Texas Legislative Sessions: What people would be surprised to know

The Dallas Examiner

During the 85th legislative session, which ended May 29, a total of 10,672 bills were filed on behalf of the people of Texas with 4,960 passed and 51 vetoed. Most of the remaining bills died before making it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

“A lot of good bills don’t make it in this process, in any given session, but especially when you have Republicans in control of the House, the Senate and governorship, and you’re a Democrat trying to pass progressive legislation,” explained State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas. “Its very, very difficult to get anything done that’s good for people.”

Johnson stated there were several bills that died or did not make it out of the House to the Senate. Among them were two of his bills.

“I had a couple of bills that did make it out of committee and [made] it onto the House floor,” Johnson discussed. “They got killed by the tea party in this event they’re calling the ‘Mother’s Day Massacre,’ where they went out and killed about 100 or more bills all at once on the House floor through a procedural maneuver. I had two bills that got killed in that massacre.”

One of the bills would have changed the law to make it easier for minority-owned newspapers to obtain legal notices in the hopes of encouraging cities and other governmental entities that are required to publish notices to use minority-owned newspapers.

The current process is extremely difficult for minority-owned newspapers. These notices are important because they inform minority communities of government job and bid openings.

“Great bill and made it out of committee, and made it out of the Calendars Committee and got set for floor debate. And when it came up it got killed … by the tea party. I was pretty upset about that,” Johnson expressed.

The second bill was designed to prevent gentrification in West Dallas. Johnson said it acquired a significant amount of attention but was killed during procedural maneuver as well.

The tea party killed every bill set for floor debate that day – without looking at a single bill – to send a message to Republicans who they felt were not conservative enough that they needed to be listened to, according to Johnson.

He asserted that if the bills had not been blindly killed, they would have stood a good chance of making to the governor’s desk.

Dead on the Calendar

Some bills don’t even out of committee.

“The most important of those, I think, was a bill that would have required equal pay for equal work – a gender pay equity bill that would have said that in Texas it’s illegal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job or vice versa,” Johnson said. “It seems like common sense justice to me, but that bill got out of committee and stuck in what’s called a Calendars Committee, which means it never got set to be heard on the floor. It died right at the step before you get to have a vote on the House floor. That was disappointing.”

He was also disappointed that his bill designed to outlaw discrimination against the LGBT community in the work place, as well as his bill that would have required state agencies to use data proved by the state climatologist about weather changes and climate changes to plan ahead during projects, also died waiting to be heard on the House floor.

Johnson also filed a bill to fund high quality, full-day pre-K throughout the state. However, his bill, as well as the governor’s pre-K bill, was also killed. Although Dallas ISD now has full-day prekindergarten in all of its elementary schools, not all cities across the state offer the full-day program.

Johnson noted that – when looking at areas in which to cut the budget – lawmakers may have felt early education was one of the least important areas for Texas to invest funding.

He compared the $800 million that the Legislature repeatedly designated toward border security – which he felt really showed Gov. Greg Abbott’s commitment to securing the Texas border – to the $118 million geared toward pre-K in all Texas elementary schools last year.

“The governor sent the wrong message in 2015 by putting so little money into pre-K, because it sent the message to the Legislature that he didn’t care about it that much, which emboldened the Legislature to do what it did in 2017, this past Legislature [session], which was to get rid of it all together,” he stated.

“The governor claims it was important to him. But the amount of money that he put into it, which is the only language we really speak in Austin is money, suggested otherwise.”

Moreover, Johnson noted that Abbott has not complained about the bills being killed.

“Pre-K is not a priority of the Legislature nor of the governor, really,” Johnson said.

Along with bills that weren’t passed, the Legislature passed a few bills that Johnson called “really bad bills.” Among those bills was the voter ID law that would require certain forms of ID at the polls in order to vote, which may eventually be struck down by the court; the sanctuary cities law, which is among the strictest bills and allows law enforcement to inquire about citizenship of anyone they pull over during a traffic stop; and a law that states if a woman has a miscarriage or an abortion, the doctor has to arrange burial or cremation of the remains through a funeral home.

Special Session

The governor called the Legislature is back in Austin for a Special Session to listen to 20 bills that were left on the table. The session started July 18 and can last up to 30 days.

“But he put in an interesting wrinkle. He said, ‘You – the House and Senate – have to deal with this one bill, which is called a Sunset Bill,’ which is a bill that determines the rules that will govern a particular state agency,” Johnson explained. “We call those Sunset Bills. Or if you don’t pass them the agency will go away. There’s a Sunset Bill related to the Texas Medical Board, which actually licenses all the doctors in the state, that has to be passed or the agency will go away, which obviously really can’t happen because there wont be anymore licensed doctors in the state of Texas.

“So he’s saying you have to pass that bill … once the Senate passes that bill, then he will allow 19 other issues to be fair game for legislators to pass bills.”

They include bathroom bill, a school voucher program for special needs children, property tax reform, teacher raises, mail ballot fraud and limiting some of the rights that labor unions enjoy, including collecting union dues from their employees, among other issues.

“The bottom line though really is this is all political theater for the governor to A, re-establish that he’s in control, not the lieutenant governor. And B, he wants to audition for a job on the national stage,” Johnson stated. “He wants to show people that nobody in the country is putting through and passing more conservative legislation than he is. So he’s trying to put the Legislature in a position where they either pass his ultra conservative agenda or he can blame them for not getting his agenda passed.

“We could have easily taken care of the people’s business within the 140 days that we had of regular session. But Republican infighting, their inability to actually govern and their failure to be able to exercise leadership is what put us in this position.”

Why bills die

People would be surprised to know that when it came to the Texas legislative process, the division in legislation on an issue is not Democrat or Republican, but rather about money and interest, Johnson stated.

“So like, on my gentrification bill that died; that bill wasn’t about Democrat or Republican. It was about saving the homes of people on the other side of this pretty bridge out side this window,” he said, pointing to the Margaret McDermott Bridge that sits over the Trinity River along Interstate 30.

“The people on the other side of that bridge that I was trying to save don’t have two nickels to rub together, so they don’t have any lobbyist in Austin working and trying to persuade them to vote against it. They just have me.

“The developers that want to take their homes and build another Uptown have plenty of money – money to burn. A lot of it they got from the city of Dallas, frankly, but money to burn. They got a team of lobbyists down in Austin that kept trying to kill that legislation. They’re working on people on the committee the bill’s going to. They’re working on people on the Calendars Committee. They’re working on the Speaker’s officer. They’re working on everybody. And so, that wasn’t a Democrat/Republican thing, That was a ‘people with money and power versus the powerless’ thing.”

Johnson said there is a lot of division between people who want to bring about some form of change versus people who just wan to keep things the same – not necessarily Democrat or Republican, but status quo versus change. It all depends on who benefits from keeping things the way they are.

“There are other times when people have figured out a way to make things work and they survive under the current regime,” he said. “And then someone comes along and says, ‘We want to do something different.’ But the familiar is sometimes more comfortable than trying something new, so sometimes you have Republicans and Democrats both just walking off and saying, ‘Let’s just not change anything. Let’s just leave things the way they are. We know how to operate in that environment.’”

He referred to this as “change agents versus status quo people,” saying that he is often the change agent.

In either case, he said very little deliberation takes place in the Chamber. People don’t really listen anymore while others are laying out their legislation.

“People now – especially on the Republican side – are so challenged in a primary by somebody who is further to the right than them, that they’re all just voting according to some outside interest group score card they have,” Johnson explained. “They just look and say, ‘What did this group say I should do on this bill? They are recommending a no bill, let’s vote no,’ without even thinking it through or listening to what you’re saying.”

He said many have become robotic legislators who are not using their brains, but rather just there to vote according to certain special interest groups.

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