Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick had it all. He had a Senate majority of mostly like-minded social conservatives who would give him the votes he wanted on bathroom bills, sanctuary cities, and private school vouchers. Then there is the Senate minority of Democrats suffering a version of legislative Stockholm syndrome, held captive and ineffective by the rules to the point that they started identifying with their captors for a unanimous vote on a state budget that gutted higher education funding important to their constituents.
Patrick had the votes. Patrick had the agenda. Patrick had the power. But somehow, Patrick got rolled by the House on Thursday.
While the so-called bathroom bill received an inordinate amount of media attention, Patrick’s real focus for this session was the passage of a private school voucher plan. Just a little over a week ago, the Senate passed a scaled-down version. But, hey, as Barry Goldwater once said, “If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.”
Going into the session, Patrick knew the sticking point for a voucher bill would be the House, where it would be opposed by a combination of Democrats and rural Republicans. (There just aren’t many private schools in rural Texas.) At a pro-voucher rally in January, Patrick demanded a public vote. “We want a vote up or down in the Senate and in the House this session on school choice. It’s easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it,” Patrick said.
The House gave him his vote Thursday on an amendment to the state budget, blocking any expenditures on any program resembling a voucher program. The vote was 103-44. Although that amendment can be removed in a House/Senate conference committee on the budget, the House sent a pretty clear signal to Patrick as to what he can do with his voucher bill.
The same might be said of Patrick’s bathroom bill, a Senate bill to limit bathroom access in government buildings to the gender assigned to a person on their birth certificate. House Speaker Joe Straus and House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook have both expressed opposition to the bill. Patrick promised a million Christian voices to press for passage of the bill in the House, but so far only crickets.
Patrick was not the only state leader taken to the woodshed by the House. Governor Greg Abbott, also a voucher supporter, has been notably absent this session. Other than his State of the State address and a chewing out he gave to Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson over inadequate funding of his pre-K education program, there have been few signs that the governor is engaged with lawmakers. This disconnect played out in the House on the governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund, a deal closing fund that helps put state governors on the cover of Site Selection magazine for corporate expansions.
Abbott had requested $108 million for his deal-making fund, but the House Appropriations Committee whittled that down to $43 million. The House floor stripped Abbott of that money and divided it between Child Protective Services and easing cuts to Medicaid reimbursements to therapists.
The state Constitution largely makes a governor powerless during a legislative session, so the governor’s ability to get things done comes from the power of personality. Abbott’s encounter with Nelson showed he was more sour than sweet. Also, a governor can motivate legislators just by hinting potential vetoes of their bills. That’s somewhat negated this time because Straus and his leadership team have pretty well indicated they really only care about passing two bills: the state budget and a school finance reform measure. Without chains to rattle, Abbott’s authority is weakened.
The governor even took a beating from social conservatives who are normally on his team. Under an amendment offered by Representative Matt Shaheen, a Plano Republican, the House zeroed out all money for the Texas Film and Music marketing program. The program has $32 million in the current two-year budget. The amendment took $10 million in funding from the program and gave it to Healthy Texas Women, a state program that was set up several years ago as an alternative to Planned Parenthood. Social conservatives complained that the program had been used to give rebates to films like Mongolian Death Worms, a 2010 SyFy movie filmed in Texas that apparently didn’t impress the lawmakers. The program was funded to the tune of $3.4 million in the Senate version of the budget. A possibility exists that funding will be restored in conference committee, but it seems unlikely to rise above the Senate level.
The cut to the film and music program was a minor victory for the tea party crowd and the Empower Texans influence lobby that supports them. At the start of the session, the tea party lawmakers voted to join the unanimous re-election of Straus as speaker, supposedly so that no one would know who opposed him. If there was any doubt, it was erased in the wee hours of Friday with a final vote on the state budget, which won House approval 131-16.
Along the way, the House stuck it to Representative Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican, the titular leader of the tea party lawmakers. He delivered an angry personal privilege speech after Straus’s team beat him to the punch on pulling the money out of the Enterprise Fund. The tea party folks wanted the money to go to highways. At one point, he declared, “Taxation is theft.” Then, when Stickland tried to defund a feral hog program, the House voted for an amendment to trip $900,000 in state highway funding in his district. Stickland pulled his amendment down, then immediately got into one of those too close for comfort physical encounters with Representative Drew Springer, author of the counter-Stickland amendment.
Perhaps nothing was more painful to watch than the front microphone performance of Briscoe Cain, a freshman Republican from Deer Park—or perhaps in the future known as Deer in the Headlights. There is an old adage that freshmen lawmakers are to be seen, not heard. Cain proved why.
First, Cain offered an amendment promoted by Empower Texans to strip funding from the Palliative Care Council, calling it a “death panel” that makes decisions about whether people live or die. Appropriations chairman John Zerwas, a Republican and medical doctor, then took to the back microphone to demand to know whether Cain knew what palliative care is. (FYI, it is a method of caring for a terminally ill patient to ease their pain and anxiety.) Cain desperately started cutting his eyes back and forth, seeking help that wasn’t coming. He told Zerwas that as a doctor he probably knew the definition better than he, an attorney. In this contest of will, Cain blinked and pulled his amendment down.
Cain later offered an amendment to block any expenditures by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for sex change surgery. “Don’t California my Texas!” Cain declared, even while admitting the surgery is not performed in state prisons. The House adopted Cain’s amendment, but only after Representative Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat, got it amended to ban expenditures on any elective surgery, not just gender reassignment surgery. In other words, Cain’s amendment was no longer the slap at transgender people desired by Empower Texans and Texas Values.
Up until Thursday, the center of gravity for the Eighty-fifth Legislature was the Senate and the tea party social conservatives. In a fifteen-hour day of debate, stretching from Thursday to the early morning hours of Friday, the House changed the dynamic. Abbott got shelved. Patrick saw his juggernaut run out of gas. And the Senate Democrats suddenly found themselves facing the need to explain why they voted against higher education.