When House Speaker Joe Straus named his committee assignments last week, there was considerable buzz and surprise surrounding his appointment of Rep. John Zerwas to serve as Chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education. Zerwas is replacing Dan Branch, who left the legislature to run for Attorney General.

While Zerwas is often ranked as one of the most liberal Republicans in the Texas House, that particular qualification is not the reason Zerwas’s appointment was surprising. Indeed, Joe Straus appoints a lot of liberal Republicans to positions of power.

Instead, the appointment was surprising to the capitol community because Zerwas is a long-time physician who specializes in healthcare policy, not higher education. Following his career as an anesthesiologist and President of the Memorial Hermann Health Network Providers, Zerwas has served as the Appropriations subcommittee chair for Article II of the Texas Budget, which deals with Health and Human Services. Zerwas has used his position as a leader on healthcare issues to push for the expansion of Medicaid in Texas under Obamacare.

His district, which stretches between Katy and Richmond in Fort Bend County and encompasses a number of small towns, doesn’t contain a university. So, the obvious question is: Why is John Zerwas in charge of Higher Education and not Public Health or some healthcare related committee?

The answer in this case lies in whom Straus appointed as vice chair of Higher Education, and the workload the legislature has in front of it.

This session the legislature is reviewing our state’s various health and human services agencies as part of the sunset review process. The Sunset Commission has recommended combining several of the agencies and this has resulted in a nearly 2300 page health and human services bill – Senate Bill 219 – which rivals Obamacare in size. Needless to say, Zerwas is going to be very busy attempting to steer that legislation in a liberal direction.

Much, if not most, of the work related to being Chairman of the Higher Education Committee is going to fall on the shoulders of his second in command. The Vice Chair of Higher Education is none other than liberal Democratic State Representative Donna Howard, who represents a district in west Austin that is just 15 blocks from the main UT campus.

Higher Education is too high profile of a committee for Straus to get by with appointing a Democrat to directly chair it, so he did the next best thing. He put a liberal Republican who will be too busy to handle the job as a figurehead, and put UT’s closest ally as the Vice Chair.

We predict Zerwas will take a hands-on role with regard to health-component institutions of the various university systems, and leave the heavy lifting with regard to traditional campus matters to Howard. She will serve the interests of the liberal UT establishment.

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.