Just a few weeks into the Texas legislative session, there are already some questions about whether embattled state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, is spending enough time in the Texas State Capitol.
During the last legislative session in 2015, medical issues stemming from an accident kept Dukes, a long-time member of the Legislature, from the Capitol. And, while she told reporters earlier this year that doctors said she would be able to return to work, since the start of the session, her recorded attendance has been pretty spotty.
According to Texas House Journals, so far, out of the 14 legislative days, Dukes has been marked present just five times. None of those absences were excused.
UT Austin Law Professor Hugh Brady says, in general, it’s “unusual” for a member to rack up a lot of unexcused absences.
Brady, an expert in Texas House and Senate rules, says the process for is pretty straight-forward. He says if you’re a House member and you are going to be absent, you typically ask your desk-mate, or another colleague, to file a motion for your absence.
“And the person is excused for the rest of the day,” Brady says. “That doesn’t mean they can’t come in for whatever reason, but they do have an excuse for that day.”
But Dukes says there’s an explanation for why she has some unexcused absences.
“Absolutely, I’ve been there and the journal is not always correct,” she says.
Dukes explains that typically during that initial registration, other legislators register folks in as a courtesy, even if they aren’t at their seat at the moment. “Apparently there’s a new one or two that don’t know the process,” Dukes says.
This practice is completely within the rules, and Dukes is right that it could make the recorded roll call a tad unreliable in that way.
However, there are other things to consider.
For example, on days that Dukes was marked absent and there was a vote on something, she was also marked absent on those votes.
A couple of times Dukes was also the only person that was marked absent without an excuse.
So, when, or if, people didn’t follow custom, she was the only person it affected.
That being said, there are folks on social media raising questions about her absences, but Dukes says it’s political.
“It’s a very infantile, juvenile game that these so-called people are playing to constantly try and create rules and things that are different for me because they are targeting me,” she says.
Dukes is currently under indictment for misusing public funds. She had promised to resign her seat when she sought re-election last year, but she changed her mind at the last minute. Part of her reasoning at the time was that if she resigned, like she said she would, her district wouldn’t have someone representing them during the session.
“Well we are concerned that there won’t be someone here to cast a vote because the governor will have to appoint someone,” Dukes told a group of reporters shortly after being sworn-in. “We don’t have that problem anymore.”
That’s why even though the House, constitutionally, can't do much for the first 60 days of the session, her attendance is getting some scrutiny.
There are also a couple of folks from the Democratic, Republican and third parties, hoping to challenge her during her next reelection in two years – or sooner, if she’s forced to resign due to her legal issues.
Brady says there is one last reason folks should ask questions about a House member’s attendance – and it has to do with money.
He explains each House member gets a base salary of $600 a month and then a $190 per diem for each legislative day.
“There is a court case from the 1940s and an attorney general’s opinion from the 1970’s that say the member is entitled to the salary and the per diem regardless of whether they ever show up at the Legislature,” he says.
Brady also says House members have the ability to fine or censure another member for serial absence, but that isn’t customary, or likely to happen.