Straus annihilates Turner

The Texas Tribune reports that House Speaker Joe Straus (R-Bexar County) has been re-elected, as expected, to a rare fourth term as speaker. He annihilated his competition, embodied in State Representative Scott Turner (R-Rockwall County), by unbelievably lopsided margins. The final tally was 127 for the speaker, 19 for Turner (two absences and two vacancies). While Straus, yet again, received the unanimous support of Democrats, there were 76 votes in the Republican column alone for him. This means that, contrary to the misleading claims made by Straus’ detractors, he did not require bipartisan support for his election.

Turner could obviously tell that his quest for the speakership was quixotic at best and delusional at worst as early as November. But unlike the other speaker challenges, which were abandoned before January, Turner soldiered on for very different reasons. He never expected to actually win the gavel (at least I hope not). The entire point of the challenge was to force a record vote for speaker, something that has not been done since the 1970s. Right-wing groups, such as the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans, have pledged to recruit primary challengers for all the Straus loyalists. We’ll see how that works out, but color me skeptical.

Thanks to Empower Texans, we have a roll call of all nineteen of the Turner loyalists. State Representatives Dawnna Dukes (D-Travis County) and Tom Craddick (R-Midland County) were the two absences. While Dukes has intimated that she would have supported Straus, Craddick — a former Speaker who was deposed by Straus in 2009 — is tougher to pin down.

State Representatives Rodney Anderson (R-Dallas County), Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock County), Pat Fallon (R-Denton County), Bryan Hughes (R-Wood County), Mark Keough (R-Montgomery County), Stephanie Klick (R-Tarrant County), Matt Krause (R-Tarrant County), Jeff Leach (R-Collin County), Matt Rinaldi (R-Dallas County), Scott Sanford (R-Collin County), Matt Schaefer (R-Smith County), Matt Shaheen (R-Collin County), David Simpson (R-Gregg County), Stuart Spitzer (R-Kaufman County), Jonathan Stickland (R-Tarrant County), Tony Tinderholt (R-Tarrant County), Molly White (R-Bell County) and Bill Zedler (R-Tarrant County) all supported Turner.

Interestingly enough, Turner — a native son of the DFW Metroplex — garnered a significant chunk of the delegation from up there, but only one representative from Greater Houston and zero from both the San Antonio and Austin areas, respectively.

The House is still Straus’ fiefdom, that much is no longer up for debate. The question is what type of lower house he will command over the next 140+ days. Texas Monthly just published a lengthy interview with Straus, and I strongly urge you to check it out. Most pressingly, he appeared strangely tepid on Greg Abbott’s prospects as Governor. This led Breitbart Texas to explode and publish a real hit piece against Straus. Trouble in paradise already, evidently.

Is Joe Straus a liberal?

My friend Paul Burka at Texas Monthly pegs this question, rather facetiously, in response to a recent blog post at Forbes Magazine. Spoiler alert, the answer is a total and resounding NO! The original post, entitled “Meet the Harry Reid of Texas,” is a ludicrous attempt to paint the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, State Representative Joe Straus (R-Bexar County), a bona fide Republican, as some type of closet Democrat. It is penned by a gentleman named Patrick Gleason, who (a cursory background search will reveal) is a staffer for Americans for Tax Reform, otherwise known as Grover Norquist’s group.

The post, which Burka notes “has all the earmarks of a Michael Quinn Sullivan put-up,” delineates the pragmatic background of Straus. For those not familiar, he was first elected Speaker in 2009. At that time, a coalition of eleven moderate Republicans banded together with the Democrats to topple the regime of Speaker Tom Craddick. The anger against Craddick was not necessarily based on politics, but on leadership style. Craddick was brash, and railroaded over other Representatives in an attempt to wield absolute power.

Because Straus and his band of allies dealt with Democrats, his underlying loyalty has been suspect by the most extreme Republicans ever since. He has a steadfast dedication to the important issues, such as roads and infrastructure. Meanwhile, he openly calls for the lower house to not focus too intently on controversial, us-versus-them social issues.

For his part, Straus is better than his predecessor, and has always cooperated in good faith with Democrats on many important issues. However, at the end of the day, he is still a Republican. I would still prefer him to be replaced by a Democratic Speaker. And, in what should be most important for the Tea Party, he will –albeit reluctantly– bring up those controversial social issues when pushed by his members and State Leadership.

For example, the Texas House, under Straus’ stewardship, passed a Voter ID act. They also passed “Guns on Campus” last year, though the Senate did not. Ditto with onerous abortion restrictions last summer.

Accordingly, why do these right-wingers loathe Straus so much? For one, his rise to power is disquieting to party orthodoxy. But, in my opinion, it is far more than that. This is about distrust of a pragmatic Texas Republican, one of the last ones left in high office, and his honest effort to run a better State. Not a more conservative State, just a better State.

Burka, for his part, agrees at least one piece of sentiment expressed in the Forbes article; right-wing pipe dreams passed out of a Texas Senate controlled by a Lieutenant Governor named Dan Patrick would almost certainly go nowhere in Straus’ House. The post also referenced State Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas County), a vocal Straus ally and one of the few –perhaps the only– openly moderate freshmen GOP Representatives. Villalba predicted that these pipe dreams, such as anti-Common Core bills, would be “put on the back burner” and eventually aged to death on the calendar committee.

In other places on the anti-Straus front, the Speaker has actually garnered some real opposition from among the House’s ranks. State Representative Scott Turner (R-Rockwall County) has announced a public campaign against the Speaker, though he still appears to be receiving only minimal support from usual suspects. Previous attempts against Sraus’ speakership have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Failed candidacies by both State Representative Bryan Hughes (R-Wood County) and David Simpson (R-Gregg County) were both aborted prior to actual voting.

I still maintain a good amount of respect for Straus, but my opinion is that Burka gives him far too much credit to stand up to the powers to be on contentious topics. It was a lot easier for Straus to be a moderate when his companions were Rick Perry as Governor (pre Presidential campaign) and David Dewhurst as Lieutenant Governor. Next session, in all likelihood, his companions will be Greg Abbott as Governor and Dan Patrick as Lieutenant Governor. Three full steps to the right, maybe more.

Straus folded like a cheap card table last summer when Perry began exacting pressure on him to pass the abortion restrictions. I have little doubt that he will fold once more when the time comes for Abbott to lay out his ambitious right-wing agenda. Just wait. Straus will, thankfully for him, largely placate his right-wing detractors. Unfortunately for the rest of us, it will be because of the dreaded 84th session.

Lege update 7/18

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Shortly after 9:30 this morning, Governor Perry signed HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill, into law. The law is a death warrant for thousands of poor, rural women who will now be denied access to abortion clinics. Democrats had promised a same-day lawsuit to be filed the date of signature, but it looks like they did not follow through on the threat.

At his signing statement, Perry surrounded himself with fellow Conservatives. The Texas Tribune reports that Perry doubled down on the lie that HB2 is about the 20 week ban. ““This is a bill that protects unborn babies after the fifth month of a pregnancy,” Perry said. Once again, that is not the point of the bill. In addition to the 20 week ban, it requires abortion doctors to administer all drugs in person, have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and –& this is the big one– require the clinics convert into ambulatory surgical centers.

Per the above photographs, there were protesters at the capital today. They donned black clothing, carried wire coathangers and chanted “SHAME!” over and over again.

In other news, the House voted to advance HJR2, a transportation funding measure not identical to the one the Senate passed last week. The Senate bill had originally drawn Transportation funding from the Rainy Day Fund. This bill siphons the 25% of the Gas Tax earmarked for education to TXDOT. In order to make up for this, the Rainy Day Fund would be withdrawn for education funding.

This bill, HJR2, was approved 108-25, with only Tea Party Republicans voting against the measure. Debbie Riddle, Jodie Laudenberg, David Simpson, Bryan Hughes: all those people.

The House also approved a companion bill, HB16, by a 124-11 vote. The entire Transportation funding plan will only come into effect if the Senate approves HJR2 with at least 21 votes and the constitutional amendment is approved by a majority of voters.

The Legislature then adjourned until next Thursday, July 25th. At that point, the Legislature will have about one week left.

House passes Miller compliance

I have no earthly idea why I am spending so much time on this issue, but I seem to be devoting a fair chunk of time to any and all movement going on in the Special Session.

Just three days ago, shortly after the Senate had passed a bill to substitute the mandatory life-without-parole punishment for 17 year-old capital murderers with 40 years (life with parole), I noted that the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee had unanimously passed the legislation.

As I had predicted, the House offered up and passed some amendments to the Senate’s bill. Accordingly, the bill still must return to a Conference Committee. Although I noted that Rep. Bryan Hughes (yes, the same Hughes who led the Christian Conservative for Speaker conundrum) had proposed an alternative bill that would have allowed juries to see and hear mitigating evidence and arguments, and given them the opportunity to place a sentence as light as 25 years. After pressure, the alternate bill was pulled.

The only amendment that got through on the bill, SB 23, actually put the option of life-without-parole back on the table. Simply put, it gave the jury two options: life-without parole or life-with-parole (40 years). Forty years, to be fair, often times is a death sentence, but if one is 17, it usually is not.

Editor’s note: Being incarcerated from ages 17-57 constitutes the effective lifetime imprisonment of the worthwhile years of your life. While most individuals begin winding down their occupations and the like at that time, these individuals would be just getting out of prison with little to no skills or education. 

The amendment was offered up by Matt Schaefer (R-Smith County), although I cannot find a roll call on it. A point of humor, Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, had to offer up an amendment to Rep. Schaefer’s bill that essentially proofread it and corrected the numerous typos therein. For example, Rep. Schaefer used the phrase “capitol felony.” Yikes, and this guy leads our State?

Anyways, the bill ended up passing 110-28. All the dissenters were Democrats, and they included all the usual suspects. It appeared to me that the strongest opponent was Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Harris County). Dutton railed on and on about how the bill is unconstitutional since it still involves both mandatory sentences and life-with-parole. For the record, the Supreme Court case that caused this issue to be risen in the first place, Miller v. Alabama, did not prohibit either of these things. It only prohibited a mandatory sentence of life-without-parole.

While this bill isn’t the best, it still is better than what we have now. Additionally, under current law and precedent (that’s important), this bill is not unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is currently moving towards a much more comprehensive view of the protections of the Eighth Amendment (especially pertaining to minors), so this may not be true in a few years.

 

Lege update 6/20

There are a few other things that have happened at the Capitol in the last two days that I have missed. So, briefly, I will attempt to explain and discuss these two actions.

First, reports The Texas Tribune, the Senate is moving towards approving SJR2, which would amend the constitution to allow for the the rainy day fund to be partially depleted in order to fund transportation infrastructure projects. I talked about this bill at length a few days ago, when it passed a Senate panel. 
Off the Kuff has more about the topic.

Next, the San Antonio Express-News reports that the House has taken up the Senate’s bill to apply life-with-parole to 17 year-olds who commit Capital Murder. I talked at length about this bill when the Senate passed it. The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee unanimously approved the Senate’s bill. The House, however, discussed alternative proposals, preserving the possibility that the Senate may retake up the measure.

Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Wood County), never really especially progressive, pleasantly surprised me by offering up a better solution to this problem: allowing juries to choose a range of punishments ranging from 25 years to life-without-parole. As a reminder, the Supreme Court said that life w/o parole for 17 year olds is not unconstitutional, per se, but rather only when they are the mandatory sentence. Accordingly, a greater consensus existed in the House to preserve the penalty as an option, allowing juries to choose between life with parole and life without parole. This presents an interesting conundrum, because, in Texas, prosecutors and defense attorneys generally do not discuss parole options before a jury takes up a sentencing matter. When a jury convicts for life with parole, they usually just think they are convicting for “life.”

Third, the Austin American-Statesman discusses the building momentum in the House to override Perry’s line item veto of Public Integrity Unit funding. Sylvester Turner, recently named the “Bull of the Brazos” by Texas Monthly, is leading a coalition to override the veto. This will be interesting to watch. Obviously, Turner can get the votes of all the Democrats. Thereafter, he will still need about 45 Representatives and 9 Senators. I think that is possible, though. Perry ticked off a lot of Republicans when he vetoed their bills (Kel Seliger and Dan Patrick, anyone?), so they may be easy pickings for payback. Just a theory, though.

Last, but certainly not least, and this is fresh off the press, the House has voted to rubber stamp the Redistricting bills. The Houston Chronicle  states that these are second readings, with final approval expected tomorrow. At that point, it will just be the Governor’s signature standing in the way of these vile maps being adopted.

I’m up in Dallas for the next few days on official business. Saw/met Ken Starr and Justice Samuel Alito today, so I guess you could say it was a success.  I’ll probably have more to talk about tonight.

Straus and the 83rd

Or is it the 84th? I don’t even remember anymore.

Anyways, David Simpson’s campaign to elect a “Christian Conservative” whimpered without a bang. In fact, he dropped it, so Joe Straus was re-elected by acclamation. Cheer up, it could be worse.

Now, everyone is talking about how Governor Perry has the unmitigated temerity to suggest we actually cut taxes and cut spending once again. Also on his priority list would be drug testing people on welfare and attempting to invalidate Roe v. Wade in the lone star state. Additionally, the Governor has strongly come out in favor of arming teachers.

Meanwhile, the Texas Tribune says that the State Senate will be maintaining the 2/3 rule, great news for the obstructing Democratic minority.

But the Straus news is what truly brings me to my key point: the paper tiger of the extreme Conservative. First, the far-right threatened to depose Straus in 2011, but no one even ran a feasible campaign against him. More recently, the Fiscal Cliff deal, in which a minority of House Republicans voted for Boehner’s deal, set off all the alarms on the Capitol Hill gossip rags about how Boehner’s speakership was doomed. In the end, only 12 Republicans defected, and none of them even voted for a legitimate candidate.

This brings us to what occurred yesterday in Austin. Joe Straus had been predicted by the ubiquitous prophets of doom to see some real challenging impediment to his speakership. First there was Bryan Hughes, then there was David Simpson. Both had something in common (besides the crazed Tea Party, theocratic ideologies): their campaigns self-aborted. This is similar to the Eric Cantor for Speaker campaigns (except that one never actually existed), just a bunch of hype by the media and pundits, myself included (for the record, I’m not comparing myself to the legitimate press).

Speaker’s race shakeup

Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Rep who was leading the valiant charge against Speaker Straus has dropped out of the running. In his place ha some David Simpson, a Vanderbilt-educated State Rep from the Lubbock area. The Chronicle has the story.

Simpson, it seems to me, is one of those “we need a Christian Conservative” people. His press release included a plethora of references to prayer, consulting with the divine, and God, and his website includes a Statement of Faith, whatever that is.

To me, whenever a politician brings up religion like this in a populist manner, it makes me a little nervous. Indeed, though I am always resistant to use the religion card, it seems to me that there is not another good reason for the far-right’s hatred of Speaker Straus. Yes, he doesn’t openly advocate hating Democrats, but he has brought up (and passed) some pretty extreme, controversial legislation, including Voter IDs. You sure didn’t see that happening when Craddick was in charge.