Politics & Government

Without Stickland, Texas Freedom Caucus working within system instead of throwing bombs

Texas governor announces school finance plans

Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced that lawmakers have balanced the state’s budget for the next two years, reformed the way Texas schools are funded and crafted ways to slow the growth of property taxes.
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Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced that lawmakers have balanced the state’s budget for the next two years, reformed the way Texas schools are funded and crafted ways to slow the growth of property taxes.

During their first legislative session two years ago, House members in the Tea Party-aligned Texas Freedom Caucus had a well-deserved reputation for rebellious behavior.

Their most famous tactic was “the Mother’s Day Massacre” that obliterated dozens of bills in a single day.

By contrast, with the 2019 Legislature just hours away from adjournment, caucus members are looking back on a session in which they more typically worked within the system than against it.

Their most strident bomb-thrower — Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford — left the caucus weeks ago. Most of the remaining members say they have largely abandoned past obstructionist tactics to have a place at the table under current Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Lake Jackson, who replaced five-term speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio.

“I think with the different speaker we had this time — Speaker Bonnen — tactics have changed,” said Rep. Mike Lang, a former 27-year Fort Worth police officer who chairs the caucus. “And I think instead of throwing bombs constantly, there’s a willingness to work together, push things through together.”

The all-Republican caucus in a Republican-led chamber has deep roots in North Texas. Three of the 10 members are from Tarrant County — Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, and Reps. Bill Zedler (the caucus vice-chairman) and Tony Tinderholt, both of Arlington.

Lang lives in Granbury, the Hood County seat less than 40 miles from Fort Worth. Another North Texas member is Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano, in Collin County. The remaining members are Reps. Matt Schaefer of Tyler, Mayes Middleton of Wallisville, Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg, Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, and Valoree Swanson of Spring.

Stickland, who was one of the original caucus members when the group was formed at the outset of the 2017 session, said in an interview last week that he chose to leave to have more freedom to focus on his conservative priorities without being constrained by group obligations.

His decision was not because of any friction with other members, he said, and several remaining members said Stickland still has good relations with the group.

“I love those guys,” Stickland said. Tinderholt said Stickland remains “one of my best friends” though he said he was disappointed that he left.

Stickland was still in the caucus when introduced a signature bill to ban red-light cameras, a measure that has passed both houses of the legislature and is now on the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott. It was Stickland’s first bill to win legislative passage since the four-term lawmaker entered the House in 2013.

“I’m mainly focused on stopping bad bills, which I’ve been able to do very effectively,” Stickland said. One of his parliamentary tactics has focused on bouncing bills off so-called local-and-consent calendars that would have been destined for almost certain passage until Stickland targeted them as substantial measures in need of more considerable debate.

Stickland was the second of the original 12 caucus members to leave the group. Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano resigned in December, a few weeks before the current session, saying he wanted to recommit himself to the broader House Republican Caucus, composed of all 83 Republicans who hold the majority in the 150-member House.

Even in its slimmed-down form, members say the group is still rigidly committed to its founding principles to fight for “liberty-minded, grassroots Texans” who want “bold action” on issues such as abortion, government restraint, religious liberties and economic freedom. Many of their key initiatives track planks in the Texas Republican Party platform calling for a ban on abortion, Second Amendment safeguards on gun rights and tougher measures to secure the border and crackdown on illegal immigration.

Tinderholt drew widespread attention with a bill that would have banned abortions in Texas, similar to a recently enacted abortion ban in Alabama. Although the Texas bill died, the Arlington lawmaker says he was pleased that it at least “got a hearing” under the current House leadership, noting that “bill like that would have never gotten a hearing in the past.”

Members of the caucus were also aligned on unsuccessful “constitutional carry” efforts to permit Texans to carry guns without a license.

Krause was a leader in controversial “religious freedom” legislation to prevent governments from taking adverse action against businesses or individuals based on their affiliations with faith-based groups. A modified Senate version of the bill advanced to the governor’s desk but critics still expressed concern that it could result in discrimination against LGBTQ groups.

“Our best role is that we were a group of like-minded members … and we’ve stuck to pretty much our priorities,” Lang said in assessing the group’s contributions. He said he would have preferred better results on “second amendment and pro-life issues” but nevertheless felt the caucus had “a pretty good session.”

The most substantial gain for the caucus, said Lang and other members, was their inclusion in behind-the-scenes discussions on tax reform, school finance and other big issues, enabling them to have a voice in the session’s top priorities.

In 2017, caucus members loudly complained but they were shut out of critical discussions under Straus’ leadership, a factor in their past mutinous behavior, but they now praise Bonnen for including their perspective into the mix.

“All different members in the Freedom Caucus ... were called at different times for our expertise,” said Tinderholt, a retired Army major in his third term in the House. “We were included in the process. It’s been very pleasant to have our voices heard.”

Krause said caucus members haven’t always been on board with the leadership’s position but at least feel they have the speaker’s ear.

“The tactics were a lot different this time. You weren’t as much obstructing because you actually had a seat at the table,” he said. “There definitely have been times when we maybe disagreed with where the leadership was going, but they always were good about giving us an avenue to vent that and discuss that.”

Caucus members repeatedly rebelled against Straus’ leadership during the 2017 session, earning the enmity of more centrist Republicans and Democrats. The hostility reached a crescendo with only two weeks left in the session when caucus members used a procedural maneuver to kill more than 100 bills in the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”

Caucus members embraced Bonnen’s ascension to the speakership after Straus announced his retirement from the Legislature after 10 years as the House leader. At a press conference early in the session, caucus leaders expressed themselves as being “in perfect alignment” with new speaker.

“Speaker Bonnen has done a great job to reach out to everybody,” said Zedler. “If you feel like the leadership is looking for input,” he said, “then you’re a lot more willing” to participate “if you feel like somebody’s listening to you.”

Although none of the caucus members were named as committee chairmen in Bonnen’s committee assignments, three were named as vice-chairmen — Zedler (criminal jurisprudence), Tinderholt (defense and veterans’ affairs) and Shaheen (urban affairs).

Krause serves on the appropriations committee, which oversees state spending, and Shaheen is on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees revenue and tax policies.

The emergence of a cooperative spirit between the leadership and a band of former firebrands raises a fundamental question: Is there a continued need for the Freedom Caucus?

“Oh I think so,” says Zedler. “There’s still that feeling that we’re here to be a voice for the grassroots.”

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