As the Texas House convenes today, allies of House Speaker Joe Straus are working to implement gag rules to limit conservative amendments to major legislation. The move is a direct attack on the pro-life movement, anti-toll road and red light camera activists, as well as other grassroots causes.

When the Texas House takes up its rules package on Wednesday, State Rep. Larry Gonzales (R–Round Rock) is planning to put forward new rules that would curtail members’ abilities to offer amendments to sunset bills.

In Texas, most state agencies undergo review by the Sunset Commission every 12 years. The commission recommends either keeping or doing away with the agencies as well as other reforms. If the state wants to keep an agency that has undergone sunset review, they must pass a bill extending the life of the agency another 12 years. Failure to pass a bill renewing an agency means that agency is eliminated.

Traditionally these “must pass” sunset bills have become prime opportunities for legislators to adopt amendments relating to a particular agency’s duties. In particular, with a Democrat coalition controlling the House leadership, sunset bills affecting state health services and medical licensing have been prime vehicles for pro-life amendments.

Major agencies up for review this cycle include the Texas Medical Board, Texas Board of Nursing, and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The Medical Board sunset bill will be a vehicle for conservatives to attach pro-life amendments. Likewise, the Nursing bill could be used to expand the scope-of-practice for nurses while the TxDOT sunset bill could be amended to limit toll roads and eliminate red light cameras.

Gonzales’s rules changes could eliminate those opportunities, however.

His first change would require a 48-hour layout period for amendments, and would cut off debate over those amendments by forcing them to be handled on a pure up-or-down vote. That could leave lawmakers scrambling to prepare for major policy fights.

His second change is even more dangerous. It would allow a simple majority of members present to impose a “calendar rule” on sunset bills. This would mean that the Democrats, combined with a handful of the Republican leadership could impose custom rules on sunset bills designed to cut-off conservative amendments.

That rule could have a devastating effect on pro-life causes.

Pro-life organizations typically have the support of around 90 Republican members. But House leadership likely could whip some of those Republicans to join with the Democrats to support a calendar rule that cuts off pro-life debate. Those members would rely on voters not understanding House procedure enough to see the vote as an anti-life vote.

Gonzales, who chaired the Sunset Advisory Commission in the interim, is not the only member pushing changes that would cut off conservative amendments to sunset bills. State Rep. Jim Murphy (R–Houston) is purportedly considering a much simpler rules change that would require 2/3’s approval to adopt any amendment to a Sunset bill. Such a change would effectively give the Democrats a veto on any pro-life amendment.

Grassroots Texans, particularly those who care about transportation issues and the pro-life cause, need to contact their legislator and tell them not to impose a gag-rule on conservative amendments to sunset bills.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.


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