In Austin, as it is in Washington, DC, there is an overriding, cynical culture that suggests campaign promises are merely a tool one uses to get elected, to be tossed aside at the first convenience. But while those who are more interested in self-promotion than keeping promises can find many ways to work together to soak taxpayers, they do need to find ways to maintain appearances for reelection’s sake.
To blame the failures of popular policy reforms on others, these Potemkin leaders devise mechanisms allowing them to take bold stands that go nowhere.
They view themselves as clever and sophisticated. As “in on the joke”—and the joke is on you.
A classic example of one such scheme took place in the 82nd legislature in 2011 and related to the carrying of concealed handguns on college campuses by CHL holders.
That session a “campus carry” bill was authored in the House by Rep. Joe Driver and in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Wentworth. The bill in the House was kept from the floor by a liberal-dominated Calendars Committee and in the Senate, the Democratic Caucus kept Wentworth’s bill from moving by leveraging their power under the much maligned two thirds rule.
That balance was disrupted as the session entered its last month, however, when Wentworth attached a surprise campus carry measure to an omnibus higher education bill, SB 1581.
The bill, which had begun its legislative life as a fairly limited measure focused on higher education fiscal matters and reporting, had ballooned into a bill dealing with one extremely broad topic: all things higher education. In this way, it was much like a “sunset bill,” broad bills reauthorizing agencies that are often viewed as parliamentary “Christmas trees” eligible to carry dozens or even hundreds of otherwise hopeless policy measures via amendment.
These types of bills offer legislators a unique opportunity to have their proposals voted on by the whole house without being forced to navigate the obstructions that House leadership often places in their way through the committee process. Legislators are limited by the constitutional “one subject rule,” which states that a bill cannot have more than one subject. The subject can be very broad, or it can be very narrow, but two unrelated measures cannot be packaged together in the same bill. Bills dealing with broad topics technically comply with the rule while remaining eligible to carry other related measures over the finish line.
When SB 1581 came over from the Senate, it numbered 59 pages and included everything from regulations on high school dual credit courses, to the campus carry measure, to taxes on cigarette manufacturers. Speaker Joe Straus took the unusual measure of sending the bill to the Appropriations Committee, to be handled by his ally Rep. Jim Pitts.
In Appropriations, the players took the stage and the performance began. Convening in a formal meeting on just one day’s notice, apparently without any cameras rolling (video of the committee is not available through the House’s website), Pitts put a committee substitute to SB 1581 before the members. The substitute retained Wentworth’s campus carry provisions. The committee’s most liberal members, including Republicans Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, and Drew Darby, offered an amendment to remove the gun rights provision from the substituted bill.
These representatives gave the other Republican members of the committee an opportunity to vote against the amendment, and vote to keep campus carry in the bill, thus proving their pro-gun bona fides to voters. The amendment failed 15-5.
But those members were in on the joke!
The damage had already been done when Pitts put forward the committee substitute, which numbered only 12 pages. By taking the non-campus-carry provisions of the Senate engrossed version of the bill from 53 pages down to just seven, Pitts had successfully created a bill containing two very distinct subjects. Instead of being an omnibus higher education bill that covered a broad variety of topics related to colleges and universities, the bill was now one that just related to a small handful of higher education fiscal and reporting matters, and campus carry.
When the bill went to the floor, the result was entirely predictable. A Democrat who openly opposed second amendment rights called a point of order that the bill violated the one subject rule and the objection was sustained by Speaker Straus.
As a consequence, the bill was sent all the way back to the Senate floor. This time, Wentworth got the hint and took the campus carry provision out. The House had already refrained from recording its meeting in order to cover up its subterfuge. By sending the bill back to the Senate, Straus ensured that the version he manipulated to kill campus carry would be overridden and replaced by updated language on the legislature’s public website.
When the Senate voted to send SB 1581 over to the House a second time without the campus carry provision, that version of the bill became the one recorded for history. When Straus referred the new bill to a different committee, the Committee on Public Education, a new committee substitute, encompassing a full 66 pages of higher education measures, was voted out and sent to the House floor. That version is the one reflected on the legislature’s website today.
Almost no evidence exists to prove that Straus devised his scheme to kill campus carry. Even a visit to the Legislative Reference Library, where all versions of a bill should be stored in an archived bill file, is fruitless. The library only maintains the second version of the bill, not the original manipulated version that preceded the point of order.
It is unclear whether these documents have been deliberately removed from public repositories, or whether Straus’s scheme simply enabled the documents to be lost. Thankfully, the original version of the bill and its manipulated substitute could be located after a diligent search of a third party website that maintains such archives.
This is just one example of how voters who were promised policy results have been shortchanged by the Austin establishment and its enablers. The Austin culture of deception cannot be reformed so long as House Speaker Joe Straus and those around him continue to hold power.