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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus says he will not seek re-election


Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election. He did not rule out running for higher office. 

by Matthew Watkins Oct. 25, 2017 

The Texas Tribune

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, a decision that has the potential to upend the political balance of power in the state.

Straus, who has lately been the most powerful moderate Republican in the Texas Capitol, said he will serve until the end of his term. That means there will be a new speaker when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.

His decision immediately created a scrum for control of the House, pitting arch-conservative members who have opposed Straus against more centrist Republicans. Within hours of Straus' announcement, one of his top lieutenants, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced that he had filed to run for the speaker's post. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, had previously announced his candidacy, and others are expected to jump in.

Straus has clashed with hard-line conservatives in recent years, not least Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Tea Party leaders and their allies have blamed Straus for killing controversial measures backed by the far right, most notably a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.

"I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year," Straus said in a campaign email.

The announcement prompted gloating by Straus' critics and regret from his allies. Rep. Matt Schaefer,  R-Tyler, who clashed with Straus as chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, tweeted, "It's morning in Texas again!" Straus ally Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said, "I'm disappointed but I respect his decision."

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican whom Straus has tussled with in recent months, thanked the speaker in a short statement. 

“Joe Straus has served with distinction for both the people in his district and for the Texas House of Representatives,” he said. 

And Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, praised Straus for leading the way on a number of bipartisan initiatives, including improving access to state mental health services and public school accountability reform. 

"His deliberative approach to public policy will be truly missed, as will the inclusive manner in which he ran the House," Turner said. 

Speaking with reporters after the announcement inside his office, Straus said he finally took the advice he always gives members: After any session, go home and talk to your constituents and family, and then make a decision about whether to run again.

“A confident leader knows it’s time to give it back,” Straus said.

 Asked if he planned to run for any other office in the future, Straus said he is “not one to close doors.” He acknowledged he has received encouragement to run for other offices and did not rule out the possibility of a gubernatorial bid. But he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.

As for the race to succeed him as speaker, Straus suggested he would not get involved. 

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who aren’t members in the Legislature in the next session to really register an opinion on that,” Straus said.

The announcement that he won't run again immediately set into motion speculation about the future of Straus’ top lieutenants. One of his closest allies, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said in a statement first reported by Quorum Report that he "will pursue other opportunities to serve our great state."

In his statement Straus acknowledged his decision was “unexpected.”

“It’s been decades since someone has left the Speaker’s office on his own terms. But we have accomplished what I hoped the House would accomplish when I first entered this office, and I am increasingly eager to contribute to our state in new and different ways.”

No longer serving as speaker would allow a “greater opportunity to express my own views and priorities,” Straus said, adding that he would “continue to work for a Republican Party that tries to bring Texans together instead of pulling us apart.”

“Our party should be dynamic and forward-thinking, and it should appeal to our diverse population with an optimistic vision that embraces the future,” Straus said in the campaign email. “I plan to be a voice for Texans who want a more constructive and unifying approach to our challenges, from the White House on down.”

If Straus had remained in office and won the speakership, it would have been for a record-breaking sixth term as leader of the chamber. He told supporters Wednesday that he never expected to hold the post.

He was first elected to his House district in a 2005 special election. In 2009, he was elected speaker with the support of Democrats and a couple dozen Republicans who were frustrated with the ruling tactics of the speaker at the time, Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. The circumstances of Straus’ rise caused many of the state’s staunchest conservatives to distrust him, but he held a firm grip on power for the next eight years.

In 2015, he faced the first contested vote for House speaker since 1975 when Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, challenged him. Straus prevailed in the 150-member chamber with all but 19 votes. This year, he was re-elected to the speakership unanimously, tying with Pete Laney and Gib Lewis for the longest tenures as speaker.

During his time with the gavel, Straus mostly governed with a low profile. His public comments were rare, and he received more attention for the bills he blocked than the ones he championed. His legacy, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, will be the restraint he put on the Tea Party in Texas.

"He slowed down, if not blocked, a shift to the right within Republican politics,” Jones said.

Straus and his lieutenants set priorities like setting aside state funding for transportation, planning for the state’s water needs, reforming the state’s child protective services and unsuccessfully pushing to remodel how the state pays for its public schools. Often, he declared that his actions at the helm were taken due to the “will of the House.”

This year especially, he clashed with conservative elements within the GOP over issues like private school vouchers and measures to roll back property taxes. Those proposals — and the “bathroom bill” — were on Abbott’s agenda for a July special session of the Legislature, a list that Straus compared to “a room full of horse manure.”

His most public fight in recent years was over that bathroom bill, which was pushed by Patrick. Positioning himself as the guardian of the Texas business community that vehemently opposed the legislation, Straus was ultimately responsible for its demise.

Citing dire economic and moral costs for Texas, Straus refused to consider bathroom restrictions proposed by Patrick. A stalemate over the issue set him and Patrick on a political collision course that played out in dueling press conferences featuring the two leaders trading blame for the breakdown of the session.

In a story first reported by The New Yorker, Patrick sent Straus a letter near the end of the session proposing a compromise. Straus refused to open it, telling the senator who delivered it to tell Patrick, “I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”

The bathroom bill eventually fizzled out in the House. Straus’ handling of the bill and other hot-button issues prompted talk among conservative Republicans about replacing him. GOP members held a closed-door meeting in August to discuss rules about an impending 2019 speaker vote.

But in the weeks and months following the bathroom fight, Straus appeared to be on a victory tour over the issue, urging business leaders to keep up the fight.

"Texans rejected name-calling and scare tactics, and as a result, we avoided a major mistake that would’ve cost our economy greatly and divided us unnecessarily,” Straus said at a recent speech to the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. "Now is not the time to walk away from the table. Going forward, working together we can do more than just avoiding mistakes."

Morgan Smith, Patrick Svitek, Alexa Ura and Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.


What constitutional amendments will be on the November ballot?

In order for an amendment to become part of the Texas Constitution, it needs the support of the Legislature and a majority of Texas voters. Here are the seven constitutional amendments that will be on the November 2017 ballot.


The Texas Tribune

Any changes to the Texas Constitution must be approved by a majority of Texas voters.

But first, these constitutional amendments must get on the ballot — by way of "joint resolutions" that receive more than two-thirds of the vote in both chambers of the Legislature. That means a minimum of 100 votes in the Texas House and 21 votes in the state Senate.

Below are the seven constitutional amendments that will be on the November ballot. The Texas Secretary of State’s office will randomly assign each resolution a ballot number ahead of the election.

House Joint Resolution 21

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of part of the market value of the residence homestead of a partially disabled veteran or the surviving spouse of a partially disabled veteran if the residence homestead was donated to the disabled veteran by a charitable organization for less than the market value of the residence homestead and harmonizing certain related provisions of the Texas Constitution.”

What it means: It would authorize property tax exemptions for certain partially disabled veterans or their surviving spouses — those whose homes were donated to them by charity for less than market value.

House Joint Resolution 37

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment relating to legislative authority to permit credit unions and other financial institutions to award prizes by lot to promote savings.”

What it means: It would allow banks and other financial institutions to conduct promotional activities — such as raffles — to encourage savings.

House Joint Resolution 100

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment on professional sports teams' charitable foundations conducting charitable raffles.”

What it means: It would expand the definition of a “professional sports team,” giving more team-connected foundations the ability to hold charitable raffles. 

Senate Joint Resolution 1

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of all or part of the residence homestead of the surviving spouse of a first responder who is killed or fatally injured in the line of duty.”

What it means: This would give property tax exemptions to surviving spouses of first responders killed in the line of duty.

Senate Joint Resolution 6

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to require a court to provide notice to the attorney general of a challenge to the constitutionality of a state statute and authorizing the Legislature to prescribe a waiting period before the court may enter a judgment holding the statute unconstitutional.”

What it means: This would require courts to notify the state attorney general of any constitutional challenges to state laws.

Senate Joint Resolution 34

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment limiting the service of certain officeholders appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate after the expiration of the person’s term of office.”

What it means: Unsalaried appointees whose terms have ended but who have not been replaced would serve only until the next legislative session has ended.

Senate Joint Resolution 60

What will be on the ballot: “The constitutional amendment to establish a lower amount for expenses that can be charged to a borrower and removing certain financing expense limitations for a home equity loan, establishing certain authorized lenders to make a home equity loan, changing certain options for the refinancing for home equity loans, changing the threshold for an advance of a home equity line of credit, and allowing home equity loans on agricultural homesteads.”

What it means: This would ease restrictions on borrowing against home equity in Texas.


Analysis: “Texas Miracle” comes down to earth

In their just-ended legislative session, Texas lawmakers mowed through a list of politically divisive issues that could have lasting effects on how others see a state that's been known for years as a mecca for business.


The Texas Tribune

A “sanctuary city” immigration bill derided as a vehicle for institutional racism. A voter ID law designed to mollify a federal judge who found the existing law an example of intentionally discriminatory legislation. Redistricting maps repeatedly labeled intentionally discriminatory and unconstitutional by a number of other federal judges. Efforts to put more money into the public education system — and to lower local property taxes — died. So did an effort to leash local government property tax increases by requiring voter approval of hikes over a certain size.

And a fight over a “bathroom bill” and “religious conscience” legislation that businesses inside and outside Texas have warned will turn off their employees and their customers and put an economic hickey on the state known for the “Texas Miracle.”

The 85th Legislature has some 'splainin' to do if the state is going to sell that package of social, property tax and education engineering to economic development people. At the very least, state officials have a lot of public relations work to do after a bruising session. They accomplished some things, sure, but they might as well have written the marketing flyers for regional business developers in other parts of the country.

Doing what their primary voters have loudly demanded, lawmakers have risked their long-standing support from the business and economic development folks.

Politics is competitive. But so is economics.

Education, taxes, and intentional discrimination: The state of Texas is flirting with a branding problem.

Economics offered the strongest argument against the “bathroom bill” — legislation that grew from public debate over public school rules for transgender people using restrooms and other facilities that don’t match their sex at birth. In other places — notably North Carolina — related laws prompted companies to cancel expansions, sports leagues at the national and collegiate level to move tournaments and games to other states, and performing artists to cancel shows and concerts.

It wasn’t a threat that something might happen, but a threat that something that had happened — in North Carolina —might happen in Texas, too.

It was, in a phrase that turns the stomachs of people who work in chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus everywhere, “bad for business.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others who support the legislation dismissed those concerns as overblown and contended that Texans needed protection from a menace for which they presented no evidence.

That’s not unlike voter ID, which targets a rare sort of voter fraud and ignores a much more common one — “harvesting” votes at nursing homes and centers for the elderly.

Opponents of those and other measures see them as cloaks for other objectives, ways to discriminate against transgender people on the one hand, and to discourage minority voters on the other.

And the end of the session isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s more like a change of venue — from the statehouse to various courthouses, the legislative branch to the judicial branch.

The bathroom bill didn’t make it past the Legislature. Maybe it’ll return in a special session, and maybe it won’t. Only your governor knows for sure.

But voter ID made it, and the Texas Legislature’s new version will get a going-over by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos as soon as this week. She’s the judge who ruled last month that the 2011 law currently on the books intentionally discriminates against minority voters in Texas.

Redistricting lines for the state’s congressional delegation and the Texas House will be in front of judges once again in July. “Intentional discrimination” has been a regular phrase in those rulings, too.

Austin, San Antonio and other cities are already suing the state over the freshly signed sanctuary law, which doesn’t take effect until September.

The business argument that prevailed against sanctuary legislation in 2011 was that it would disrupt the labor pool in Texas, that it was discouraging to the exact kind of immigrants — people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, to revive an aphorism — the state wants to attract, and that it would undermine community policing that many law enforcement people consider essential in safe big cities.

But the business voice on that issue was buried this year, the victim of a presidential election that emphasized immigration as a problem, a rush of conservative politicians who have noted voter disquiet about border security for years, and a distraction — the bathroom bill — for trade groups that might otherwise have been focused on sanctuary legislation.

School finance, and the local property tax relief that would be engendered by higher state spending for education, died last summer when the Texas Supreme Court said the current system was flawed, but not unconstitutional. That gave the Legislature — which never takes big steps on education spending without court orders — room to do nothing.

The other stab at property taxes — an effort to constrain local increases by giving voters better veto power — fell short, too.

Education, taxes and intentional discrimination. The state of Texas is flirting with a branding problem.



Analysis: Raising money while making laws in Texas special session

A special session of the Texas Legislature reveals a hole in the state's ethics laws, allowing elected officials in Austin to make laws at the same time they're raising campaign funds — from the people most interested in those new laws.


The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t put ethics on the list for lawmakers to consider during their special session this summer. But he set them up to put their ethics on display for the rest of us.

Lawmakers will be able to raise money during the session. Don’t think they won’t. By putting 20 issues on the list, the governor all but guaranteed the presence of lots of lobbyists. There will be fundraisers galore.

The National Conference of State Legislators is in Boston this year. In August. During the special session. Road trip, anyone?

Look at the list of issues the governor put on the call and think of the people who’ll be attracted, if for no reason but to protect their own interests. Here’s looking at you, lobbyists.

Texas officeholders aren’t allowed to accept political contributions during regular legislative sessions and for certain periods before and after one. For the 85th Legislature, that blackout started on Dec. 10 of last year and will end on June 19. Expect a frenzy to start that Monday, as political folk hit their benefactors to write big checks before the end of the month.

There’s a mid-year campaign finance reporting deadline, see, and they want to flex their fundraising muscle — especially to show potential rivals how strong they are at the beginning of the 2018 electoral cycle.

That blackout and the rush that follows are regular features of a legislative session year.

But the ban on taking money while they’re passing laws doesn’t extend to special legislative sessions. The same interests asking lawmakers for consideration are allowed to give those lawmakers political money throughout. Another way to look at it: The lawmakers asking for money are the same people considering proposals made by the potential donors.

Unseemly, isn’t it?

If it makes you feel any better, lawmakers decided a few years ago to stop accepting checks in the Capitol building itself. It’s less convenient, but they’ll never again have to weather the bad headlines they got when East Texas chicken magnate Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim doled out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor during a special session on workers’ compensation.

When it’s over, lawmakers will be required to file special reports to show the contributions they received while they were in special session. At least we’ll know what they were doing during some of the hours when they weren’t passing laws.

And even though they’ll be in session, Austin won’t be the only place you’ll find Texas lawmakers this summer.

Not all lawmakers go to conferences, but a lot of them go to the annual meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Legislative Exchange Council. This year, both fall during the Texas special session — coincidentally the hottest part of the summer — and will be held in the cooler climes of Denver and Boston.

Both have seminars and other work-related meetings, along with the perks common at most conventions. There’s a reception at Fenway Park, a James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt concert. And fooling around during a four-day conference might just be more enjoyable than debating and taking testimony on the 20 issues the governor put on the special session agenda. Watch for lawmakers taking mini-vacations — and for the ethics reports detailing how much Texas lobbyists spend at those events.

The lobbyists who show up at those gatherings would be there with or without a special session in Texas, but Abbott’s special-session call spoiled what might have been an offseason for them.

Special sessions can be diminished versions of regular sessions, with limited agendas that many of the regular legislative courtiers don’t care about. With his expansive list of issues, Abbott made sure a lot of those lobbyists will have to suit up this summer — i.e., any outfit with an interest in property taxes, public education or local regulation.

Lawmakers looking for dinner partners and political donors won’t have far to go this summer, whether they’re in the Capitol or at out-of-town conferences. Almost everybody who was in Austin to lobby for the 140-day regular session will be back for the special. One way or another — whether they’ve got something at risk or something to gain — they’ll be on call, feeding, entertaining and filling the campaign coffers of your elected officials.



Here's what Gov. Greg Abbott has said — or not said — about special session items

Some of the 20 topics Gov. Greg Abbott is asking the Texas Legislature to consider during a special session have been his priorities since his State of the State Address in January. On some of the other topics, though, he's been relatively quiet. 


The Texas Tribune

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he was calling back the Texas Legislature for a special session, he promised to “make it count,” setting a wide-ranging agenda of 20 issues for lawmakers to consider beginning July 18.

Some of the topics, including school finance reform and property tax reform, have been on Abbott’s legislative wish list since his State of the State address in January, while others have received little or no recent mention from the governor.

Abbott stipulated that lawmakers must first pass “sunset” legislation to reauthorize several key state agencies before he will allow them to turn to the other topics, which range from municipal annexation to a controversial “bathroom bill.” Abbott's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning. 

Here’s a look at Abbott’s previous comments on those topics.

Public schools — and bathrooms

Easily the most controversial topic of the regular session was Senate Bill 6 — the "bathroom bill" — which would have required transgender Texans to use bathrooms in government buildings and public schools that match their “biological sex” and prohibited local governments from adopting or enforcing local bathroom regulations. While Abbott remained silent on SB 6, he did signal support for another bill — House Bill 2899 — that would have nixed existing municipal and school district trans-inclusive bathroom policies and prevent locals from enacting any new policies. He nodded to HB 2899 during his special session announcement.

Two of Abbott's items focus on public school teachers: one that would raise their salaries by $1,000 and one that would grant school administrators more flexibility over teacher hiring and retention. Abbott discussed local school control and teacher quality during his 2015 State of the State address: “We can bring out the best in all of our teachers by getting rid of these one-size-fits-all mandates and trusting our teachers to truly educate students in the classroom ... We must also return genuine local control to the school districts in Texas.” In 2014, before he was governor, Abbott called for paying teachers up to $2,000 more per year if their students performed well on Advanced Placement tests. More recently, he’s been quiet on raising salaries for teachers.

After the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the state's school finance system was constitutional — but critically flawed — Abbott backed school finance reform in his 2017 State of the State address in January: “Both the House and the Senate are right to tackle the vexing issue of school finance now rather than putting it off ... It is time to construct an entirely new system. With a sense of urgency, we must create better ways to fund education.”

One contentious issue that contributed to the demise of school finance reform efforts during the regular session was "private school choice" for special-needs students. Abbott added it to the special session agenda after having endorsed the idea in December 2016. "It would be far more efficient to provide that money to parents for them to choose which school is best for their child, knowing that, in the City of Houston, for example, where there are hundreds of schools, there may only be 10 that have the resources and capabilities of addressing the special needs of that particular parent's child,” he said. He also generally backed "school choice" during his 2017 State of the State address.

Property taxes and local regulations

Efforts to change the process for property appraisal and tax rate increases collapsed during a standoff between the House and Senate during the final days of the legislative session, but lawmakers are set to have another shot in July. Abbott called for rollback elections for property tax increases during his State of the State address in 2017: “We have to remember, property owners are not renting their land from the city. That is why we need property tax reform that prevents cities from raising property taxes without first getting voter approval.” 

Abbott also asked lawmakers to address local regulations on spending, trees on private land, construction project rules and permitting. The governor has broadly criticized local regulations but has not addressed all of these items recently. Earlier this year, he publicly pushed for an end to local rules regulating what property owners do with trees on private land, but he has been quiet on local construction rules (his special session call includes "preventing local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects"). In a 2015 opinion piece in Forbes, Abbott wrote that he wanted to “speed up the permitting process to help businesses get their projects done faster,” which echoes his comments in his call for a special session.

Abbott wants the Legislature to address municipal annexation rules during the special session after a Democratic filibuster killed a bill meant to allow Texans to vote if a city wanted to include their property in its borders. He’s been quiet on that issue.

Although he just signed a bill instituting a statewide texting-while-driving ban, Abbott has asked lawmakers to pass legislation during a special session stating that the statewide ban overrules any local regulation on the issue. He advocated for such a pre-emption during the session.

Abortion, health and medicine

The special session agenda includes three items relating to abortion policy in Texas: barring taxpayer funding from subsidizing health providers that perform abortion, requiring women to obtain separate insurance policies for non-emergency abortions and increasing reporting requirements for when health complications arise during abortions. During his 2017 State of the State address, Abbott promised to embrace any legislation that “protects unborn children and promotes a culture of life in Texas.”

At the end of his Tuesday announcement, Abbott asked the Legislature to extend a task force dedicated to studying maternal mortality in Texas. Abbott has not been particularly vocal on the topic in the past; a previous statement to the Tribune from spokesman John Wittman said Abbott is “committed to reducing the maternal mortality rate.”

He also put legislation that would strengthen patient protections relating to do-not-resuscitate orders on the agenda. He's been quiet on that topic.

Government and elections

During the special session, Abbott wants lawmakers to prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars for collecting public employee union dues. He addressed the topic during his 2017 State of the State address: “We must end the practice of government deducting union dues from paychecks of employees. Taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to support the collection of union dues."

The Legislature used part of its regular session to pass a bill that curbs voter fraud at nursing homes and widens ballot access to elderly Texans who live in them. Abbott wants further action during the special session asking for a bill "cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud." In late 2016, after the state began investigating alleged mail-in ballot voter fraud in Tarrant County, he tweeted, “We will crush illegal voting."


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