House took time to prep, Straus says

Speaker cites ‘good progress’ as cham­ber picks up ses­sion pace.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Tilove jtilove@states­man.com

Brush­ing aside con­cerns that t hey 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.

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.”

‘Not built for speed’

Straus has in­di­cated he op­poses a mea­sure — fa­vored by Pa­trick — that would pre­empt 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.

Call for ethics re­form

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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