Late Tuesday, in an exercise of political tone-deafness, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus appointed Representatives Drew Darby, John Otto, and John Zerwas to vacancies on the Legislative Budget Board, a powerful department which oversees the budget writing process each interim. The three replace outgoing Representatives Dan Branch, Harvey Hilderbran, and Jim Pitts.
Branch and Hilderbran were soundly defeated by Texas voters when they sought higher offices earlier this year, running for Attorney General and Comptroller, respectively. Pitts elected to retire from the House last year after revelations that he may have abused his office to get his adult son into the University of Texas School of Law.
Darby, Otto, and Zerwas, voters may be amazed to learn, represent a step leftward from the men they rejected in the primaries this spring. Zerwas, who infamously fought against Republicans last session to help Democrats expand Medicaid under ObamaCare, earned the lowest score of any Republican on the Fiscal Responsibility Index, with a 25.3. That score is lower than three Democrats. Darby and Otto did not fare much better, earning scores of 35.5 and 35.3 on the index, respectively. All three men were ranked in the bottom ten for Republicans in the House.
These scores compare to a 29.7 for Pitts, a 58.2 for Branch, and a 68.5 for Hilderbran.
The three Straus-allied Republicans join Houston Democrat Sylvester Turner as the House designees on the budget-writing board. Turner, ironically, was the only one of the group who championed a tax cut during the most recent session, fighting to end the System Benefit Fund which had been regularly abused by appropriators. In the meantime, Darby fought to increase vehicle registration fees until an impending veto from Governor Perry dashed his ambitions.
Current Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s failure to appoint replacements to the Board has resulted in the sole Senate appointees to the LBB being Democrats Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Judith Zaffirini.
There are two major observations from the appointments that are worth noting.
First, the move is a demonstration of Straus’s weakness as a leader. It has been well-reported for nearly a year now that Straus intends to appoint either Darby, Otto, or Zerwas to Chair House Appropriations once Pitts exits the west wing of the Capitol. By appointing all three to the LBB, he is able to hedge his bets and buy time before he is forced to disappoint two of his three key supporters.
Second, Speaker Straus is putting Republican members of the House on a collision course with political reality by appointing the most liberal Republicans available to the LBB. It is undoubted that presumptive Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who will appoint the Senate’s members of LBB come January, will push to bring fiscal discipline to the Board. Straus appears poised to make members of the House fight against Patrick’s reforms. Many of those profess conservatism but plead that they must go-along with Straus in order to “get things done” are about to have a rude awakening to the political consequences of electing a Speaker who doesn’t share their (or their voters’) principles.
If Republican primary voters and the members they elect need any more evidence that Speaker Straus despises their values and, if reelected, plans to fight against conservative reforms, this is it. Straus will never give real power to conservatives and all promises he has made to that end over the past five years have proven to be illusory. If conservatives want reform, we are going to have to fight and take it.