In July, a group of Democratic legislators left Austin, with some traveling to Washington, D.C., in an effort to break the quorum of the Texas Legislature to prevent action on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda.
In addition to salary, Texas lawmakers receive $221 per diem to cover living expenses for each day the legislature is convened, both regular and special sessions. Stretching across July and August, more than 50 Democratic members of the Texas House broke quorum for both the first and second special sessions to protest Republican-proposed election laws. While many of those who broke quorum promised to return the money, according to data received by ABC13 Houston, only nine have returned part or all of that money so far.
Here is what you need to know about this new development in the financial business of the Texas Legislature.
Each legislator receives daily compensation when the Texas Legislature is in session. This includes not only the regular session, but any time the Legislature convenes for a special session. With multiple special sessions in 2021, Texas lawmakers received much more in per diem payments than in a typical year.
Lawmakers received approximately $12,000 for the period from July through August for their service during the special session. The paychecks were deposited straight into the members’ bank accounts.
No. All Texas legislators still received their per diem during the special session time period, even if they were not physically present in the chamber, were out of state, or quorum was not met and no action could be taken by the legislature.
Lawmakers who chose not to accept the money for the days they were out of the chamber could return the money to the Texas Comptroller’s office. As of this writing, no laws or House rules exist preventing House members from accepting these disbursements during a quorum break.
But while it’s within the boundaries of the law, many of those lawmakers said they would return any money they received while breaking quorum. Only a few have followed through on that sentiment so far.
According to the ABC 13 news report from October, of the over 50 House Democrats who broke quorum, just nine returned some portion of the funds they were paid for the special sessions when they broke quorum. The lawmakers who returned the money included State Reps. Rafael Anchia (D – Dallas), James Talarico (D – Round Rock), Donna Howard (D – Austin), Julie Johnson (D – Farmers Branch), Eddie Lucio III (D – Brownsville), Armando Martinez (D – Weslaco), Evelina Ortega (D – El Paso), Roberto Guerra (D – McAllen) and Jon Rosenthal (D – Houston).
Anchia, Guerra, Lucio, Ortega, Rosenthal and Talarico paid back $5,304, while Johnson returned $4,862 and Howard and Martinez paid back $4,420.
While many lawmakers were silent about why they chose not to return the money to the Comptroller’s office, some lawmakers felt that by breaking quorum, they were representing the interests of their districts.
As House Rep. Christina Morales told ABC 13, “We broke the quorum because the very foundation of our democracy was at risk. Our only option was to leave the state and urge federal leaders to pass national voting rights legislation, so we spent the month working for our constituents in Washington, D.C. Breaking quorum resulted in out-of-pocket expenses in excess of our per diem, funding that supports our jobs to represent our constituents, but it was worth the cost to save our Democracy and protect the constituents of HD145.”
While the quorum break is over, voters in Texas will continue to hear about it during the upcoming 2022 election cycle. Many of the members who walked out will be seeking re-election, some in competitive districts, and the historic events of the 2021 cycle are sure to be talking points for anyone running.
Campaign finance reports for the third special session are due to the Texas Ethics Commission by members of the House this month. It will be interesting to see if other Democratic representatives returned their per diem payments during the final session. Join us to be alerted when the latest data is available.