Greg Abbott's Veto of Legislative Payroll Doesn't Affect Texas Democrats Who Walked Out

In an effort to punish the 50 Texas Democratic lawmakers who walked out of a session to stop a Republican bill they believed would restrict voting rights, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has vetoed payroll legislation, which could lead to their staffers not getting paid.

State lawmakers may not be the ones most affected by this move. While most Texas lawmakers have other jobs where they make most of their money, their staffers do not.

Donovon Rodriguez, the chief of staff for a Democratic state representative, said it feels like the staff's livelihoods are collateral damage in the fight for voting rights.

"There is always somebody who feels left out, who feels betrayed, by the governor when he chooses to veto legislation," Rodriguez told the Associated Press. "Unfortunately, it really hits home this time."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Texas Democrats Payroll
To punish the lawmakers who walked out of a session to halt a Republican voting bill, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed a payroll legislation, putting financial strain on staffers. Shown, Texas State Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos (D-102), joined by fellow Democratic Texas state representatives, speaks at a press conference regarding Abbott and the group's meetings with federal lawmakers on voting rights, on July 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Rodriguez is one of close to 2,000 legislative workers who risk going unpaid after Abbott slashed their salaries from the state budget.

This means employees who take calls and emails from constituents, help research and write bills and otherwise keep a legislative session moving won't be working when the new budget starts Sept. 1.

Some members of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus have pledged to cover their staffers' salaries themselves.

Democratic lawmakers sued Abbott over the line-item veto of more than $400 million in salary funds, claiming it was unconstitutional. Rodriguez, who makes $73,000 annually, was named in the lawsuit, which is pending before the Texas Supreme Court. Abbott's office declined to comment but previously said the Texas Constitution grants the governor the "power to disapprove any bill."

It's not clear when the court might make a decision, keeping the state employees in limbo.

Paychecks could be restored during an ongoing special legislative session that's currently at a standstill.

Abbott's move is unprecedented, at least in recent Texas history, and sparks an unusual constitutional debate about separation of powers, according to Joshua Blank, director of research for the non-partisan Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

"It is a bedrock principle of both the United States Constitution and most state governments that governmental power is divided between executive, legislative and judicial branches and it is very rare to see such open conflict about the operation of one branch or the other," Blank said.

Lawmaker salaries — about $600 a month for the legislators who meet every two years, usually for five months — are protected by the Texas Constitution, Blank said, and therefore can only be changed with a constitutional amendment.

For now, Rodriguez will carry on. On a recent workday, his wife and 15-moth-old daughter joined him on the 70-mile trip from their home in San Antonio to his office at the Capitol in Austin. At one point he held the toddler on one side and a phone on the other, speaking softly on a work call as his wife set up a crib. He likes to keep them nearby — a family unit that appreciates the value of hard work and public service.

Rodriguez's boss, Rep. Ray Lopez, is one of the Democrats currently in Washington seeking support from Congress and President Joe Biden to take federal action to block voting restrictions, with Abbott pledging to continue scheduling special sessions until his agenda is approved. But Congress acting is looking less likely, and Abbott is betting that Democrats won't be able to run for much longer.

The governor is clearly to blame for the budget cut in Rodriguez's view, and he said he believes in the principles that drove the Democrats to flee. But he wishes he and others like him had not been caught in the political crossfire.

Meanwhile, the 29-year-old said his family is refinancing their vehicle, considering a move to less-expensive housing, canceling subscriptions and buying baby supplies in bulk selling as they prepare for the coming months.

"I think the members are doing the right thing to add pressure in the way that they can," Rodriguez said. "But I am very uncertain for what is going to happen, it definitely causes some discomfort for my family to not be certain about our future."