The Texas Senate is not conservative
It’s Monday morning, and the Senate is about to convene to vote out controversial bills that target transgender Texans, further restrict abortion access, and cap local revenue, among other items.
Although the Governor added school finance reform to the Special Session call, the Senate is not prepared to fully engage what is universally acknowledged, by Republicans and Democrats, education and business stakeholders, and local taxpayers, to be the single most important issue Texas should tackle.
Therefore, there is no substantive reform measure for us to debate. Instead, we are debating the divisive and political items attack minority groups and individual rights in a thinly veiled effort to appease some Republican primary voters and donors.
It’s important to understand how we got here. In the last days of the Regular Session, the Senate refused to pass the “sunset” bill that would have allowed key state agencies such as the Texas Medical Board to continue operating. Without this reauthorization, the licensing and oversight of these agencies, which support thousands of doctors and other health professionals who serve millions of patients, would disappear.
The Senate leadership did this because some of the divisive bills that passed the Senate could not pass the House. The House, traditionally more raucous, has become the more deliberative body, while the Senate has become more partisan and divided like Congress in D.C.
The single biggest change illustrating this was a rules change. Previously, it took a two-thirds vote of the Senate to bring a bill to the floor. That forced consensus and compromise that protected the rights of Senators in the minority, and it worked for generations of Texans. In 2015, that rule was changed to 60 percent, and realigned the Senate on party lines. The Republican majority can pass legislation without consensus or input from those in the minority.
To start the Special Session, the Senate dispensed with another rule meant to ensure adequate time to prepare for bills scheduled to be heard – the tag rule.
The tag is a right any member of the Senate has to request application of Senate Rule 11.19, which states that a Senator “shall receive at least 48 hours advance written notice of the time and place set for a public hearing on a specific bill.”
Instead of following tradition and our Senate rules, which provide order and transparency of our proceedings, the Senate voted 20-11, on party lines, to retroactively suspend the rules after a tag had been placed. Nobody in the Senate can remember this ever happening before Tuesday, when my tag on the Sunset bill was retroactively overruled. It happened again in the middle of the night Wednesday, when just after midnight the Senate retroactively overruled 11 tags that I placed.
The point of those tags was to give Senators and the public time to study the bills before committee hearings. In legislation, every word, every punctuation, every line, matters, especially when some bills can be 100 pages. Holding hearings where public input is limited and then voting within a few days of their introduction is aimed only at passing something quickly. This is not how we should be making major policy decisions.
In fact, the problem with this was evident during the committee hearings over the past few days. Both Senators and the public were confused about what actually was in the bills being discussed. In some cases, Senators actually admitted the bills were flawed but they were rushing to get them out.
The processes of the Senate are conservative in the traditional sense. They are designed to foster deliberation and consensus. It would be more accurate to call this disregard for Senate tradition in order to quickly pass bills that were not able to pass under established processes reactionary, or radical, than to call it “conservative.”
The conservative thing to do would be to respect the traditions of the Senate. The conservative thing to do would be to pass the bills we had to, the Sunset bills, and leave further lawmaking until next session. If we are going to stay and spend taxpayer dollars, the conservative thing to do would be to spend time on matters that all agree truly affect the lives of Texans, like funding public education.
The Senate will do none of those things today.
Texans have made their voices heard, even with the limited opportunity allowed by the Senate leadership. We will do so today on the Senate floor, and the public must continue to do so as the action inevitably shifts over to the Texas House, where the voices of ALL Texans must be heard.