We’ve now passed the halfway point of the Texas legislative session, a stretch when typically about half the lawmakers are zipping around in a clown car, pushing bills that are provocative and entertaining, if of little consequence, while the other half try to tackle the issues that matter. This year, however, a handful of concurrent crises have brought an early sobriety to the circus.
Over the last thirteen months, some 47,000 Texans have died from COVID-19—about as many as the U.S. lost during twenty years of combat in Vietnam. The state’s pandemic response figured to be the central focus of the Lege until mid-February, when the Texas power grid failed, plunging millions of Texans into days of cold and darkness and killing at least 111. Lawmakers then spent weeks grilling energy regulators and power company CEOs, most prominently at one hearing that stretched to 25 hours over two days.
A few hot-ticket issues beyond COVID and energy have also come to a head recently. Since lawmakers last met two years ago, Texas has seen two mass shootings, and thousands have protested police brutality and systemic racism following the killing of longtime Houstonian George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. As always, lawmakers must pass a budget, and will debate proposed new restrictions on abortion and voting.
After a herky-jerky start, state lawmakers finally are voting on thousands of bills. Here are seven lawmakers we’ll be watching closely during the session’s final two-month stretch—beyond the usual suspects such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan. This isn’t a Best and Worst Legislators list, which we’ll bring to you in July, but an accounting of those positioned to be key players in the months ahead.
Kelly Hancock, R–North Richland Hills
Before the statewide blackout, the most eye-catching bills Hancock proposed would deem churches “essential”—and thus able to remain open during emergencies such as the COVID pandemic—and ban women from aborting a pregnancy after a fetal disability diagnosis. Then, in February, Texas’s power grid failed. Hancock, who chairs the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, which handles power issues as they relate to industry, will take the lead on helping residents and the power industry recover from the astronomically expensive blackout, and on preventing future winter storms from breaking the grid here even as other states with even colder temperatures go on about their business.
So far, the senator has shied away from requiring more robust oversight of the energy industry. His first round of blackout-related bills would avoid mandating that power companies weatherize, instead giving the Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, and the Public Utility Commission the authority to collect emergency plans from power companies and make suggestions for winter planning. (They already secured those powers to make “suggestions,” after previous blackouts, to no avail.) Notably, when Patrick led a crusade with a bipartisan team of 27 senators in March to pass a bill forcing the PUC to readjust market prices for 32 hours of sky-high energy costs, Hancock voted against the leader of his chamber, saying such a move would run afoul of the Texas Constitution. (The bill passed in the Senate before Phelan declined to consider it in the House.)
Hancock’s main focus has been in the rearview mirror. He wants to ban high-risk retail electricity plans and find a way for power companies and consumers to better weather the costs of last month’s storm over time through securitization, which provides for extended repayment. We’re watching Hancock to see whether the Senate will ensure that Texans will be better prepared when the next winter storm rolls in.
The COVID Czar
Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham
Kolkhorst is accustomed to high-pressure situations. She lettered for four years on the Lady Frogs golf team at Texas Christian University, launched her first election bid while raising an eleven-month-old, and sponsored one of the most contentious pieces of legislation in recent history, the 2017 bathroom bill. But little compares to her current challenge as the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and a member of the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.
She has a leading role in navigating the state out of the biggest pandemic in a century, guiding health officials on vaccination policy, although mask mandates and business capacity limits are out of her hands. Her other priorities include preparing Texas for future pandemics by requiring that the state stockpile personal protective equipment, hiring a chief epidemiologist for the state, and creating a Public Health Oversight Board, loaded with legislators, to vote on whether to extend past sixty days a Department of State Health Services disaster declaration.
Wearing a Texas flag mask, Kolkhorst told me this is the most important work she’s ever done. “There’s nothing perfect about the largest vaccination [campaign] ever,” she said, letting out an exasperated sigh. “How do we give people back their lives?”
Considered one of the smartest state lawmakers, Kolkhorst has earned a place on both our Best List, in 2007, and our Worst List, in 2017. We’re watching her to see how she rises to the challenge of putting the pandemic behind us.
The Swing Vote
Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo
Seliger, a burly former Amarillo mayor, is a relative moderate representing one of the most conservative regions of the state. He says his colleagues have been drifting right since his first election to the Legislature in 2004, particularly as Patrick tries to micromanage issues such as who can use which bathrooms.
Seliger’s commitment to old-school, nonintrusive, small-government conservatism has earned him a reputation as a maverick. In 2017, he refused to go along with Patrick’s plan to fund private schools with public tax dollars. Then, in 2019, with nineteen Republicans in the Senate and nineteen votes needed to bring a bill to the floor, Seliger initially joined Democrats in opposing Patrick’s much-sought-after property tax reform, calling it “absolutely harmful” to local governments. But after Patrick threatened to use the “nuclear option” to bring the bill to the floor with a simple majority vote, Seliger relented, and let the bill be considered before voting against it. (The bill passed anyway.)
Seliger once again might be a crucial swing vote, particularly on policing issues. The 31-member Senate has 18 Republicans, and new Senate rules require bills to receive 18 votes to reach the floor. Both Patrick and Abbott are bent on punishing Austin for reducing funding for its police department, with the governor suggesting that the state freeze property tax revenues of cities that shrink their police budgets. Though Seliger says Austin’s budget reduction in 2020 was “absolutely terrible,” the former mayor adamantly opposes Abbott’s bid to have the state dictate policy in areas traditionally considered the province of city and county governments, calling it “almost Soviet.” “If Greg Abbott wants to be the mayor of Austin, he can do it in a heartbeat and he’d be a very good one,” Seliger told me. “Do we [the Lege] need to go set the speed limit on Austin’s streets? And do we need to determine where stop signs go on Austin’s streets? No, we don’t. That’s what they elect [city officials] for.”
We’re watching to see if Seliger finds an opportunity to trip up the Senate on a close vote.
Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston
Thompson, the chairwoman of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, never raises her voice. She doesn’t have to. The 25-term representative from Houston is Democratic royalty in Texas, with the longest tenure of any woman or African American in the Lege. Other lawmakers of both parties respectfully call her Ms. T. When Democrats thought they had a chance of winning the House, the 82-year-old with big glasses and bright lipstick briefly filed a bid for Speaker. Continued Republican control of the lower chamber likely dims the prospects of her top legislative priority, a law in the name of George Floyd that would require police to intervene if a fellow officer uses excessive force. Thompson’s bill also would ban chokeholds, outlaw arrests for fine-only offenses such as changing lanes without a signal or making a wide right turn, and eliminate “qualified immunity” that protects government officials, including police officers, from most civil suits.
To pass the bill, Thompson must build a coalition to include Republicans in the House, who have largely remained silent on police reform and have rallied around Abbott’s push to punish cities that reduce funding to police departments. The governor supports additional training for police officers, but has been mum on elements of the George Floyd Act. Associations representing law enforcement oppose the bill. We’re watching Thompson to see how she’ll navigate obstacles to passing police reform.
The House Conduit
Chris Paddie, R-Marshall
For a radio show host, Paddie is remarkably muted. His voice is calm, and, unlike Patrick, another former radio talker, Paddie avoids eruptions of anger. As chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, the representative now is sorting through a mountain of testimony from energy regulators, generators, and retailers in search of ideas for better preparing Texas’s energy grid for future storms. He will soon be the main shepherd of bills favored by Speaker Phelan. Paddie formerly chaired the Energy Resources Committee, which oversees legislation related to the state’s oil and gas industry, and he remains a key player, in particular, in discussions about natural gas’s role in the grid disaster.
While Paddie is wary of being “overly prescriptive,” he told me lawmakers could have done more after the last major blackouts in 2011. He added that power generators that haven’t weatherized remain a problem. “You’re only as strong as your weakest link,” he said. Paddie wants to mandate energy equipment weatherization and require that all members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the state’s grid, live in Texas.
But how far will the House go to regulate the power and energy industries, whose leaders are major campaign contributors? Will Texans wake up years from now without power in another cold snap? Paddie is one of the lawmakers central to answering those questions.
The Top Democrat
Joe Moody, D–El Paso
Moody vividly remembers the day in August of 2019 when a gunman opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, killing 23 in what the Department of Justice deemed an anti-Hispanic hate crime. Then COVID hit the city with a surge so deadly it needed ten mobile morgues. The weight of those traumas weighs on Moody’s shoulders. At the same time, he feels empowered now that the Lege is back in session. “I feel for the first time I can exhale and get back to work,” he told me.
Look for Moody, a Democrat appointed speaker pro tempore, the number two post in the House, to push bills that could reduce gun violence. Knowing strong gun regulations are unlikely to pass in either chamber, he plans to follow up on what Republican leaders said they would support after the shooting in El Paso and others a few weeks later that killed eight in Midland and Odessa. Namely, he’ll push for expanded background checks in stranger-to-stranger gun sales, which Patrick said he supported after the shootings. Moody also will move to ban “straw purchases” (when someone buys a gun for someone else) as Abbott recommended in 2019. After a shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston killed ten in 2018, Abbott talked about a “red flag” law that would allow a judge to temporarily take guns from Texans found to be a danger to themselves or others, but that idea went nowhere in the last legislative session.
“My goal and strategy is to take people at their word, which is dangerous in politics,” Moody said. The El Pasoan also is pushing something more symbolic: a monument on the Capitol grounds to honor the victims of mass shootings.
The Fearless Freshman
Bryan Slaton, R–Royse City
It took Slaton less than a week in his new job to force a slew of House Republicans to take an uncomfortable vote that could haunt them in primaries for years. “And I’m just a freshman, third day on the job” the Republican gloated a few days later on Facebook. The salty-haired, baby-faced former youth minister proposed a rule that held hostage the routine naming of roads and bridges until the Lege voted on banning abortions. His proposal died 41–99—though eight Republicans and a Democrat later had the record changed to flip their votes from “no” to “yes.” The move, which opens the 32 Republicans who voted against it to challenges from the right, was the kind of crafty politicking we’ve come to expect from third- and fourth-term lawmakers, not one still figuring out where the restrooms are.
A principled hard-right conservative and Gen Xer, Slaton is stepping into the void left by former representative Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican who made his reputation as a troublemaker and thorn in the side of his party’s establishment. Slaton says he is focused on advancing social-conservative priorities, including eliminating abortion (by passing a law declaring the Roe v. Wade unconstitutional) and protecting historical monuments (by requiring a two-thirds vote to remove one of, say, a Confederate general, from a state university).
We’ve spotted Slaton at a crowded informational meeting about Texas seceding from the Union. And we’ve seen him try “to own the libs” with a bill that would rename a portion of the Interstate 35 overpass that shelters homeless Austinites as the “Steve Adler Public Restroom Highway.” This week, he brought the House to a halt after trying to amend a bill by Thompson that would allow child support collections to be paid out of retirement accounts. He proposed that family courts hit pause on legal proceedings if there is dispute over using the funds to pay for transgender children’s therapies, drugs, or surgery to present as the sex they identify with. While that attempt, like the abortion one, fell short, Slaton’s bold entrance on the scene shows he’s a force to contend with, for mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike.