Bud Kennedy

‘Bathroom bill’ or ‘horse manure’? Divisive bills test Straus in Texas special session

The Texas House finishing business May 26.
The Texas House finishing business May 26. AP archives

The last time the Texas Legislature met, they got into a shoving match, threatened gunplay and nearly got into a fistfight.

Oh, and they passed a bill allowing hog hunting from hot-air balloons.

Hope is not high for better results when lawmakers return to Austin next week.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, now 33 but still proudly the enfant terrible of the Texas House, put it this way:

“A lot of us haven’t talked to those folks since that moment,” he told a Tea Party meeting Monday night: “It’s going to be interesting to go back and see those guys.”

“That moment” refers to the few seconds that nearly blew the pink dome off the Texas Capitol.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, called federal immigration officials on United We Dream protesters in the Capitol gallery, then exchanged threats with angry Democrats.

That punctuated five months of tension and frustration, with the consensus-driven Texas House budgeting for social needs and education while also playing keep-away with politically driven bills sent from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Texas Senate.

In revenge, Stickland and his 11 fellow House members of the Freedom Caucus eventually stalled out the clock to intentionally force the Legislature into a special session.

“Getting into overtime was what we wanted,” he told the monthly meeting of the Grapevine-based NE Tarrant Tea Party.

The Freedom Caucus wanted to put more pressure on House Republicans to pass school choice, a local tax cap and a “bathroom bill” over five-term House Speaker Joe Straus’ resistance.

The caucus’ maneuver “showcased the failure” of Straus’ leadership, state Rep. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington told the group.

“I’m hoping he’s gone in the next few weeks,” Tinderholt said.

That’s not likely, since Straus was elected unanimously in January. But SMU political science professor Matthew Wilson said Tuesday a backlash against the San Antonio Republican “has been a long time coming.”

Straus is “a poor fit ideologically” for today’s Texas Republicans, Wilson said, pointing to party voters’ defeat of business conservatives such as former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison or ousted Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Straus is “the last significant power broker representing the establishment,” Wilson said. As the House ignores a “red-meat conservative’ ” agenda, he said, “frustration understandably builds.”

But Rice University professor Mark P. Jones said the complaints mostly amount to political posturing for the special session by raising questions about Straus’ 2019 re-election.

“It’s seeding doubt in the minds of some Republican rank-and-file that the speaker will be there for them,” Jones said.

In the more focused 30-day session, Straus’ committee chairs will be pushed to send Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20 priority bills to the floor for a vote.

Some House Republicans “may have to vote for something they might not agree with — school choice, a bathroom bill, local tax reform,” Jones said: “The jockeying right now is over how much they can block.”

Straus has said he opposes a bathroom bill and also wants a better funding system for schools. He called some of the bills “horse manure.”

Just say the Texas Legislature is shovel-ready.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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