2,100 state workers caught in the crosshairs of Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of Legislature funding

A staffer passes out papers while state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, speaks during session on the House floor at the state capitol on May 25, 2021.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

When Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed funding for Texas’ legislative branch, he said he was taking the drastic action as retribution after more than 30 Democrats walked out of the regular session, killing a GOP priority voting bill.

But the veto of the Legislature’s funding reaches far beyond the $600 monthly stipend for the more than 30 House Democrats in Abbott’s crosshairs. It goes further than the 150 members of the House and the 31 members of the Senate. In fact, their salaries are constitutionally protected.

But the veto threatens the livelihoods of 2,165 legislative staffers and individuals working at legislative agencies, with a median salary of $52,000 per year, according to data from the state comptroller.

That includes staffers like Ted Raab, the legislative director for Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, who is worried about how he would financially support himself and his three daughters if he loses his income.

“If the funding isn't there, I'm not going to be there,” Raab said.

Abbott’s veto affects the next two-year budget cycle starting Sept. 1, which means that funding for the staffers working through the upcoming special session beginning next week will be unaffected. Already Democrats and legislative staffers have petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to override the veto, calling the move an overreach of an executive authority.

Abbott, who sets the agenda of what can be taken up during the special legislative session, said he will allow the Legislature the opportunity to restore the funding at the upcoming special session.

But that’s hardly a guarantee. Raab said he is still worried that in a few months he might have to dip into his retirement fund to pay for his family’s health insurance and living expenses. Health coverage is especially vital for his eldest daughter — a junior college student with pulmonary arterial hypertension who requires daily medication and regular medical treatment.

Donovon J. Rodriguez, chief of staff to Rep. Ray Lopez, D-San Antonio and one of the petitioners, said the veto hurts himself, in addition to his wife and one-year-old daughter Evelyn.

“We're a one-income family,” Rodriguez said. “This would absolutely affect us greatly.”

It’s also bothersome to the employees that they’ve become pawns in a political battle that doesn’t involve them. “It’s kind of funny that now — for political reasons — our jobs are at risk,” Rodriguez said. “It’s kind of something that nobody would predict: that your governor would veto a branch of government.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But his spokeswoman Renae Eze previously acknowledged that constitutionally, lawmakers would still receive their pay, however his office has not commented on the threat of lost income for the thousands of state workers affected.

The legislative branch budget, known as Article X, includes funding for House and Senate lawmakers, their staffers and those working in non-partisan legislative agencies. In total, there was more than $410 million allocated in the 2022-23 fiscal budget.

Democrats aren’t the only members concerned by Abbott’s veto. Shortly after Abbott announced he would take the action, House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said it would hurt the wrong people.

“My concern is how it impacts staff, especially those who live here in Austin, which is not an inexpensive place to live and raise your family and children,” Phelan said at the time. “And the agencies it impacts … I’m just concerned how it impacts them because they weren’t the ones who decided that we were gonna break quorum, it wasn’t their decision, right?”

Abbott responded to Phelan’s concerns in a separate interview, saying the speaker “has a role to play here” and “needs to step up and get the job done.”

“He’s not some outside viewer,” Abbott said at the time. “He’s a participant.”

Meanwhile Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said putting staff jobs on the line was an effective way to ensure Democratic lawmakers show up for the special session, after the members staged a walkout during the final days of the session to block an overhaul of elections rules they described as attempted voter suppression.

“If the Democrats don’t come back, they’ll have to fire everybody,” Patrick told Dallas radio host Mark Davis. “That will force them to come back, and while they’re back, we’ll pass those other bills.”

Brooke Bennett Galindo, chief of staff to Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso said she is hopeful the funding will be restored before the fiscal year ends.

“We're still kind of talking a little bit in hypotheticals, but optimistic that we'll get an opportunity to pass that funding,” Bennett Galindo said.

But critics said it was cruel and baffling to go after those who have worked so hard through the legislative session and who are about to embark on at least two special sessions. Another special session to address redistricting will be called this fall.

“This defunding of the Legislature is not just affecting the people who walked out, who broke quorum,” said Odus Evbagharu, chief of staff to Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston. “Republicans have to suffer this too. This has become a partisan issue. You're punishing everyone.”

Evbagharu, who also helps financially support his sister in her sophomore year of college, said the veto affects the families of those state workers.

“There's a lot of external factors that play into not getting a paycheck,” Evbagharu said. “On top of that, the necessities to pay bills and provide for your family — the uncertainty just isn't right and it needs to be corrected.”

The veto also affects six legislative agencies funded under Article X of the state’s budget allocated more than $162 million for two years. A sizable portion of that funding was allocated to the Legislative Council — roughly $83 million. The council staff assists legislators in drafting and analyzing proposed legislation.

Other agencies funded through Article X also take part in the session, including the Legislative Reference Library, which conducts research for the Legislature; the State Auditor’s Office, which reviews finances for the state and the Sunset Advisory Commission, which conducts efficiency reviews of state agencies.

“It’s an everyday collaboration — there's not one day we're not collaborating with these departments because it's a lot of departments that are making this thing go,” Evbagharu said. “Without them, we can't do our job effectively.”

Several legislative agencies will play a crucial role in the Legislature’s redistricting session that is scheduled in the fall.

They are crucial for policymaking during redistricting sessions, notably the Legislative Budget Board and Legislative Council. The LBB is responsible for developing policy and budget recommendations and providing fiscal notes for bills while the Legislative Council will also be charged with drawing the maps for redistricting.

Evbagharu said that if the funding isn’t restored, it calls into question whether or not staffers and agency employees plan to show up for the fall special session.

“I think the real question is, and I don’t have the right or wrong answer to this, do you show up?” Evbagharu said. “If they’re not going to pay staff, what’s the incentive of being there?”

Chris Essig contributed to this report.