Abbott Has Set His Legislative Agenda. These Lawmakers Could Influence How Much Is Accomplished.
Gov. Greg Abbott has laid out a bunch of priorities that he hopes lawmakers will take on this legislative session: measures related to criminal justice, protecting businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits and how elections are run in the state. But to get anything done on his list, he’ll need help in the Texas House and Senate.
Abbott works closely with the leaders of each chamber — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate and Speaker Dade Phelan in the House — to pursue his agenda. Look closer, though, and there’s a lot more going on in the new Legislature. There are a total of 181 legislators in the Capitol, but the influence is not evenly distributed. Due to the lawmakers’ positions, ideology and tenure, some will have a much bigger say on the biggest issues this session. Here’s who to watch:
Potential swing votes in the Senate
In the Senate, Republicans have an 18-13 partisan advantage. But Senate rules require more than a majority to bring a bill to the floor for a vote, giving some individuals in the chamber more leverage.
The rules have changed in recent years. Prior to Patrick’s ascent to lieutenant governor, a bill required two-thirds support from Senators to reach the floor. That was 21 members. But in 2015, Patrick, in his first session as leader of the upper chamber, oversaw a lowering of the threshold to three-fifths of the chamber, giving his party complete control.
After the 2020 reelection loss of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, reduced the number of Republicans to 18, GOP senators last month voted unanimously to lower the threshold needed to bring legislation to the floor from 19 to 18 members. The rules alteration means Democrats will still need to peel off one Republican to block legislation they unanimously oppose from coming to the floor.
The most obvious choice in a chamber full of conservative Republicans might be Amarillo’s Kel Seliger, who doesn’t often side with the Democrats in partisan fights, but has shown an independent streak.
In 2017, Seliger voted against two of Patrick’s top priorities: a private school vouchers bill and a bill aimed at restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property taxes. During the 2019 legislative session, Seliger lost his longtime position as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and even his membership on the committee; he was also taken off the Public Education Committee and the powerful Finance Committee. That year, Patrick also never recognized him to bring one of his own bills to the floor for a vote, a move that Seliger described as his “penance” for going against Patrick on those priority bills two years earlier. This year, Seliger will serve as vice chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation.
But while Seliger's touchy relationship with the man in charge might make it harder for him to push for his own bills, the 18-vote rule gives him some power. If he chooses not to support a bill, Republicans must find at least one Democrat to jump on board.
When that happens, GOP senators sometimes turn to Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville — a conservative Democrat known to split with his party on issues like abortion. In 2017, he was the only Senate Democrat to support the “school choice” bill that Seliger opposed. And he famously voiced his support for the 2017 “bathroom bill” that would have restricted transgender Texans’ access to certain public facilities. This year, Lucio will serve as vice chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a change Patrick announced in December. Lucio replaced Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
A hardline conservative faction in the House
The Texas House has 67 Democrats and 82 Republicans. One seat remains open after former state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, resigned to join the state Senate. That one will eventually land in the GOP’s grip: Republicans David Spiller and Craig Carter will face off in a runoff election on Feb. 23. But for now, that means Republicans in the House can afford to lose no more than seven members’ votes to pass any legislation that doesn’t have Democratic support.
Given the size of that gap and the lack of rules requiring a supermajority to approve bills, the dynamics are different in the lower chamber. In past sessions, the biggest thorn in the side of the chamber’s leadership has come from the most conservative members, some of whom have proven willing to try to force difficult votes on the House floor or throw a wrench in the legislative process if they feel the chamber isn't being sufficiently conservative.
Already, forces outside the Legislature — including Texas GOP Chair Allen West — are gearing up to push the legislative agenda further right. But it remains to be seen how interested that faction of the House is in engaging in a fight this year.
In the House, some of the most conservative members — Reps. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, Mayes Middleton of Wallisville and Matt Schaefer of Tyler — are part of the Texas Freedom Caucus, which was formally founded at the beginning of the 2017 legislative session to spearhead a range of far-right conservative issues, such as anti-abortion measures and pro-gun legislation. The group has been brought into the orbit as of late: Two of the group’s members, Cain and state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, were named committee chairs on Thursday afternoon.
We’re also keeping an eye on freshman state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, who recently authored failed proposals in the Texas House that aimed to limit the role of House Democrats as committee chairs, and state Rep. Jeff Cason, R-Bedford, one of two Republicans, along with Slaton, who voted against appointing Phelan leader of the lower chamber. Slaton and Cason have so far not joined the Freedom Caucus.
The top lieutenants
A good sign that a lawmaker might be powerful? If they are chair of an influential committee. Each bill must go through a committee in the House and the Senate. And since the chairs control the agendas of those committees, they can block bills’ movement through the Capitol or push to impose key changes.
Phelan announced his committee assignments last week and made changes at the top of several influential panels. He placed a Democrat, Harold Dutton, in charge of the Public Education Committee, a move that was notable not only because of Dutton’s party but because he has previously joined Republicans in supporting the growth of charter schools. Cain, a hardline conservative Republican who helped Donald Trump challenge President Joe Biden’s win, will now chair the Elections Committee, raising concerns among voting rights advocates as Abbott has named “election integrity” a top legislative priority following a 2020 election in which Trump falsely claimed that fraud cost him a victory.
The House Redistricting Committee also has a new chairman: state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi. In his role, Hunter will spearhead the redrawing of the state’s political maps for the House, a once-in-a-decade process that lawmakers are expected to tackle in a special session later this year. Federal judges previously found that state lawmakers charged with redrawing those maps in 2011, “including specifically Rep. Hunter,” racially gerrymandered districts in Nueces County “to further undermine Latino voting strength.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, replaces state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, as chair of the House Administration Committee, and state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, will serve as chair of the House State Affairs Committee, which Phelan chaired during the 2019 session. State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, will now chair the House Calendars Committee, an especially powerful committee that oversees the timeline and order for which bills reach the House floor. The fate of many bills is decided in the Calendars Committee, since there’s usually not enough time to hear every bill approved by committees late in the session.
As far as committee assignments in the Senate, not much has changed: Larry Taylor of Friendswood will lead the Senate Education Committee, and Paul Bettencourt of Houston will chair a new committee dedicated to addressing issues related to local government. The Texas Senate doesn’t have an elections committee, so bills related to elections will likely fall under the purview of Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who chairs the State Affairs Committee.
Budget committee chairs
Perhaps the most influential committees in the Capitol focus on the budget. Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, will continue to oversee the Senate’s role in the writing of the state’s $250 billion two-year spending plan. In the House, meanwhile, state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione was replaced by Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, to helm the Appropriations Committee, which is in charge of spearheading the lower chamber’s budget.
Both Nelson and Bonnen will likely have a lot of power in writing the actual budget bills, though navigating it might be harder this session than in one’s past given the tumultuous pandemic year. In January, Hegar projected a nearly $1 billion deficit for the current state budget that runs through August 2021.
The chambers appear to be on relatively the same page — at least for now. Both the Texas House and Senate preliminary budgets both call for $119.7 billion in discretionary spending. That number is well over the amount of general revenue Comptroller Glenn Hegar said lawmakers have to spend during the session.
The budget bill is especially important because it’s the only bill lawmakers are required to pass. The budget also needs to be balanced, meaning state lawmakers will have to either cut down their proposed spending later in the budgeting process, delay spending on certain items until a later budget cycle or tap into the state’s rainy day fund to pay for some of its expenses, among other accounting maneuvers budget writers could use.
Those pushing for criminal justice reform
John Whitmire of Houston is the only Democrat to chair a Senate committee — Criminal Jurisprudence — but it’s an important one for Abbott’s ambitions. The governor has spoken about a bill that would put the state in charge of policing an area around downtown Austin.
Meanwhile, a George Floyd Act is being spearheaded by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. It remains unclear whether the text of the bill itself may be at odds with Abbott, who, in his biennial State of the State speech, also expressed support for punishing local governments that “defund the police,” as he defines it, a move taken by some Texas cities following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Abbott has also voiced his support for new police training.
Another issue likely to see Whitmire’s panel? Changing the bail system. Abbott has also dubbed this a priority, and Whitmire has, so far unsuccessfully, long led legislative efforts to change bail practices, including a bill Abbott pushed in 2019. But a key inclusion in Whitmire’s previous bills has been to stop holding low-risk people in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay for their release. Abbott has said this year he wants his priority bill to focus not on getting poor people out – the issue most tied to bail reform — but only on keeping people considered dangerous behind bars before they are convicted.
In the House, meanwhile, state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, will again chair the committee on criminal jurisprudence.