AUSTIN, Texas - The third special session of the Texas legislature began Monday without the threat of another walkout by Democrats. There were smiles and handshakes but also a clear understanding political wounds have not healed.
"I was looking around a number of times just to get a feel and it seemed, you know, underneath it’s a very difficult time, but on the surface, it seemed like people were actually very cooperative with each other," said Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R) Fredricksburg.
That spirit of cooperation, according to Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, is fragile.
"The wheels kind of fell off at the end of the regular session, so really the question kind of is, when will the wheels come back on, I'm not sure that is going to happen this session, doesn't mean we can’t be cordial with one another," said Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D) Austin.
What is on the agenda for the third special session?
The Senate has already started work on redrawing voting lines, which is required after every census.
A legal challenge has already been filed in an attempt to stop the map debate. Regardless of that, the fight is expected to move into several courtrooms. "I expect there will be litigation anyway, but that’s OK because the courts belong to the people," said Rep. James White (R) Hillister.
Also during this special session, legislators will take up a bill that would ban vaccine mandates for local and state governments. The legislation is designed to beef up Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that already bans such requirements.
Dr. Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University, says the debate on this issue could go in a couple of directions: it could set up a battle between the state and federal governments, or Texas Democrats and Republicans could actually find room for compromise.
"So that opens the door for the Democrats to say, you know what, we're happy with the legislation as long as it gives these kinds of windows," said Smith. "If Governor Abbott and the Republican legislature really draw a hard line on what the vaccination mandates are allowed, it's going to come in conflict with what the federal government might do regarding a vaccination mandate."
Legislators will also decide how to spend $16 billion in federal COVID relief money.
Elsewhere on the agenda are two other hot-button issues that experts say Gov. Greg Abbott likely included because they could impact his re-election prospects.
Transgender athletes in school sports is one of the most divisive issues that lawmakers have debated this year. Legislation to only allow student-athletes to join teams that correspond with their sex on their birth certificate filed to pass during the regular session. It came back during the first special session, advancing out of a Senate committee, only to stall out in the House due to Democrats fleeing to Washington to block the voting bill.
The restrictions on transgender athletes would apply to college as well as K-12 sports. Dr. Smith says bringing back this issue in the special session is a key way for Abbott to appeal to his base ahead of a potentially tough primary.
"This is definitely the red-meat issue of the special session, it's the one issue that he thinks is going to be able to win over very conservative Republicans," said Smith. "Because if Greg Abbott loses the primary, it's not going to be from a centrist candidate. It's going to be from somebody to his right."
Abbott has also instructed lawmakers to take a second look at a bill he previously vetoed—aimed at cutting down on animal abuse. The Safe Outdoor Dog Act would create new rules around leaving dogs outside on a chain or tether. The Governor added that bill to the list for the special session after facing backlash for his veto. He has suggested that he would sign a new version if some changes were made.
"So what he has to do is using the special session to save face, to try to get a law that he agrees with, that he won't veto, that makes it look like he doesn't hate puppies and the people that own puppies. That is not a good campaign slogan for his next election: ‘I'm Greg Abbott and I don't like puppies,’" said Smith.