The 84th Texas Legislature: Houston's Winners and Losers

The 84th Texas Legislature: Houston's Winners and Losers
Photo from the Texas Legislature

From the high highs of finally passing grand jury reform to the low lows of tattling on transgender kids in school restrooms, Houston-area lawmakers fit right in with the overall feeling of the 84th Texas Legislative session—overblown, underwhelming, but probably not as damaging as we initially expected. There were plenty of lackluster performances by our local reps, perhaps most notably by Dan Patrick, now lieutenant governor and president of the Texas Senate. But there were also some local badasses, too, that keep us just on this side of sanity during interminable hours of argument, debate, crying and chubbing under the Pink Dome. 

LOSERS:

Joan Huffman

Last session it was criminal justice reform, this session ethics. Where state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) focuses, bad policy decisions tend to follow. In 2013, as chair of the Senate criminal justice committee she tanked the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission with a particularly self-inflated diatribe drawing upon her experience as a prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

This year, as chair of state affairs, she was nominally in charge of ushering through ethics reform, a bipartisan concern with supposedly heavy support from Gov. Greg Abbott. So what did she do? Not much. Despite dozens of bills being introduced tackling everything from closing loopholes in lobbying expenses to exposing “dark money” political donors, Huffman seemed more interested in playing defense.
Huffman and other Republican senators staunchly opposed provisions favored by the House requiring political nonprofits in Texas to disclose their donors, something Huffman already opposed in 2013. That disagreement effectively killed Republican-sponsored ethics reform just two days before the close of the Legislative session.

Another bill allowed to wither and die under Huffman’s watch was a bipartisan effort to curb the amount of money lobbyists could spend on legislators and strengthen reporting of whom under the Pink Dome was getting wined and dined.

What did get through? Huffman managed to slip in a provision (on two separate bills!) that would continue to allow legislators to avoid reporting their spouses’ business interests and income in state-required ethics filings, and in fact make it easier to do so by removing the word “spouse” from the existing associated legislation.

Huffman also steered the ship on legislation meant to dismantle the Public Integrity Unit—based in the Travis County D.A.'s office, a Democrat stronghold and long a bête noire of the state GOP—instead placing the authority to investigate public officials and their staff in the hands of a yet-to-be-created white-collar crime division of the Department of Public Safety’s Texas Rangers, which would prosecute offenders in their (possibly friendlier) home counties instead of Travis. Aside from expanding the DPS into unknown territory at the expense of an established and longstanding office, the bill and its ultimately successful House counterpart was criticized by Houston State Reps Gene Wu and Sylvester Turner as being “the single most self-serving thing the Texas Lege has done to protect itself all session,” per a tweet from Wu. “If we want to say that we don’t want people investigated, that people can commit crimes and go free, then fine, let’s just say that,” said Turner during a floor debate in the House.

If there’s anything less appealing than Huffman’s actions this session, it’s the thought of what she’ll be capable of in the future. Having served in the Senate since 2008, she’s already landed authoritative positions on a number of influential committees, and we shudder to think what throne she might pick for 2017.

Dan Patrick

The best thing about Dan Patrick is that, when you mention his name to people outside Texas, they think you’re talking about the nationally-known sportscaster and not our homegrown blowhard (although our Dan Patrick was a talk radio host, too) . Let’s hope it stays that way despite Patrick’s flair for self-aggrandizement.

The second-best thing about Patrick is that, from the looks of his first session as Lieutenant Governor, he’s even worse at his new job than his many moderate and liberal detractors predicted. Despite creating apparently meaningless advisory committees staffed by his biggest campaign donors at the beginning of the session; despite seeing lackeys like Larry Taylor (R-Houston) and Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) chair vital committees; despite axing the longstanding “two-thirds rule” to allow Republicans to steamroll their legislative agenda without any needed participation from Democrats (or, you know, democracy), Patrick’s achievements of his campaign goals have been modest at best.

He said he’d strengthen the border and roll back sanctuary cities. The Patrick-directed Senate budget provision for doubling border security funds, including a huge bill to maintain the so-called border surge, did pass, but sanctuary cities died. He wanted to “reform” education and “provide more choice” in schools. Success there was about as vague as the stated goals; numerous specific bills relating to vouchers and private school scholarships died and Patrick only barely managed to muscle in a requirement that schools be rated on a contentious “A-F” basis. His pet Campus Carry bill met with stringent opposition from university officials, and only passed with assurances that campus leadership could still declare “no-gun zones,” which angered the trigger-happy Second Amendment activists the legislation was meant to appease. As we noted, Patrick’s insistence on a pittance in property tax relief for the average homeowner nearly caused a showdown between the House and the Senate, mitigated only by Nelson’s canny negotiating skills as chair of the Senate Finance Committee. While Patrick often took it upon himself to “close” Senate floor debates on socially conservative issues like abortion restrictions and LGBT civil rights, acting as if they were all his idea to consider in the first place, most of the associated GOP-driven bills also died quietly.

Will some downtime cause him to reflect on what he could have done better in leading the Senate or whether he ought to switch course on some of his less popular political positions? Not likely. At the end of a floor debate on Senate Resolution 1028, confirming Texas’ constitutional ban on gay marriage and largely seen as a concession for the 20-plus anti-LGBT bills that failed to pass this session, Patrick stood to deliver one of his unnecessary closes, saying how proud he was to defend traditional marriage and ending with a line seemingly directly lifted from segregationist George Wallace’s epitaph: “I’m not as concerned about being on the wrong side of history as I am the wrong side of what I believe.”

The third-best thing about Patrick is that he’s apparently not running for governor

Harold Dutton

There’s marching to the beat of your own drummer, and then there’s whatever it is that Houston state Rep. Harold Dutton does. While we probably agree in principal with many of Dutton’s stances, the Democrat’s parliamentary maneuvers this session were hard to parse. He was a major player in the championing and then near-derailment of sorely needed grand jury reform—instead of supporting a popular bipartisan Senate version by state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) as was expected from the start of the session, Dutton proposed his own grand jury reform bill that would have essentially allowed judges to decide whether or not they wanted to use the current, heavily criticized pick-a-pal system. After finally withdrawing his companion bill, Dutton still squabbled over, get this, a diversity requirement.

Dutton insisted he removed a provision requiring that grand jury pools reflect the county’s demographics in regards to race, ethnicity, sex and age at Gov. Abbott's request. The Senate rejected the change and a conference committee was called during the final days of the Legislative session, endangering the chance of grand jury reform even getting a final vote. Eventually a compromise was reached but it seemed much ado about nothing, had Dutton just worked with Whitmire’s superior, original bill.

But that’s not all. Dutton also ended up aligning with Tea Party activists on an amendment to Texas’ new open carry legislation that would have prevented police from asking anyone openly carrying a handgun for proof of their required license. He also voted against the long-sought texting while driving ban. His explanations for both had to do with concerns about the legislation leading to more racial profiling, which are always fair to consider. But that stance makes his willingness to remove the grand jury reform bill’s diversity requirement all the more puzzling.

The super reasonable members of the Texas Tea Party
The super reasonable members of the Texas Tea Party
katerkate via Flickr creative commons

Dwayne Bohac/Rick Miller/Gilbert Pena

Maybe it’s cheating on our part to call a three-way tie, but we can’t take any of these Tea Party legislators seriously on their own.

You’d think a longtime lawmaker like Bohac would have some clout by now, but this year, though his lone committee was public education, his most notable bills had to do with, um, Azerbaijan and federal data collection.

In April, the Houston Republican representative introduced a resolution commemorating a 1990 Soviet crackdown in Azerbaijan, one that Armenians maintained was necessary to halt Azerbaijani violence against Armenian Christians and that Azerbaijanis refer to as a massacre to stop its ultimately successful overthrow of the Soviet government. The Armenian National Committee of America protested that the resolution was factually inaccurate, as it skipped over the whole religious persecution aspect and focused on Azerbaijan’s independence movement. Then Bohac’s staff essentially admitted it had no idea what the resolution was and agreed to withdraw it.

Bohac’s bill prohibiting DPS from providing the state’s entire concealed handgun license list to the feds—you know, in case Obama really does come to take our guns away—fared a little better, making it all the way to the House floor before being killed.

We’ve already talked about state Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land) and his wasting of time on a useless resolution calling for the U.S. Congress to “impose fiscal constraints on the federal government.” But did you hear the one about how he filed a bill repealing cities’ non-discrimination laws protecting LGBT communities … not two months after hosting his out and proud adult son and his partner at Christmas for the first time. Since a confrontation in March after Miller filed the bill, father and son have barely communicated, writes the Associated Press. Happy Father’s Day!

But what’s more heartless than rejecting your own son’s identity and happiness? How about terrorizing transgender children for using the “wrong” bathroom? That would have been one outcome of a bill authored by Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena) requiring strict separation of public school bathrooms by biological sex and allowing any student who could prove “mental anguish” from seeing someone of the “wrong” sex or gender identity to sue their school district for $2,000 in damages. Pena didn’t just stop with kids, but also filed a bill that would have slapped a class B misdemeanor on any adult using a bathroom designated for a different sex than his or her own. So, like, when they’re between bands at a show and the women’s line is super long and I slip into the unused men’s restroom to take a leak, that would be a crime? No wonder it never even came up in committee.

Thankfully, aside from Miller’s anti-government resolution, none of these bills progressed very far. Still, what a waste of time.

WINNERS:

Sylvester Turner

OK, so the latest word, according to Charles Kuffner, is that Sylvester Turner is not resigning the Texas House seat he’s held for 26 years until he “wins” Houston’s mayoral election this fall. But given Turner’s emotional departing speech and from the prolonged standing ovation and tearful ceremony his colleagues gave him, you’d think he was stepping into a Viking boat on the Gulf of Mexico and signaling fellow state Rep. Senfronia Thompson to set it alight with a flaming arrow as he sailed off into the sunset.

The bipartisan feels run deep for Turner—a Democrat who seemingly brought his A-game to every single one of the numerous underdog fights in which he was involved this session—because he can balance his passionate advocacy with cool-headed politics. He might bring an abacus to the back mike to prove a point about costly tax breaks, he might simply start laughing at a particularly preposterous piece of legislation, he might call points of order, but he will also graciously give credit where he believes it’s due, even if he still votes against the bill in question—as he did to state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) for leading the Legislative Budget Board committee, though he ultimately did not support the final budget.

His problem with that last, decisive budget, which eventually passed both chambers, was that it provided much less for education spending than the version he worked on as vice chair of the appropriations committee. His repeated focus this session (as well as last, and the one before that, and the one before that…) on the lack of spending and meaningful reform for public education alone could have earned him “the conscience of the House” moniker bestowed on him by colleague Drew Darby (R-San Angelo).

Many times Turner chided the House for spending hour upon hour debating controversial bills of little real-world impact while neglecting serious issues either present now, or likely to devour the next session. For example, in one of his final moments on the House floor, Turner noted that the Legislature failed to address a quickly ballooning tuition program for veterans and their children that Texas universities had begged lawmakers to tackle this session, but yet lawmakers somehow managed to pass a contentious campus carry gun bill. Turner exclaimed, “Texas has to get past its obsession with guns, and start placing resources on students and institutions.” Yes, Lege, that’s the sound of your conscience.

Sarah Davis

It’s not a secret that the West University Place state Representative, who eked out a 2010 midterm election as a newbie and, four years later, won with a decisive 61 percent last fall, isn’t a Tea Party member. But this session the Republican lawmaker has further distanced herself from the extreme social conservative wing of her party, proudly. She received national attention for balking at GOP efforts to try to further defund Planned Parenthood clinics in the state, throwing shade on those efforts as “some sort of political statement” that would lead to women’s deaths. Later in the session, she also spoke against a bill to further restrict the process for minors to get a judge’s approval for abortion when their parents are either absent or abusive. Then, when the vast majority of her Republican House colleagues signed a letter pledging their continued support to “traditional marriage” between a man and a woman, Davis headed the opposite direction. Not only did she not sign the letter, she told the Texas Observer , “I just don’t agree with the sentiment of the letter… I don’t feel the need to pass legislation or vote for legislation that prohibits two adults who love each other to be able to be joined in a civil union or marriage. It does not affect my marriage.”

On the whole, Davis is still happier working within her party than outside of it, as when she made several amendments to the campus carry legislation that would create sensible accommodations like exempting campus healthcare facilities from concealed guns. As the chair of the House subcommittee on budget transparency and reform, she also managed to pass two ethics reform bills concerning financial reporting and conflicts of interest (one marred a bit by state Sen. Joan Huffman’s late tweaking to preserve the “spousal loophole” in reporting requirements), a priority of  Abbott’s with wide support from other Republicans. Another of her bills, making disseminating “revenge porn” a state jail felony, also passed.

But Davis doesn’t just speak her mind on the floor. She’s also not afraid to tell the smirking creepers from American Phoenix Foundation, who prowled the Capitol with cameras and followed lawmakers this session, to back off. Another popular bipartisan stance. 

John Whitmire

Was a time when being a criminal justice-reforming Democrat was the most unpopular thing you could be in the Texas Legislature. State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) remembers that. Hell, Whitmire, who has served in the Legislature since 1973, remembers when the most unpopular thing you could be in the Lege was a Republican. So, he knows that times can change, and perhaps that’s what sustains him.

This year finally saw some honest-to-God movement on several criminal justice issues, many thanks to Whitmire, chair of the criminal justice committee. He is the reason Texas’ notorious pick-a-pal grand jury system, which lets judges determine grand jury selection in a far too secretive process, is finally being replaced with the random system that everyone else in the country uses. He also managed to pass bills to decriminalize truancy in public schools. In both cases, Texas stood out as one of the only, if not the only, state to engage in either practice.

That’s not to say it was easy. Despite getting Senate approval, Whitmire fended off strong House opposition to both bills. In the case of grand jury reform he had to deal with state Rep. Harold Dutton’s surprising introduction of his own contradictory bill addressing the same topic, which made a mess of things right down to sine die. When Whitmire’s original truancy bill died in a House committee, he managed to get the legislation’s heart and soul into two different Republican-sponsored House bills, one of which made it to the Governor’s desk. It wasn’t easy, but Whitmire has been around the Lege long enough to know that these things rarely are. 

Sylvia Garcia

In March 2013, Sylvia Garcia joined the Texas Senate after a special election just in time for the abortion ban fireworks that led to Wendy Davis’ famous filibuster.

Maybe that initial experience led Garcia to file a slew of particularly women-centric bills this time around. Here’s a partial list of the topics Garcia covered and supported in 2015: criminalizing revenge porn; breastfeeding accommodations for teachers; creating the Texas Women’s Veterans Program; holding human traffickers financially accountable; insurance coverage for eating disorders; emergency contraception for sexual assault; time off work for parental duties at school.

During a Senate health and human services committee hearing, Garcia was a vocal opponent of the Senate bill to further restrict Texas’ judicial bypass laws, which makes it much harder for a neglected or abused minor to get an abortion without parental consent (a right as defined by a decades-old U.S. Supreme Court case). While she didn’t score a giant victory for womankind this session, that was perhaps a little too much to ask of the Lege this early in the 21st century. We’re just glad somebody is so focused on the needs of half of Texas’ population. As Garcia wrote in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle shortly after Davis’ failed filibuster: “The women of Texas and the world cannot be silenced.”

Garnet Coleman

Just as we were sitting down to write about state Rep. Garnet Coleman's (D-Houston) work on LGBT issues, we caught Equality Texas’ 84th Texas House Report Card, and well, this quote about sums it up: “If there were an LGBT Caucus in the Texas House, Garnet Coleman would be its dean.”

True, Coleman represents Montrose, and so it’s certainly in his best interest to be gay-friendly, but he has taken on LGBT and transgender issues with a sincere zeal. This session he pointed out that an unconstitutional sodomy ban is still on the books in the Penal Code and Health and Safety Code. He also filed a bill that would include gender identity and expression under hate crime laws. And he killed state Rep. Cecil Bell’s pre-emptive strike against marriage equality, which would have prohibited state funds to be used for the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses, when it emerged as a zombie amendment on Coleman’s own bill late in the session. That meant killing his own bill, a decision of which he wrote, “Good legislation was sacrificed, but appropriately so to see this language fail. It is offensive to my constituents, it’s offensive to me, and it’s offensive to our constitution.”

In his long career in the House, Coleman has done important work in public health and urban development, but he might be best remembered as one of the earliest Texas legislators advocating for gay rights in the state. And he’s just fine with that. 


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