Tuesday, May 07, 2019

My last sliver of hope regarding 2019 marijuana reform in Texas: political pragmatism

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared HB 63 (Moody) reducing penalties for marijuana possession "dead" in the Texas Senate, and Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has said the bill wouldn't get a hearing in his committee, though he's backtracked on that a bit.

Grits still harbors the slightest of hopes that the Lt. Governor may change his mind. Here's why.

First, the bill is different from what he's criticizing. Patrick opposed "decriminalization" in his comments, which is what El Paso Democrat Joe Moody had proposed in his original bill.

Governor Greg Abbott, by contrast, had proposed keeping marijuana possession criminal but reducing the penalty category from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. His reasoning had nothing to do with legalization: Rather, he was concerned about counties wasting money incarcerating pot smokers and paying for their lawyers if they're indigent.

Judging from his comments, when the Lite Guv made them, he was unaware that language matching the governor's proposal had been substituted on the House floor for Moody's decriminalization bill. If that's true, maybe he won't be as opposed once it's clear (as it should be by now) that "decriminalization" is not what the House passed.

The second reason I remain hopeful is that Republicans at the capitol are justifiably worried about the 2020 election cycle, and killing HB 63 is bad politics.

Democrats made substantial gains in the Texas House in 2018. If they win nine (9) more seats in 2020, which is not remotely outside the realm of possibility, given prevailing national-election dynamics, Democrats will select the next Speaker of the House, just in time for redistricting in 2021.

Which brings us to marijuana: Reducing marijuana penalties is a popular political issue, supported by 62 percent of Texas Republicans and 79 percent of Texas Democrats, according to a Texas Tribune poll. That makes it a wedge issue for Democrats (not to mention Libertarians, who may swing elections at the margins by siphoning off Republican votes).

Republicans in swing districts, by Grits' calculations, supported HB 63 by a 2-1 margin. They know they have to run to the center to win a general-election contest, and most of them think this hill isn't worth dying on.

For that matter, the state GOP party platform endorsed reducing marijuana penalties to a civil infraction with a maximum $100 fine. There's an extent to which Patrick's stance is out of step not just with the electorate and legislators in swing districts, but also his own party.

The 2020 election will be dominated by a national referendum on Donald Trump, and the fates of Republicans in swing districts may be decided by the extent to which candidates can convince new voters to split tickets.

Marijuana reform is a popular, readily understood issue with which Rs in those swing districts could distinguish themselves, if the Legislature were to pass HB 63. But if the Lt. Governor's hard "no" stands, a yes vote on a dead bill won't help them.  What other wedge-issue legislation is being passed to help R members withstand a "blue wave"? This is the highest profile-example I can think of, by far.

Handing a popular issue to Democrats with which 62 percent of Republicans agree during an election cycle with so many swing districts in play makes no sense. The smarter play is to steer into the skid: Pass HB 63 and allow Republicans in swing districts run on less government, lower costs, and more freedom. Take the issue away from Democrats and make it a wedge issue with their base.

So there's my sliver of hope: 1) Dan Patrick's public statements appear to leave open options that don't endorse "decriminalization," including the governor's preferred approach (which is what's actually in the bill that came over to the senate). And 2) Republicans need to bolster their state reps in swing districts if they want to control the Texas House during redistricting next session.

Or, HB 63 could just be screwed. That's more likely, but hope springs eternal.


Gadfly said...

Grits, it's Dan Patrick. Not a chance. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Per my tweet to you, that's like thinking DPS' Steve McCraw cares more about what happened to Sandra Bland than pix of troopers of his standing next to Snoop Dogg — also cuz marijuana.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Idk. Even Dan Patrick wants Rs to control the House during redistricting.