In a meeting that lasted well past midnight, the State Affairs Committee of the Texas House considered legislation that would sharply limit free speech in the Lone Star State. On the agenda were four items; one each by State Reps. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) and Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) as well as two measures by the chairman of the committee, State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corisicana).
Each bill dealt with changes to the authority of the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC), granting it newfound power. If passed, the changes would largely resurrect a draconian law vetoed last session by Gov. Rick Perry, one that aimed to persecute certain groups while specifically exempting labor unions.
In his veto, Perry described the “chilling effect” the adoption of SB 346 would have had on free speech. Perry further articulated the law would “expose more Texans to the risk of such harassment, regardless of political, organizational or party affiliation.” He also described it as having “a chilling effect” on the “[f]reedom of association and freedom of speech.”
Last year, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the former Solicitor General of Texas, separately rebuked these types of laws.
“President Obama and U.S. Senate Democrats have been trying to enact this wrongheaded law for years at the federal level,” stated Cruz. “The Texas Legislature should not enact these pernicious laws at the state level.”
Both Perry and Cruz’s concerns were echoed in an October letter signed by six Republican State Senators, who were concerned with the ramifications of rogue action by the TEC to change existing state law in lieu of legislative action that failed as a result of Perry’s veto.
“Freedom of speech is perhaps the most essential freedom in our Republic and should be protected from intimidation by any government or individual seeking to abuse power,” wrote the Senators. “This truth should weigh heavily in the minds of every Texan, as more is revealed about the federal government’s repeated attempts to stifle dissenting political voices – even through the IRS. Texas must not become Washington DC.”
In open defiance of the veto and the warning of consequences from the Senators, the TEC granted itself unconstitutional and extra-legal power through a unilateral rule change at the behest of Chairman Cook and the majority of his Committee.
Lawmakers on the Committee, perhaps knowing they could not effectively defend their proposals against criticism from attorneys representing Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, simply used Wednesday’s hearing as an opportunity to gripe and complain about the organizations. They feigned surprise and shock that the organizations hadn’t come to their offices to speak with them about the unconstitutional measures.
“I love agreed-to bills, but I have a feeling there is absolutely no change that comes before this committee that contains the words ‘Texas Ethics Commission’ that Empower Texans would not just immediately oppose,” said State Rep. Davis. “But I’m happy to work with them.”
Geren echoed the statement, saying he was happy to work with anyone, “I simply wonder why none of you, or Michael Sullivan, have come to speak with my office.”
This perplexing statement is from the same Geren that recently told the Austin American Statesman he “doesn’t give a damn what [Michael Sullivan] thinks.”
When Geren was told that meeting in his office to talk about the legislation could be interpreted as lobbying by the TEC, he offered his assurances that he would not consider such a meeting lobbying. Empower Texans’ outside counsel Joe Nixon suggested that Geren write a letter to him, asking Nixon for the meeting, suggesting that only then such a meeting would not be considered lobbying by the TEC.
Geren left and returned with a letter in hand. The two consulted with Natalia Luna Ashley, the executive director of the TEC on whether the letter was sufficient.
Illustrating the ridiculousness of current TEC rules and interpretations, let alone the proposed new ones, Luna Ashley rejected Geren’s first draft alleging that any meeting pursuant to it could still be considered lobbying. Geren is being forced to compose a different letter with different technical language in order to comply with the TEC director’s assessment.
Tony McDonald, general counsel for Empower Texans commented on the affair, “If a State Representative can’t get it right on the first time, how can everyday citizens who aren’t legal scholars or familiar with government be expected to navigate such a bureaucratic minefield?”
McDonald testified against both of Cook’s bills, asserting they would never ultimately become law due to clear constitutional protections.
“At the end of the day, this will never be the law. It’ll never be the law because we have a U.S. Constitution and a state constitution that protects my right as a citizen to speak on issues I care about,” said McDonald. “It protects my right. It protects organizations’ rights, to shed light on your voting records, to talk about what happens in this building, and it protects the right to say it in ways where you don’t like it, and there’s nothing you can do about that.”