Sunday, January 25, 2015

Political landscape in Texas Senate taking shape: Effect of committee assignments, elimination of 2/3 rule on criminal justice policy

The political landscape in the Texas state senate during the 84th Texas Legislature, both generally and on the criminal justice front, has begun to take shape. Newbie Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced committee assignments on Friday and the eastern chamber earlier eliminated its decades-old 2/3 rule. Let's consider the implications of both for the criminal justice arena:

Who said you can't put new wine in old skins? (Oh, yeah.)
As we await the designation of committee and chair assignments in the Texas House, consider recent changes at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Though still chaired by Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and the senate's longest serving member, the seven-member panel will be joined by four freshmen senators - three Rs (Konni Burton, Brandon Creighton and Charles Perry) and a D (the winner of the runoff to replace Leticia Van de Putte).

Rookie Sen. Charles Perry was on the criminal justice subcommittee of House Appropriations, so he's at least familiar with the system at the macro level (which is generally fine for legislative purposes). However, his fellow-rookie Brandon Creighton served on committees unrelated to criminal justice when he was in the House, while Konni Burton is new to the Lege entirely and has no state voting history. Those three and the winner of a Feb. 17 runoff in San Antonio will join veteran senators Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, who remained Vice Chair of Senate Finance (now run by Jane Nelson), and Vice Chair Joan Huffman, who also takes the reins at the powerful State Affairs Committee.

Got all that? There will be a test.

Speaking of Sen. Huffman, perhaps the biggest criminal justice news from the senate committee announcements involved a bell that failed to ring. At one point during the campaign, now-Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had suggested he may name no Democratic chairs at all (he later backed off that) and there was wide speculation that, if he made good on the threat, Joan Huffman was the odds on favorite to replace John Whitmire as Criminal Justice Chair. Instead, Patrick made her vice chair and elevated her to run the State Affairs Committee. A close observer needn't have been surprised. As the Dean of the Senate and someone who'd forged a personal relationship with Patrick, if any Democrat was going to keep their chairmanship it was going to be Whitmire. (Eddie Lucio was the other.)

Perhaps Huffman, a former prosecutor and judge, was disappointed not to get the chairmanship for which her background might make one think she'd most naturally fit in a pigeon hole. But State Affairs presides over tons of big-picture, red-meat stuff that GOP primary voters and donors care about. The Lieutenant Governor has handed her an opportunity and I'd guess that Sen. Huffman's smart enough to seize it with both hands. Given a two-session planning horizon, she could make her bones at State Affairs as a statewide figure if she cared to do so.

Regardless, now we await House committee assignments. Lt. Gov. Patrick issued them remarkably early on the senate side and I've heard speculation that may pressure the House to issue theirs earlier than usual, too, though it's not unusual to wait into February for committees to be named. Speaker Joe Straus has a lot of new members and an ill-conceived, opening-day Speaker vote to consider when making assignments. Plus, by rule the Lege can't consider bills for the first 30 days, so he has a moment to think about it.

Thoughts on abolition of the 2/3 rule ...
Grits remains puzzled about the Lt. Governor's fixation on changing the 2/3 rule to 3/5. He seems relentlessly focused on how many votes are required to block a bill, and it's true that Dems voting as a block could make a partisan stand against legislation, at least unless and until it's called up again during special session. Then they lose. (Hi, Wendy Davis!) But most bills don't hinge on partisan issues and Republicans don't vote as a unified block on everything.

Looking at the big picture, switching from 21 to 19 votes makes it easier for bills of any stripe to pass, meaning the Lege will likely pass a greater volume of legislation overall (of as yet unknown content) under the new rules. I can't tell you how many times criminal-justice reform bills have died in Texas since the turn of the century because they could get 19 but not 21 votes in the Texas Senate! From whatever your ideological perspective, if you're trying to pass a bill as opposed to kill one, the rules change made your job measurably easier. After all, there are many ways to kill a bill but just one way (with a few variations) to pass it.

One might think making it easier to pass laws is a good or at least content-neutral change, and that's generally my view, particularly for a large-state Legislature that only meets for 140 days out of every two years. But I'm puzzled to see a change that would have helped several bipartisan reform bills in recent sessions approved on a pretense of partisan implications. And I'm unsure if increasing the number of bills passed each session was Patrick's intent, even if it's a likely consequence.

No matter. My prediction: Increased intra-party division among GOP senators across an array of issues will result in uncomfortable dilemmas and unintended consequences for the new Lite Guv that the 2/3 rule might have avoided. Or perhaps it couldn't have; some of these looming fights have been a long time coming.

RELATED: Senate Criminal Justice Committee: Index property crimes to inflation, expand reentry and diversion programs for mentally ill.


Anonymous said...

Creighton is probably on the committee because the 435th District Court (predator court) is in Creighton's district.

Anonymous said...

"I can't tell you how many times criminal-justice reform bills have died in Texas since the turn of the century because they could get 19 but not 21 votes in the Texas Senate"

That's a unique take on it. Hopefully they can sneak some of them through, and they didn't die with only 19 votes knowing they'd be killed so some could vote for them that otherwise wouldn't have.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Far from "unique," just non-partisan. Lowering the threshold for passing bills is a procedural, not a partisan or ideological question.

Yes, moving to 3/5 means Dems cannot kill bills on their own. What's less often noted is it means Dems can now PASS bills in the Senate without a majority of Republicans agreeing.

Anonymous said...

Surprised I haven't seen more coverage of Sen. Huffman's bill to deny probation to any "illegal immigrant."
Given that she was a prosecutor and a judge (often not a very big distinction in Texas), she should know the catastrophic effect this will have for our jails and courts.