The Great House Bill Massacre of 2017

May 19, 2017, 09:33 AM by Dylan Lancaster
Ben’s Blog 2017 (#9); May 17
Bill Massacre 2017

From simmer to boil: The latest from the State Capitol

Things have simmered along for the past 130 days in Austin with lots of talk about needed reform of health-related licensing boards, the Health and Human Services Commission, pension plans, education, health care, and the production of an acceptable state budget. During that process, the legislature saw more than 7,000 bills filed, but only about 1,000 gained a hearing before a committee. As of today (May 17), many remain held up in the State Affairs or Calendars Committee.

The House and Senate Conference Committee members seem to be moving closer to a budget that might meet with acceptance from both chambers as well as the Governor. Those of us in the crowd at the gates have not seen the results yet, and as we wait anxiously, so do the members on the floor.

This week those pent up emotions found their way onto the House floor in what the media has termed the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”

It was one of the most dramatic bill killings of all times. The House Freedom Caucus, composed of very conservative members from north central Texas, used various parliamentary maneuvers Thursday evening and Friday to kill scores of bills. The Fort Worth Star Telegram, in a May 14 editorial, referred to their work as a “scorched-earth march” that was “partly to protest lack of progress on bills to further restrict abortion” and evidently “to decry [Speaker of the House Joe] Straus.”

Freedom Caucus members Rep. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano expressed their feelings of being disenfranchised from the legislative process, but Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford led the most vocal protest, saying, “I am sick and tired of the rules only mattering when it keeps the minority members of this House, whatever the issue is, in line… It’s disgusting!”

In spite of criticism aimed at Speaker Straus for not acceding to the demands of the Freedom Caucus, Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, noted in his May 15, 2017, editorial:

“More concerned about efficient and transparent governance than hot button often racial and gender driven inflammatory issues and ideological purity that has little regard for the well-being of ordinary Texans, Straus is consistently referred to by the combatants at the Capitol as the ‘adult in the room.’”

Indeed, the Speaker remains unflappable this session.

After having one of her bills knocked off the House Calendar by the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Helen Giddings of DeSoto gave an emotional speech in the House. Giddings’ bill would have helped students who do not have money or were in arrears in their school lunch payments to still be allowed to have a hot meal at school. The current practice in many schools is for a hot lunch to be taken away from a child at the cash register if his or her account is in the red. The child, who has been singled out in front of classmates, either does not eat or is given a package of crackers or cheese and bread. Giddings’ bill requested that school districts avoid the embarrassment these children suffer by extending a grace period to determine if a child is eligible for free or reduced lunch charges, or that the school be permitted to set up a donation system to help children in this situation.

Giddings said, “Would you want that to happen to your child? What message are we sending to that child? A message that you don’t matter. That you have no value. That you have no worth. We have embarrassed that child.” Turning to the caucus she said, “These legislators in my opinion are not about searching for the truth and giving kids an equal chance. They are about winning at any cost, even when the cost results in a child going hungry.”

She closed with a powerful statement: “I personally believe that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who harm our children… I think we harmed our children today.” Giddings received an ovation on the House floor and from the gallery for her remarks. But the damage to her bill and to countless others was done and would continue for another 48 hours.

Other bills sacrificed during the maneuvers included the following:

  • House Bill 1158 would have connected first-time pregnant women to services.

  • House Bill 2403 would have commissioned a study of how race and economic status impact access to health care in efforts to explain why Texas now leads all developed nations in poor health outcomes for post-partum women. The state’s maternal mortality rates nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014 after Texas severely reduced access to prenatal care for women.

Rep. Drew Springer, whose wife suffers from a degenerative neurological condition, asked the House to spare his HB810 from the fray. The bill embraces the use of a stem cell treatment for certain neurological disorders; Springer tearfully said, “Maybe my wife will walk again.” The pressure from the House membership was intense as the Freedom Caucus relented and permitted a vote on Springer’s bill. Then they resumed their prior tactics. By the end of Thursday night, the House had passed out only 37 of 295 bills on its agenda for the evening.

Also knocked off in the “Mother’s Day Massacre” was a stopgap omnibus sunset review bill that was scheduled to keep a number of state agencies—including the Texas Medical Board—running for another two years. The Senate must now pass its safety net sunset bill, or Governor Abbott is expected to call a special session to maintain operations of the state’s health care licensure boards and related agencies. 

Meanwhile, other “critical” legislation has found life. A couple of weeks ago the House reversed votes twice in three days on legislation which would have required paddle boaters to carry a whistle as a safety precaution.

So, as the pot now boils in Austin, some legislators feel parboiled, others have already been burned, and still others are simply counting the seconds until the final gavel of the 85th Regular Session at midnight on Monday, May 29.

As always, stay tuned…