If you talk to many lobbyists, staff members, or legislators that have been around the Texas Capitol for long they all long for the days when politics in Texas was more bipartisan and more productive. The state has seen quite a bit of shift over the last quarter-century due to changing demographics and alterations in national political structures. Sometimes people who were once one party shifted to another, like former Governor Rick Perry and more recently the Vice Chair of the House Public Education Committee J.M. Lozano.
The Legislature has gone through some difficult times before, like the episode with the “Killer Bees” in the 1970’s or the “Killer D’s” in 2003 so the longing may be more nostalgic than real. The difference, pundits say, is that past episodes were often over partisan issues. Now, the problem seems to be party infighting. As one long-term Republican legislator said recently, “When I first came here the party was more unified and we got quite a bit done for Texas. Now, all we seem to do is fight with each other.”
This kind of fractious behavior was openly displayed in the 85th Texas Legislature in 2017 when a group of Republican state representatives calling themselves the Texas Freedom Caucus used a series of parliamentary maneuvers to kill over 100 bills on the Local and Consent calendar because they felt marginalized by the rest of the body. The event occurred on Mother’s Day and was labeled “The Mother’s Day Massacre” by social media and the press.
While the Republican party seems to be famous for these kinds of internal fractures, now it appears to be the Texas Democrat’s turn.
The entire thing started last week when several members of the House Public Education Committee voted against a bill sponsored by the committee chair, Democrat representative Harold Dutton. House Bill 3270, a bill that would strengthen the power of the Commissioner of Education to be able to take over a school district with a struggling school, was heard and passed out of the committee with a 7-6 vote. Republican representative Steve Allison joined with Democrat representatives Mary Gonzalez, James Talarico, Terry Meza, Alma Allen, and Diego Bernal to vote against the bill.
When bills were set for a hearing following that meeting none of the bills for the “no” votes were listed. An email inquiry to Dutton’s office about it reportedly received a brief response, “Remember HB 3270.”
Rep. Mary Gonzalez, who is also the Vice Chair of House Appropriations, addressed the committee when they met on April 15th to handle pending business. After detailing her concerns, she presented a letter to the committee that was subsequently obtained and shared in a Tweet by Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock.
According to Gonzalez, “power and retribution” dominate the process and is an example of a “culture that is harmful to both the committee and the legislature as a whole.” Dutton, a Democrat from Houston, allegedly responded to the reading of the letter by stating to Gonzalez that “she has the right to be wrong.”
How this issue will be ultimately handled remains to be seen, but Gonzalez and the others being denied hearings could follow past practice and simply refuse to attend future committee hearings, although the committee would still have a quorum even if all the other “no” votes on HB 3270 joined her. Whether Gonzalez alone could use her power as Vice Chair of House Appropriations to affect legislation sponsored by Dutton depends on what legislation he cares about advances. That number will grow smaller as the final days of the session emerge.
If it is determined by the Speaker of the House, Dade Phelan that Dutton is behaving badly by intentionally stalling important legislation, the Speaker could discipline him or potentially take away any future position as a committee chair, but many pundits feel that this is unlikely to happen. Dutton and Phelan both have ties to former Speaker Dennis Bonnen, and some contend that Bonnen is still influencing politics in the Texas House, including the selection of committee chairs. Many other Speakers have had influence over legislators far beyond their service as Speaker.
As the 87th Texas Legislature winds down to May 31st the last day of the session known as “sine die”, it will be critical for lawmakers to ensure that strains in relationships do not hamper the passage of important legislation for Texans. Partisan squabbles and posturing are all too common in politics and internal squabbles within parties are becoming more prominent. Both cause unnecessary gridlock that prevents the important work for which legislators are elected.