AUSTIN - The House of Representatives continues its contentious ways, with yet another heated session Tuesday over yet another rules measure.
Up for vote was a resolution that would have suspended the constitutional order of business and allow any bill to be brought to the House floor within the first 60 days of session without consensus, according to Democratic leaders.
Although passed routinely in previous sessions, Tuesday’s debate lasted several hours as lawmakers argued.
The tone may have been set for the 80th Legislature three weeks ago at its Jan. 9 kick-off, when a contested speaker’s election saw a split, 80-68 vote on a key procedural measure that ultimately kept incumbent House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, in power.
Craddick had been challenged by state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who had served as chairman of Appropriations in the 79th Legislature. Pitts had campaigned for speaker as a consensus candidate who would end the “arm-twisting, intimidation, threats and retribution” atmosphere he said existed under Craddick’s leadership.
On Tuesday, Pasadena Republican Warren Chisum - who was tapped by Craddick to replace Pitts as Appropriations chairman after the failed coup - put forth the resolution to change the constitutional order of business. He was joined at the podium by Houston Democrat Sylvester Turner, who also had supported Craddick for a third term as speaker.
After more than an hour of debate, the resolution, which had been adopted by lawmakers for years with the exception of a session in the early 1980s, was defeated by a 108-33 vote, according to the House Journal. A four-fifths majority was needed for passage as per the state Constitution.
Ironically, the same resolution was successfully carried by Pitts and Democrat Robert Puente by a 132-6 vote on the second day of the last session, the 79th Legislature.
Democratic leaders who led Tuesday’s efforts to defeat the resolution’s passage, cited a need for a more deliberate approach to legislation as provided for within the Constitution and as previously approved by the state’s voters.
“The Texas Constitution is clear that the Legislative process should be deliberative and thorough, and that no non-emergency measure should be rushed out without full public input,” said House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam of Waco. “I am proud to have voted to uphold the Texas Constitution and provide all Texans a voice in the formulation of the laws this session.
“We must guarantee a thorough committee process that ensures the very best legislation possible,” said Dunnam, who along with others voting against the blanket suspension, hailed the vote as “a victory for open government.”
The Democrats noted their vote was against a blanket suspension of rules. Any lawmaker can bring up any individual bill at any time, though and request a suspension for that particular bill, they said.
A press release from the Democratic Caucus said the suspension would have allowed Craddick to quickly push bills through committees without full public debate.
“For example, in 2003 the House Committee on Public Education kicked out sweeping school finance changes in HB 604 in just one day without a full opportunity for public input,” the press release said. “The Constitution is written to allow an incubation period for legislation in which public input is encouraged. The place for that public input is the committee hearings. If committee hearings are simply formalities, the public never gets a chance to have a voice.”
Those arguing for the constitutional suspension said failure to pass the measure would put the House at a standstill. Democratic leaders said that wasn’t the case.
“House Democrats are here to work. But we will not shortchange the public’s ability to have input into the legislative process,” Dunnam said. “We are willing and able to suspend the rules for any individual piece of legislation that warrants early and expedited consideration. But we cannot wholesale waive our constituents’ constitutional rights to be heard without a compelling reason.”
All 32 Democrats voting against the suspension of rules were among the 68 lawmakers who had taken an anti-Craddick stance on the key procedural vote during the speaker’s race.
Pitts subsequently withdrew from the race after the 80-68 vote favored Craddick. In stepping out of the election, Pitts said he didn’t want to place his supporters in further harm’s way.
Political observers noted, however, that the 80-68 vote essentially identified how lawmakers were taking sides in the speaker’s election.
After his re-election as speaker Jan. 9, Craddick took 2-1/2 weeks to make his committee assignments, which were released Friday.
Besides stripping Pitts of his chairman position and seat on Appropriations, Craddick’s committee taps indicate few choice assignments for the other 67 members who voted against him on the speaker’s election procedural measure - and even fewer for the 32 who Tuesday voted to thwart the leadership-supported resolution to suspend the constitutional order of business for the House.
Nothing to lose
Choice assignments include committee officer positions of chairman, vice chairman, chairman of budget and oversight (on certain committees) and such select committees as Appropriations, Ways and Means, Calendars, Regulated Industries, Public Education, Higher Education and Transportation.
Following is a list of the 32 Democrats who voted “no” on Tuesday and the select committee assignments they received from Craddick for the 80th Legislature (as per the above listing):
Alma Allen - chairman of budget and oversight on Law Enforcement (with the CBO position that gives a seat on Appropriations)
Roberto Alonzo - Higher Education seat
Rafael Anchia - no select assignment
Valinda Bolton - no select assignment
Joaquin Castro - no select assignment
Ellen Cohen - no select assignment
Garnet Coleman - no select assignment
Yvonne Davis - Ways and Means seat
Jim Dunnam - no select assignment
Craig Eiland - vice chairman of Juvenile Justice and Family Issues (demoted from a chair spot on another committee)
Joe Farias - no select assignment
Jessica Farrar - no select assignment
Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles - no select assignment
Ana E. Hernandez - no select assignment
Abel Herrero - no select assignment
Scott Hochberg - vice chairman of Corrections and a Public Education seat
Terri Hodge - no select assignment
David Leibowitz - no select assignment
Barbara Mallory Caraway - no select assignment
Trey Martinez Fischer - no select assignment
Borris L. Miles - no select assignment
Paul Moreno - no select assignment
Rick Noriega - chairman of budget and oversight on Defense Affairs-State and Federal Relations (giving him a seat on Appropriations)
Dora Olivo - Public Education seat
Solomon Ortiz Jr. - no select assignment
Joe Pickett - no select assignment
Paula Pierson - no select assignment
Eddie Rodriguez - no select assignment
Senfronia Thompson - no select assignment
Marc Veasey - no select assignment
Mike Villarreal - vice chairman of Pensions and Investments
Hubert Vo - no select assignment
The lone Republican who voted against the suspension of rules was Robert Talton, who had already been stripped of his chairmanship of Urban Affairs and removed from the Redistricting Committee after openly supporting Pitts in the speaker’s election. Talton remains on Civil Practices and was moved onto Criminal Jurisprudence.
Freshman Republican clout
With one exception, all of the freshman Republican lawmakers voted pro-Craddick on the speaker’s election procedural vote.
As a group, the 12 freshman Republicans - including the one who voted against Craddick in the speaker’s election - have more select assignments than the 32 Democrats named above - whose 27 senior members have a collective 232 years experience in the state Legislature.
The freshman Republicans account for six vice chairmanships, three chairman of budget and oversight positions that provide them a seat on Appropriations - considered the House’s most powerful committee - and five other seats among the Public Education, Higher Education and Transportation committees.
Freshman Republican Thomas Latham, who voted against Craddick in the speaker’s race - was given a vice chairmanship on the Law Enforcement Committee.
On Tuesday, all 12 of the freshman Republicans voted for the constitutional suspension.
Freshman Democrats’ lack of assignments
With one exception, all of the freshman Democrats voted against Craddick in the speaker’s race. When committee assignments were handed out by Craddick, the one exception, Eddie Lucio III, was announced as the chairman of budget and oversight on Environmental Regulation, which gives him a seat on Appropriations.
On Tuesday, Lucio voted for the constitutional suspension.
Of the nine freshman Democrats who voted against Craddick in the speaker’s race, eight received no select assignments. Only one of the nine, Allen Vaught, was tapped by Craddick for a select assignment - that of vice chairman on Law Enforcement.
On Tuesday, Vaught and three of the other freshman Democrats voted for the constitutional suspension.
Craddick’s Democratic voting block
In contrast to the 32 Democrats who voted against Craddick on the speaker election procedural measure and the constitutional suspension, the 15 Democrats who supported his re-election as speaker increased their number of plum assignments (as per the above select officer and committee positions).
The pro-Craddick group of 15 Democrats now accounts for nine of the 40 committee chairmanships. The group also has three vice chairmanships, including the vice chairs on the Appropriations and Calendars committees.
Overall, the group retained its six spots on Appropriations from the 79th Legislature, with one of those six positions now the vice chairmanship for the 80th.
Two spots were gained on Ways and Means, which has oversight of taxation and revenue measures. No one in the group had a Ways and Means seat during the 79th Legislature.
The group also increased its presence on Calendars to include four seats, including the vice chair. The Calendars Committee determines whether or not bills make it to the floor of the House.
Resolution to return
On Tuesday, Chisum warned lawmakers he would bring the resolution to suspend the constitutional order back for a vote.
“You’ve cut yourself off if you kill this deal here,” he said. “In the minority party, you cut yourself out of being able to get your bills passed, and I encourage you not to do that.”
Democrats, however, noted committees can begin meeting 30 days after the session opens - which is next week - without suspending the rules. On Tuesday, after the blanket suspension failed, several committees requested permission to meet, with legislators allowing them to do so with separate votes on each committee’s request.
E-mail JoAnn at email@example.com