in June when he toured Samsung’s Austin semiconductor manufacturing site and spoke about the need for semiconductor chips to be made in America.

“What China is doing is they want to become the dominant economy, and the dominant superpower in the world, and that’s a vulnerability for the United States, both economically and from a national security standpoint,” asserted the Senator.

In response to this threat, Rep. McCaul is pushing for a House passage of the CHIPS for America Act, which would incentivize U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, research and development and supply chain security. The incentivization would come through a major refundable tax credit which would cover up to 40% of the manufacturer’s upfront cost.

McCaul said this will be attractive to businesses.

“They want to do this in America, we just need to incentivize them to do so – it’s not in our interest to have a compromised chip coming out of a region, say China’s influence, that may or may not be compromised and going into our national security apparatus and into our national weapon systems,” he explained.

Also, McCaul hopes the act could provide an economic boost for the City of Austin. Samsung already has a semiconductor manufacturing site in the city, and Intel and IBM are considering a joint venture which might be based in Austin.

“I think you’ll see more and more of these fabrication plants popping up in this area, which will create high paying jobs. And for each job it does create, it creates five more jobs in our Austin economy. It could be a really big boom for our economy here, but also to protect our national security,” said the congressman who represents parts of the Greater Houston and Greater Austin regions.

Both Rep. McCaul and Sen. Cornyn see the CHIPS for America Act as a proactive solution to address the shortage.

“This is just something we need to get done and maintain our vigilance, so that it does get done before we fall prey to this vulnerability,” said Sen. Cornyn.

New Texas law promises quicker medical care for patients

House Bill 3459 officially takes effect Sept. 1, and promises quicker care for Texas patients.

The bill aims to cut down the prior authorization process to get patients the treatment they need when speed matters.

“If I order things like a CAT scan to evaluate my patient’s breast cancer, to make sure it hasn’t spread somewhere else, frequently, I have to go through an insurance company to make sure that they think that’s okay,” Dr. Debra Patt, a breast oncologist and member of the Texas Medical Association, said.

Dr. Patt said the prior authorization process often delays her ability to treat and evaluate her patients.

“You can imagine that patients tremendous anxiety with their new cancer diagnosis if they have to wait a week or two to get information that they can get appropriate scans,” Dr. Patt said.

According to TMA, eight in 10 Texas physicians reported having to obtain prior authorization for medical procedures and common prescriptions. Of those doctors, 85% reported that process delayed patient care, ranging from days to months.

“That can change a child with a urinary tract infection from a local problem to a septic illness that could be potentially life-threatening,” Dr. Patt explained.

House Bill 3459 gives doctors who have a 90% approval rating from an insurance company a ‘gold card,’ meaning they can skip the pre-approval process for that specific study.

“If you have prior authorizations that have been approved, and you have at least five of those in any six-month period, then it gives you a rolling approval when you order the same study,” Dr. Patt said.

But the Texas Association of Health Plans said these requirements are not enough.

“The way that it’s implemented, having just this very basic sampling, and a limited window of time, we can’t have a good assessment if physicians are really prescribing care and treatment in good faith. And it’s just an invitation for waste, fraud and abuse,” TAHP director of communications Alicia Pierce explained.

Pierce said there are better ways to speed up the process, including avoiding using a fax machine and passing legislation that would make it easier to correct clerical mistakes.

Pierce also added that if a patient has multiple providers, who prescribe multiple drugs, the insurance company would be the only one with oversight to catch a potential bad interaction that could cause side effects.

“You have multiple providers who are providing different drugs and different prescriptions that may not show up for the doctor. And insurance companies are the only ones that have that 360 view of the patient’s health care,” Pierce said.

But Dr. Patt said health insurance companies are just trying to manage costs.

“They’re not in patient rooms, giving care to patients every day,” Dr. Patt said.

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