It's not hyperbole to say that 2017 has been a defining year for Texas politics. The state's biggest cities openly warred with the state government in Austin, and many of those who'd built power bases in Austin over the last decade found themselves confused and frustrated by a new environment at the Capitol.
While the 85th Texas Legislature fell short of enacting many sweeping policy changes, it set the stage for increased partisanship and rancor in the next couple of years. Texas voters elect a new Legislature in 2018, and it gets back to work in 2019, so here's a look back at the biggest events of this year's Legislature and how they'll shape the future.
Joe Straus quits.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus announced Oct. 25 that he was not running for re-election. While remaining staunchly conservative, Straus proved capable during his five terms as speaker of slowing down the agenda of the hard right, pushing back against school voucher programs and 2017's bathroom bill. Without Straus, a battle over the speakership between Texas' growing number of archconservatives and a coalition of business-friendly moderates and Democrats shapes up to the biggest fight of 2019.
The Freedom Caucus rises.
Toward the end of the regular legislative session in May, the Texas Freedom Caucus threw a fit on the House floor, slowing debate to a crawl just before a crucial deadline. As a result, more than 100 bills never got votes on the House floor, including a the crucial sunset bill, necessary to keeping state agencies such as the Texas Medical Board open for the two years between sessions.
The Freedom Caucus' stalling guaranteed that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would call a special session, giving Texas' hard right, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, another chance at passing controversial legislation stymied by Straus.
The bathroom bill dies.
One of the bills the Freedom Caucus hoped to bring back from the dead was the Patrick-championed "bathroom bill," which would've required visitors to facilities owned by the state of Texas and the state's municipal governments to use the restrooms designated for use by the sex on their birth certificates. Straus kept the bill from getting a vote on the House floor during both the regular and special sessions, keeping the potential impact the state would feel from lost tourism and convention dollars at bay for at least a couple of years. If the political climate remains the same in two years, however, the bathroom bill will be back. Without Straus around, it may pass next session, too.
Senate Bill 4 divides the state.
Perhaps the farthest-reaching piece of legislation passed at the Capitol in 2017 was Senate Bill 4, the state's "sanctuary cities" bill. During Abbott's session-opening State of the State speech, he identified sanctuary cities as one of the biggest problems facing the state despite the fact that no one — neither supporters of SB 4 nor the bill's opponents — could define a sanctuary city or assert with any conviction whether any of Texas' metropolises qualifies as one.
The Legislature passed a package of regulations that, among other things, threaten local elected officials with removal from office if their cities or counties don't fully comply with federal immigration laws. Additionally, Texas law enforcement agencies have the authority to question the immigration status of those they detain.
Texas cities reacted swiftly and strongly to the law, taking the state to court over the bill, which they believe has created fear in Latino communities.
"I am not interested in turning Dallas police officers into immigration officers. Virtually all law enforcement agencies are against SB 4 because it creates an environment where people are preyed upon because criminals know they won't call the police," Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman said when the city of Dallas joined the suit against the law. "SB 4 is both a pre-emption to the city's local authority as well as an unfunded mandate."
A federal court in Austin stopped enforcement of the bill, ruling that it was potentially unconstitutional, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the portion of the bill requiring Texas counties to comply with detention requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to go into effect. There is still a long court battle over the final fate of the bill.
Texas signs up for its next abortion fight.
Texas' latest anti-abortion laws, collected in Senate Bill 8, include a provision banning dilation and evacuation, the most common method of abortion for procedures occurring in the second trimester of a woman's pregnancy. SB 8's passage predictably triggered a lawsuit from abortion rights groups, which argued that the bill amounted to a de facto ban on abortions occurring earlier than the 14th week of pregnancy. While the bill has yet to go into effect, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas heard arguments about its constitutionality earlier this month. Given the fate of Texas' previous major set of abortion restrictions — 2013's HB 2 — the argument over SB 8 seems destined for a trip to the United States Supreme Court in a year or two, no matter what the district court decides.
The Legislature does what Dallas can't — fixes the city's pension nightmare.
In May, Texas' House and Senate took the battle over what to do with the city of Dallas' failing police and fire pension system into their own hands. Led by Dallas state Sens. Don Huffines and Royce West, the Legislature passed a bill cutting benefits to retirees while requiring increased contributions from the city of Dallas to the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund. The compromise left both sides feeling as if they lost, but it finally settled the fate of a fund that, if it became insolvent, threatened the city with bankruptcy.
Dallas County Schools bites the dust.
During the legislative session, Huffines successfully pushed a bill that put the fate of Dallas County Schools, a school district that provides bus services to several local school districts but doesn't operate any schools, on Dallas County's ballot this month. Huffines argued that DCS was a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy and that the districts could better provide transportation to their students.
Voters agreed with Huffines, voting to shut the agency down and hand over control of student transportation to Dallas ISD and its suburban compatriots. For Huffines, it was a double victory. The tea party Republican got rid of a government agency and earned a de facto property tax deduction for Dallas County residents. When DCS' debts are paid off, the 1 cent on every $100 of valuation tax collected to fund the district will disappear.
Matt Rinaldi takes on Poncho Nevarez.
Near the close of the regular session, Irving state Rep. Matt Rinaldi got fed up with demonstrators who'd begun frequenting the Capitol to protest SB 4. He called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report a protester he believed to be undocumented. A melee ensued on the House floor between Rinaldi and members of the Mexican American Legislative Conference, ending with Rep. Poncho Nevarez's threat to "get" Rinaldi on the way to his car and Rinaldi's threat to shoot Nevarez.
In 2019, Republicans like Rinaldi will have greater visibility and influence with the retirement of Straus and his moderating influence. Conflicts of this kind will be inevitable.
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Steve Mostyn dies.
Steve Mostyn, Texas' biggest Democratic donor, died last week in Houston of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. The 46-year-old lawyer gave more than $10 million to state campaigns in 2014. Texas Democrats will have to dig harder for big money during the 2018 cycle after they're done mourning Mostyn.
“Steve was a giant. He was the epitome of a Texas Democrat — big, bold, fearless and caring. He dedicated his professional and personal life to fighting for the little guy," Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said last week.
The Daily Beast Reports on the "Burn Book of Bad Men."
The Daily Beast published an exposé Nov. 7 describing some of the contents of the "Burn Book of Bad Men," a private, anonymous Google document created by women at the Texas Capitol to warn other women about male colleagues. According to the report, allegations in the document go back more than 20 years and cover the behavior of aides, campaign workers and elected officials. In response, Straus, Patrick and Abbott have all promised to change the Legislature's policies in order to better protect female legislators, staff and workers at the Capitol. No names have come out from the burn book, but stay tuned.