Harvey Kronberg of the widely-respected Quorum Report today published a column criticizing the corruption of the legislative process in the Texas House of Representatives. The House is facing allegations of misconduct and a potential breakdown in process legitimacy as the session nears its end. Concerns have been raised about the House members being misled and the possible tampering of government documents, particularly regarding SB 14, which has put Speaker Dade Phelan in a challenging position.
The current situation in the Texas House brings to mind past instances of mischief and deliberate misleading that plagued the final month of sessions in the past. A notable example was when an entire section of an insurance reform bill, under then-House Insurance Committee Chair John Smithee, mysteriously disappeared overnight before reaching the floor.
The focus of the issue at hand is not the substance of the bills but rather the integrity of the legislative process. If the process is corrupted, it undermines the will of the people and the institution itself, leading to “government by fiat” instead of democratic representation.
Multiple instances of questionable conduct have occurred during this session, but two examples illustrate the trouble faced by House leadership. The first instance involves the House’s refusal to allow Public Ed Chairman Brad Buckley to convene his committee during the session to “presumptively rubber stamp” a new 80+ page bill that had been mysteriously delivered to members in the middle of the night. The bill was seen as a significant rewrite of the Education Code, raising concerns about transparency and proper vetting.
“Typically, permission would be routinely granted,” writes Kronberg. “But Chair Buckley had told his Republican colleagues to vote for the Herrero Amendment to the Appropriations bill then he folded and showed ‘Present, Not Voting’ leaving the members who followed his lead out on a limb.”
Fortunately, Rep. Ernest Bailes, a Republican from Shepherd, made a crucial objection and delivered a remarkably articulate defense of the legislative process during his three-minute address at the front microphone. He emphasized that the committee substitute for the voucher/ESA bill was of utmost significance and contention in the session. Bailes stressed the need for an open hearing, allowing for testimony and ample time for committee members and legislators to thoroughly review and scrutinize the bill.
Crucial information was not shared with legislators, including the fact that the Committee Substitute for SB8 eliminates the STAAR assessment but introduces a larger number of assessment tests, effectively tripling the number of tests administered in years three through eight. Additionally, the bill raises the standards by implementing new tests for 9th and 11th graders.
Excessive testing and the practice of “teaching to the test” have long been strongly opposed by parents, and if this bill is passed, it is likely to trigger a backlash of betrayal from lawmakers’ constituents once they return home. In fact, a significant portion of the Monday morning hearing focused on revised testing procedures outlined in yet another new committee substitute.
Within this section, there is an undisclosed yet noteworthy alteration. It stipulates that incoming college students who lack sufficient preparation may be required to take “Developmental Courses” during their freshman year in order to qualify for actual college-level classes. For years, the Higher Education Coordinating Board has been responsible for establishing the criteria for such courses, as it rightfully falls within their jurisdiction.
However, Buckley’s SB8 Committee Substitute transfers this authority from the Coordinating Board to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). According to reliable sources, the Higher Ed Coordinating Board was completely unaware that such a significant change was being discussed and, like everyone else, was taken by surprise upon discovering it.
“It’s not clear whether Chair Buckley was even included in negotiating a substitute or simply handed the new language,” said Kronberg. “Bailes was right to demand a legitimate process.”
A second major issue is the potential violation of law and tampering with an official government document during the progress of SB 14, a bill concerning gender-affirming care for children. On the day of the debate, a corrected committee report and bill analysis were distributed without the necessary permission of the House, which could be obtained due to mandatory Republican support. This raises potential criminal implications, as altering an official government record without authorization is a punishable offense.
Speaker Phelan finds himself in a challenging position, as the management and responsibility for these violations remain unclear. The outrage industry and powerful external forces are already targeting him, but his primary duty is to protect the institution, the legislative process, and the members. In the past, Phelan demonstrated his commitment to maintaining integrity within the House, as seen in his firm actions against former Representative Bryan Slaton.
The legitimacy of the legislative process rests heavily on Speaker Phelan’s shoulders. Powerful forces are working to undermine him, and the actions taken to address the alleged misconduct will determine the future of process legitimacy in the Texas House. As the session approaches its end, it is crucial to ensure that the process remains honest, reliable and upholds the principles of democracy.