AUSTIN (KXAN) – A late-night showdown Thursday in the Texas House killed off more than a hundred bills. Dozens more went down on Friday, including several that were easily expected to pass – things like money for school lunches and legislation to help reduce the number of women who die during childbirth. The reason? Retaliation.
The drama started Thursday afternoon as the House faced a midnight deadline to push bills through. A group of 12 conservative Republicans who call themselves the Freedom Caucus announced plans to block large numbers of bills.They said it’s because House leaders shut down bills backed by the Freedom Caucus – like strict restrictions on abortion and school choice measures. Caucus member Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) summed up the decision behind the move, “We’ve learned time and time again, when a bully punches you again and again and again. You can walk away. You can be kind. But sometimes you got to punch back.”
Freedom Caucus members punched back with a series of procedural moves that slowed the pace of debate as the clock ticked toward midnight. It worked. The House had 21 pages of bills on the agenda. House members made it less than a third of the way through before the clock ran out.
“It’s not unprecedented,” said John Moritz, who covers Texas politics for the USA Today network, pointing to previous cases where groups of lawmakers worked to kill bills on a large scale late in the session. “Ten years ago, we saw a huge walkout over protestations over Speaker Craddick’s tenure,” Moritz remembered. It wasn’t a group, rather a lone lawmaker who did the damage 20 years ago. “Arlene Wohlgemuth, a north Texas representative, killed an entire calendar with one point of order.” That incident became known as the “Memorial Day Massacre.” Some observers dubbed last week’s showdown the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”
“It definitely shows the influence of this small group of conservative lawmakers, at least in terms of procedurally disrupting things” said Patrick Svitek, a writer for The Texas Tribune, describing the sway that the 12 members had on the 150 member House. “But they did not walk away from this with any immediate policy gains,” Svitek noted.
The bill blocking tactics made a lot of people angry. But there’s still a lot of work ahead, and lawmakers are looking for ways to move forward. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) is one of those looking ahead. “It’s disappointing to be this close to the session, have a lot of important bills that we need to get to, that need to have a full debate, and then have a road block,” Watson said, during a live interview Sunday morning on KXAN’s State of Texas program. “Hopefully, we’ll come back tomorrow and things will move more efficiently.”
Monday brings a critical moment for one of Sen. Watson’s priorities this session. He has worked on a series of bills aimed at protecting sexual assault survivors on college campuses. A House bill (HB 16) that includes some of those measures is scheduled for a critical vote in the Senate Higher Education Committee. Watson says the bills aim to change the culture on college campuses, to make remove roadblocks to reporting assaults. For example, one measure encourages sexual assault survivors and witnesses to report without fear of being penalized for alcohol-related offenses or student conduct code violations.
Some of the impetus for the bills comes from incidents at Baylor University, which is Watson’s alma mater. “There’s no question that Baylor has highlighted a problem we have on our college campuses, and no question I’ve been extremely disappointed in my school,” Watson said. “Part of the reason we’ve been looking at this is to make sure we empower survivors and make sure that we’re putting things in place so that the culture on these college campuses can change in a positive way.”