In Austin on Tuesday, there was a great disturbance in the Force. One could feel hundreds of lobbyists silently calculating the increasing odds that they wouldn’t be accompanying their families to Lake Tahoe this summer and thousands of staffers tabulating the number of additional ham-and-cheese Capitol Grill sandwiches they’d have to resort to scarfing down before the year is out. Senate Bill 10, the session’s most important mental health bill and one of Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s top priorities, was killed on a procedural technicality by state representative Jonathan Stickland.
The bill should’ve been a slam dunk. Conceived as a response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School, it would’ve created a Texas Mental Health Consortium to make mental health resources better available to children. SB 10 passed the Senate unanimously and was destined for an overwhelming margin in the House. But then House gadfly Stickland got his POO (that’s point of order) to stick.
Suddenly, everyone had visions of 2017. If you’ll recall, that’s when conservatives badly wanted—and got—a special session over the fabled “bathroom bill.” The governor didn’t officially call that special session because he had a burning desire to spend the summer mired in potty talk. What happened is that Stickland and the House Freedom Caucus bomb throwers killed a must-pass bill reauthorizing the Texas Medical Board. The Senate, lead by Patrick, who was all-in on his bathroom bill, could have fixed it but deliberately didn’t.
That forced the governor’s hand. He had to call the special session to fix the Medical Board mess, and while he was at it, he added a whole bunch of things to the call, including the bathroom bill.
There’s seemingly much less appetite for a special session this year, and SB 10 isn’t must-pass legislation. Still, last night you could squint and envision a repeat of 2017. The governor chastises the Lege for killing the mental health bill and calls the lawmakers back. And, by the way, while you’re here, take another look at the local preemption bills that would nullify sick leave ordinances, and all the voting restrictions in Senate Bill 9, and this bill I’d like you to pass allowing me to replace Austin Mayor Steve Adler with a military governor.
But then late Tuesday, close to midnight, the plan, if that’s what it was, fell apart. The House decided to return another mental health bill, Senate Bill 11, to the floor and graft Senate Bill 10’s proposals onto it, passing the combined measure instead. The House has complicated procedural rules that a single person, like Stickland, can use to muck things up. But if more than one hundred of the House’s 150 members want to do something, they can usually get it done well within the boundaries of the rules.
The late-night maneuver set the stage for a series of increasingly heated exchanges between Stickland and Bonnen. (Making it a family affair, Bonnen’s brother, state representative Greg Bonnen, was the one defending the motion to recall Senate Bill 11, grinning much of the time.) Stickland faced the difficult task of convincing the body that his parliamentary hijinks were more important than whatever else they wanted to do. He took to the front microphone to rail against the tyranny of the majority. “Apparently these rules and the order of business doesn’t matter at this time of the night. So what some folks have done is go into the back room and figure out a way to bring back a bill that died by the rules of the House. This body matters to me, and the process matters,” he said.
“Maybe tonight this motion … is something you favor,” he said. “Here’s what I can promise you: Someday there’s going to be something you care about, where you’re going to be in the minority. You might not be on the prevailing side. You’re going to hope that our rules and our traditions and the way that this House operates protects you and your ability to stand up for your constituents.”
It was a passionate speech, Capra-esque even, made a bit strange by the fact that he was railing against a fairly routine bit of business that didn’t violate House rules or norms. It was, after all, the House’s respect for rules that had put them in the situation in the first place. Stickland’s original point of order had been upheld when it would have been much easier not to do so. Despite his warnings that the tools of his oppression would someday be used on many others, it seems to be something that mostly just happens to him, as evidenced by the many times he’s given a version of this speech during House tenure.
Two more points of order by Stickland, relating to the subsequent debate over the SB 11 amendment, were quickly overruled. The language from SB 10 was added by a 114 to 15 vote. The only people sticking with Stickland were the handful of members in the Freedom Caucus, which had helped secure that special session last go-round.
Stickland made one last attempt to kill the thing, attempting to halt a motion to force an immediate vote on the bill, which passed 130 to 11. “Parliamentary inquiry,” Stickland said as that vote started, but Bonnen didn’t recognize him. “Wow,” he said, giving up. For perhaps the first time of the night, he was speaking for a majority. Wow!