At halfway mark, House Speaker Straus cites special session progress

7:39 p.m Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 Politics
Deborah Cannon/American-Statesman Staff
Speaker Joe Straus talks with legislators during discussion of HB 20 in the House chamber at the Capitol on Tuesday. DEBORAH CANNON/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Brushing aside concerns that they are not moving swiftly enough to enact Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-point agenda, Texas House members opened the second half of the special session Wednesday with a flurry of activity Wednesday.

“We made good progress, and we’re only half the way through,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the American-Statesman.

“I’ve been spending my time, the first half of the 30-day session, trying to get the House in a place to consider the items that the governor has placed on the agenda,” said Straus, a San Antonio Republican. “We work more slowly than the Senate does because we listen to people and we try to get the details right. And so the House committees have been meeting and have shown some good progress, moving many of the items that are on the call.”

Still, the House has given final passage to bills that address just four of Abbott’s priorities, compared with 18 for the Senate.

Straus addressed the running criticism of his leadership from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate and decries Straus as a “moderate” and potential obstacle to the conservative agenda he shares with the governor. Patrick insisted again this week that Straus refuses to meet with him “to work out a seamless way to do the people’s business.”

“But I am going to say this one more time — my door is open, the speaker has my phone number. He knows where I am most of the time,” Patrick said Tuesday evening on a Facebook Live video stream with Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans and Jim Graham of Texas Right to Life, two relentless Straus critics.

“I don’t care about our differences. I don’t care about anything that’s been said in the past. I want to sit down and find a way to complete the governor’s agenda, which is my agenda and is the people’s agenda,” Patrick said.

Straus dismissed the criticism.

“There’s no resistance to meeting him,” Straus said. “My door’s always open to anyone who wants to have a constructive conversation about issues facing the state of Texas, and I’ve always expected that we would be having meetings at the appropriate time.”

Straus has indicated he opposes a measure — favored by Patrick — that would pre-empt schools and local jurisdictions from making their own transgender friendly bathroom rules.

But, its sponsor, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he considered that bill an “outlier” — the only one he knows of that Straus explicitly opposes, “and so it’s not surprising to me that that has not moved expeditiously.”

Simmons said there had been an effort to discourage members to sign on to his bill and so he only had about 50 members willing to do so, far fewer than in the regular session.

Of his other bill on school choice for special needs students — also part of Abbott’s agenda — Simmons said, “I’m not sure it will get voted out of committee.” He said he holds out a faint hope that it might advance if there is some “grand bargain” on education.

“The governor wants school finance and we’re going to do that; we’re going to pass our plan on Friday,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the Public Education Committee. “I think it’s very clear that the House has not agreed on the voucher issue, but we have a solution to help special needs students.”

“The House is doing what it should do, which is being deliberative, thoughtful and being sure that legislation that we would pass is sound policy that would benefit the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. “The House is not built for speed.”

“This is the House,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Republican Caucus Policy Committee. “We will use all 30 days. There’s plenty of time.”

Goldman said it looks like the bill he is carrying for the governor to pre-empt local cellphone ordinances is unlikely to make it out of committee.

“Nothing nefarious,” he said; there’s just too much opposition from local police and elected officials who hold great sway with House members.

Goldman’s other bill — the House version of the Senate’s already-passed mail-in ballot fraud bill — was left pending Wednesday by the Elections Committee. The Senate bill has been sent to the House. The committee did approve on a 5-2 vote House Bill 47, by Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, which would make lying on an application for a mail-in ballot, applying without the voter’s knowledge and permission, and altering the application without the voter’s request punishable by up to two years in state jail.

Both Abbott and Patrick had said property tax reform is their top priority.

The House Ways and Means Committee last week approved a bill that would require cities and counties to get voter approval for tax increases of 6 percent or more. While the Patrick-backed Senate version sets the rollback rate at 4 percent, the bill passed by the House’s tax-writing committee represents a significant departure from the regular session, when the same lawmakers opted to leave untouched the current rollback rate of 8 percent.

The House version, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the chair of Ways and Means, must still be approved by the agenda-setting Calendars Committee before heading to the House floor.

On Wednesday, the House approved several other bills related to property taxes. HB 32 by Bonnen aims to increase transparency around the appraisal and rate-setting processes to encourage taxpayers to become more involved in the process.

Amid all the other activity, Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, chairwoman of the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics, and Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, led a news conference Wednesday calling on the governor to expand the call for the special session to include ethics reform.

The governor’s office, concerned that the House hasn’t been sufficiently single-minded in pursuit of his agenda, wasn’t pleased.

“Instead of working to advance items on the special session agenda that could reform property taxes, fix school finance, increase teacher pay and reduce regulations, Reps. Davis and Larson are showboating over proposals that are not on the governor’s call,” Abbott press secretary John Wittman said in a statement. “Their constituents deserve better.”

But Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, a staunch conservative, pronounced himself pleased as he left Wednesday’s session that the House was getting on track.

“We’re in better shape today than we were yesterday,” Bell said. “We are hearing bills that are consistent with the call.”

“We talked about taxation today. We talked about appraisal districts and we voted on them and that is progress in the right direction,” Bell said. “We just need to keep doing that.”

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