Though much of House Speaker Joe Straus’ Texas Tribune interview this week centered on a whopper of a lie concerning the death of union dues legislation, it also featured a Jason Villalba-esque admission of guilt concerning the defeat of other bills.
As previously illustrated, Straus and the House coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans generally prefer the strategy of “Delay, Dilute, Destroy” in order to kill conservative legislation. Refusing to refer bills to committee or conduct hearings until late in the session, bottling them up in the Calendars Committee, or colluding with Democrats on the floor to bring points of order are the preferred tactics. However, Straus’ comments reveal a final failsafe protocol—doom the legislation by loading it up with unpalatable provisions and attempt to ram it through at the 11th hour.
“At the end of a session, and we’re guilty of it in the House too, we send each other big flaming bags of junk and the fingers get pointed,” said Straus. “You killed that. It died. It’s your fault. But you know what? Whatever.”
What Straus calls “flaming bags of junk” were actually legislative vehicles for conservative reforms—at least until Straus’ coalition government got ahold of and perverted them.
Take for example, the Senate’s marquee ethics legislation, SB 19. As covered previously, Gov. Abbott made the issue a priority and tasked State Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano) with providing a package of much needed reforms focused on legislators.
Taylor and the Senate delivered by unanimously passing legislation that included notable measures such as transparency and disclosure requirements for state ethics reports, ending the revolving door between elected office and the lobby, forcing officials and legislators who are convicted of felonies while in office to resign, and preventing lobbyists from skirting disclosure rules by changing the way expenses to entertain legislators are reported.
However, when the legislation reached the Texas House, State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) attacked the bill, deriding it as “superficial.” Cook proceeded to load it up with junk provisions attacking the rights of Texans and then lit it on fire with unconstitutional and draconian measures that violated every aspect of the First Amendment.
With the “flaming bag of junk” on the House floor, Cook and his allies rebuffed the attempts of State Reps. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) and Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving) to put out the flames and fix the damage. Despite a majority of the Republican caucus opposing the final “flaming bag of junk,” the bill passed the House with the help of Democrats.
When the bill returned to the Senate and both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and State Sen. Taylor refused to accept the changes targeting citizens, Byron Cook gloated, proclaiming it “graveyard dead.” Mission accomplished.
Though the death was technically official at that point, it was effectively sentenced to death as soon as Cook touched it. In fact, State Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Spring) told her constituents that after Cook’s notorious State Affairs Committee amended the bill it “was never going to pass.” But despite her admission, “conservative” Republicans are hoping their constituents never find out.
A similar hit-job was performed on the spending cap legislation. Authored by State Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), SB 9 would have expanded the existing cap to a greater portion of the budget, limited the growth of government to population and inflation (a measure supported by 94% of Republican Party primary voters), and raised the threshold to bust the cap to a super-majority vote of both chambers.
Sadly, this historic and common-sense reform was scrapped for another “flaming bag of junk” in the House by another Straus lackey, Appropriations Chairman John Otto (R-Dayton). Otto gutted the supermajority provision and sought to split the cap into five separate categories, each for different categories of state spending. Such sweeping changes were performed again at the last minute despite the fact that the Senate had sent the bill over to the House almost two months prior.
By design, not accident, Otto’s changes made the bill obfuscating, overly complicated, and politically unpalatable. The content along with the premeditated delay guaranteed its death.
In fact, the only reason many House Republicans voted for the gutted measure was in order to keep the bill alive and provide a chance for a conference committee to revert back to the original Senate language.
“[We] support limiting the increase in Texas government spending to the growth in our state’s population plus inflation. This would, if adhered to, prevent any real growth in state government beyond current levels. The senate engrossed version of SB9 did this. The house bill, which we passed today, was vastly different and would no longer limit the growth in government to inflation plus population growth. [We] voted for this bill in the hope that it will be changed back in conference to be functionally similar to the senate engrossed version.”
They were not alone. Other lawmakers authored similar statements and placed them in the journal as well. However, such changes were never agreed to by conferees. As a result, the bill died.
Despite a clear mandate from the Texans that elected them and strong support in the Republican caucus, yet another “flaming bag of junk” was sent to the Texas Senate carried by House conferees loyally serving as a blockade to prevent any conservative members from putting out the fire and salvaging the bill.
Speaker Straus is correct in saying that the House does send the other chamber “flaming bags of junk” at the end of the session. What he doesn’t admit is that Senate and House conservatives held fire-hoses while his coalition-led administration struck the matches.