The Texas Senate Stands
Despite the Tea Party’s big electoral victories, many of their top priorities were smashed against the armor bolted onto the upper chamber – much to the consternation of its new presiding officer
This story was originally published on the Quorum Report.
As the 84th Texas Legislature nears the finish line, there will be plenty of talk about which lawmakers were the best and worst, which made a difference, which made no difference at all, and what new laws will make Texas a better or worse place.
I’ll leave that kind of list-making to wiser folks for the moment.
Instead a discussion of an institution is in order now because, frankly, it still works. For the most part, anyway.
In “Master of the Senate,” LBJ biographer Robert Caro writes of the United States Senate that it was “created to be independent, to stand against the tyranny of presidential power and the tides of public opinion. It had stood.” In Texas, the upper chamber of The Legislature has been called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” – sometimes seriously and other times in jest – for decades.
When the Tea Party freshmen of 2015 arrived in the Texas Senate, they were eager to pass harsh anti-immigrant measures including a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities” and a repeal of in-state tuition for young people who lack legal status. They were also on a mission to legalize the open carry of a handgun with no license. On that last one, they came close. So close.
These proposals faced fierce opposition from the business community, law enforcement and faith leaders. Bibles, badges and business still matter on some issues here in the Great State, but not on others it seems.
Never mind their opposition. Achieving those goals championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on the campaign trail would require changing the rules. The Senate’s first act out of the gate under his leadership was the elimination of the two-thirds rule, lowering the threshold for floor debate to 60%.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said as the new three-fifths rule was approved that “it’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be.” The Dean of the Senate was quick to add, though, that “it’s probably not as good as you’re making it out to be.”
So instead of 21 votes, the magic number is now 19. With 20 Republican senators in office, all this seemed too good to be true.
As the new rules were debated, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, reminded members that a supermajority would still be required, meaning protections would be in place against bad ideas and collaboration would still be encouraged.
Under tremendous pressure from archconservative activist Dr. Steve Hotze, there was a last-minute push in the Senate to ban state and local governments from using public funds to issue same-sex marriage licenses. A similar proposal had died in the House. Speculation around the building was that the move by Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, to secretly add language to a county omnibus bill to achieve that goal was encouraged by Gov. Patrick, who counts Hotze among his top political contributors.
19 votes could not be found for the anti-gay marriage legislation nor could 19 votes be found for the harshest anti-immigrant bills.
Cue the outrage.
Tea Party leaders from around the state headed up by JoAnn Fleming, the chair of Patrick’s own Grassroots Advisory Board, questioned whether Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott, and Speaker Joe Straus would be failures this session.
Dr. Hotze meantime lashed out at Patrick in his newsletter on Friday. Saying “money trumps morals" among GOP leadership, Hotze argued Patrick squandered a huge opportunity by missing the chance to take a pre-emptive step in case the United States Supreme Court strikes down gay marriage bans in Texas and other states.
States like Arizona, Georgia, and Mississippi took economic dives when they passed harsh immigration laws. Indiana this year became the poster child for what happens when a legislature puts up a big “Not Open for Business” sign. Plano has done the opposite by passing an equal rights ordinance ahead of Toyota’s move of the carmaker’s North American Headquarters to Collin County, in part to prevent headlines like this.
During a late night gaggle with reporters a couple weeks ago, Gov. Patrick said he believes the change in the Senate’s rules has created a healthier environment for real and open debate. He said the old 21 vote requirement meant it was too easy for opponents of a bill to “just say no.”
I’d argue that some ideas are so terrible that simply saying “no” is sufficient. The Senate agrees.
Yes, our state took several more steps along the path that the ever-more conservative Republican primary electorate demands we travel. But when it came to proposals that could have had some of the worst implications for the 13th largest economy on Earth, the Texas Senate stood.
Copyright May 30, 2015, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.