The House That Straus Built
AP Photo | Eric Gay
Joe Straus said at the beginning of the session that he was going to put the House to work on the state’s biggest problems, and he is making good on his vow. On Tuesday the House passed HB 5, a major public education bill that addresses the issues of high-stakes testing, pathways to graduation, and college readiness (though questions remain about the latter). Yesterday it added HB 4, the vehicle for funding the state water plan, to its list of credits. The House handled the two bills with hardly a hitch. The current House is reminiscent of the Laney House of the nineties, in which the Speaker didn’t care whether members were R or D, so long as they were on his team. The Straus House is built around a core of second- and third-term mainstream Republicans who have been able to forge an alliance with the 55 Democrats.
This is not to say that Straus is without opposition. There is a contingent of first- and second- term members who are tea party sympathizers, who might be capable of causing problems for the leadership if they weren’t isolated (and not by chance) on second-tier committees like Land & Resource Management and Government Efficiency and Reform.
Straus’s committees are constructed to ensure that hostile legislation will not make it to the floor. Public ed is packed with supporters of schools and enemies of vouchers. Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence is toxic for Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Straus has not forgotten that TLR went after his committee chairs (Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, for one), nor was he pleased that TLR defeated his hometown state senator, Jeff Wentworth, and left Bexar County to be represented by rookie senator Donna Campbell.
The House is heading the legislative convoy because David Dewhurst is suffering from the double whammy of losing to Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate race and learning that his longtime confidant and consultant, Buddy Barfield, allegedly stole or embezzled millions of dollars from Dewhurst’s campaign accounts. The biggest surprise in the Senate has been the introduction of a gambling bill by Senator John Carona, which would legalize casino gambling and slots at racetracks, but the chance that the bill could become law this session is slim. One senator I spoke with last week told me that the bill is already dead.
The events of the past two days have put Straus in the driver’s seat for the session. Dewhurst is wounded politically and Perry has contributed virtually nothing except continuing opposition to Medicaid expansion (a position he will amplify in a joint press conference with Cruz and John Cornyn). Straus’s response to Perry’s recalcitrance has been to keep the discussion about expansion alive and to say, “We can’t just say no.” With Dewhurst wounded and Perry mostly AWOL, leadership has fallen to Straus by default. He’s the man with a plan.