Monday, January 10, 2011

Straus Wins GOP Caucus' Speaker Vote

Quorum Report tweets that Speaker Straus has won the Republican caucus vote for Speaker with 70 out of 100 votes (for more information on the unorthodox practice of taking a caucus vote for House Speaker see Legislative Queery's post UPDATE: Chisum Remains in Speakers Race).

Unconfirmed reports indicate that the vote was stopped after Straus received 70 votes so it is possible that he actually had much broader support. It is now all but certain that Joe Straus will remain House Speaker for another session. With that settled the next major step in getting the session underway will be the adoption of the House's rules, followed by the appointment of committee chairs by the Speaker.

Straus is a Republican from Bexar County. He has been praised for his even-handed and statesmen-like approach to the Speakership and vilified by the far right for not suppressing moderate and liberal members.

The Texas State Constitution allows the House to adopt its own rules within certain guidelines. The rules generally remain about the same with minor tweaks here and there to address issues that have risen since the last revision. It takes a two-thirds majority of the House to approve the rules.

(With the new Republican super-majority it is possible that an attempt will be made to majorly edit the rules to make it easier to pass conservative legislative priorities. Last session a change in Senate Rules allowed voter suppression legislation that had stalled in previous sessions to sail through the Senate, creating a major crisis when it reached the House and the Democratic leadership slowed House business to a standstill to prevent its passage. It is possible that something similar may be tried in the House this session.)

Once the rules have been adopted the next order of business is for the Speaker to appoint chairs, vice-chairs and members to each of the House's standing committees (the exact number and nature of committees is laid out in the House Rules, so appointments can not be made until the rules are agreed upon). Committee Chairs determine which bills will receive hearings and in what order and which bills will be voted out of committee. A chairpersonship is a very powerful position.

Historically both Democratic and Republican speakers have appointed chairs from both parties with the appointments roughly divided between parties in proportion to that party's seats in the House. If that pattern holds true we should see about 11 Democratic committee chairs and 23 Republicans.

Assuming the committee structure this session is similar to what it's been in the past (which seems likely), most media will be focused on the chairs of the Appropriations, Elections, Redistricting, Border and Intergovernmental Affairs, State Affairs and Ways and Means committees. These committees will likely handle the highest profile issues like the budget, voter suppression, redistricting, and immigration. It is very likely that all of those chairpersonships will go to Republicans.

Most of the legislation that will most directly effect the queer community, however, is likely to go through the Public Education Committee (anti-bullying), the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee (Hate Crime reform) and the Insurance Committee (insurance non-discrimination).

Straus's chairs last session of those committees were: Rob Eissler (R), Public Education; John Smithee (R) - Insurance and Pete Gallego (D) - Criminal Jurisprudence.

Last session Chairman Eissler was fairly supportive of anti-bullying legislation, scheduling it for a hearing and bringing it up for a vote, if a bit late in the session. He supported Straus's bid to remain speaker so it seems likely that he may keep his chairmanship. If so, the public attention on bullying and the early filing of several anti-bullying bills will likely mean an earlier hearing date, and hopefully earlier passage out of committee.

Chairman Smithee is one of what I like to call the "gang of 37" - arch conservatives who have consistently opposed any legislation that improves the lives of queer people - regardless of how minor. If he remains chairman of the House Committee on Insurance it seems unlikely that any effort to outlaw insurance discrimination based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity and Expression will succeed.

Smithee is also frequently named as a potential candidate for Speaker. He has supported Straus in the past but his potential as a rival makes it important for Straus to reward his loyalty. It seems almost certain that Smithee will be appointed as a committee chair... but which one? Speaker Straus will want to be certain that the chairs of the high profile committees and the chairs of the procedural committees like Calendars are all Republican stalwarts. He may choose to promote Smithee to a more powerful position. If so, we may have a new chair of Insurance, and a new hope for justice.

Chairman Gallego has a solid record of votes in favor of the best interest of the queer community. Last session his committee sent through Marc Veasey's HB 616 (refiled this session as HB 172) which would study the effectiveness of Texas' current Hate Crimes Law and suggest improvements, but the bill stalled waiting to reach the House floor.

There will be fewer Democratic Chairs this session, there is no getting around that. Gallego may be one of the Democrats who lose their chairmanship. I will be watching this appointment carefully.

Expect to learn the new lineup of committee chairs within a week or so. The outcome is crucial to the eventual success or failure of many vital bills.

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