With increasing frequency, the cronies of House Speaker Joe Straus are attempting to hoodwink and browbeat lawmakers into passing bad legislation by abusing a legislative process designed to minimize debate and sneak bills through before they can be fully vetted.
Most Texans are familiar with the basic process of how a bill becomes law. A lawmaker introduces it, then it is referred to a committee which conducts a hearing on the legislation before voting it out to be presented to all of the legislators for a vote. However, how that bill is presented to the whole body can be dramatically different.
After a bill is voted out of its standing committee, it can go to one of two destinations: the Calendars Committee or the Local & Consent Calendars Committee.
What’s the difference?
The Calendars Committee sets the “General State Calendar”– the schedule that most Texans are familiar with and through which most major legislation, such as the budget, passes. On the General State Calendar, lawmakers debate measures and have an opportunity to amend them and make other changes. The process is open for the public to follow and receives most of the attention.
The Local & Consent Calendars Committee sets a different schedule of business known as the “Local & Consent Calendar.” This calendar is intended to be reserved for minor issues such as the “designation of a portion of Farm-to-Market Road 518 in Pearland as the Officer Endy Ekpanya Memorial Highway” (HB 938) or “designating July 26 as Waxahachie Chautauqua Day” (HB 1254).
It’s through the latter Calendar, and a process more akin to a cattle call than actual debate, that most legislation passes the Texas Legislature. The catch is that any lawmaker can knock a bill off the calendar by debating against the bill for 10 minutes or by enlisting the signatures of four other members and presenting them to the Speaker – tools that conservatives have made heavy use of in recent legislative sessions.
Once knocked off the Local and Consent Calendar, bills are transferred to the regular Calendars Committee to be placed on a General Calendar. There, they often receive more scrutiny and sometimes fail to ultimately pass the legislature.
The problem is that a large number of bills with major policy implications are being placed on the Local & Consent Calendar. These bills often pass without any real debate because lawmakers are threatened with retaliation if they choose to exercise their rights to knock bills off.
This problem was brought into focus this week when the Texas House voted down legislation originally placed on the “Local & Consent Calendar” by an overwhelming landslide vote of 120 to 19.
Authored by State Rep. Hugh Shine (R–Temple), House Bill 2669 would “prohibit a court from awarding attorney’s fees in a taxpayer suit” against the government. The measure quietly moved through the Ways & Means Committee and was slid over to the “Local & Consent Calendar Committee” chaired by Straus’ ally, liberal Democrat Senfronia Thompson of Houston.
Shine’s bill was sent to the floor on April 20 as part of a large package of other “local and consent” measures. Under the House Rules, each measure on the L&C calendar is laid out on the floor with literally seconds assigned to each so it can be read into the House journal.
Standing at the ready were members of the Texas House’s new Freedom Caucus. As the measure was laid out, State Reps Jonathan Stickland (R–Bedford), Kyle Biedermann (R–Fredericksburg), Briscoe Cain (R–Deer Park), Matt Rinaldi (R–Irving), and Tony Tinderholt (R–Arlington) were on alert and raised an objection to the bill—forcing it to be removed from the calendar.
The bill was then quickly transferred to the regular Calendars Committee and placed on a General State Calendar. When the bill was brought up for real debate on May 1, Rinaldi was ready and began asking questions. Shine was clearly unprepared to answer tough questions about his bill, and generally deferred to the fact that the bill was brought to him by employees of the Comptroller’s office.
A wide-ranging debate ensued, with sycophants of the House leadership attempting to defend a truly indefensible measure without any facts on their side. The House leadership was forced to defend the bill because the matter had become essentially a trial on the Local & Consent Calendars process.
However, as the debate carried on, with multiple extensions of speaking time and a postponement of debate granted, it became clear that members from both parties were coalescing against HB 2669.
When the vote was called for, the bill was defeated with just Shine and 18 lawmakers voting for it.
The vote was a massive repudiation of House leadership, who had marked this bill as non-controversial and told members that it should pass without more than a few seconds’ consideration. It was also an important win for conservatives like Biedermann, Cain, Rinalidi, Stickland, and Tinderholt, whose vigilance has stopped measures such as Shine’s from whistling through without opposition.
The only way to end the charade of the L&C calendar is to replace House leadership with ethical leaders who won’t use the House Rules to shut down debate or sneak through objectionable legislation. Until then Texans must be prepared to keep close watch on the entire process to ensure that their liberties are protected.