Photo by Stuart Seeger via Flickr.

Politics & Government

In the Texas House, a Glimpse Emerges of the Race to 2020

It's been a calm few months at the statehouse, but a committee vote over an abortion bill gave us a view of what to expect next year.

After a kumbaya couple of months at the Texas Capitol, with both parties and chambers pledging to work with each other and Gov. Greg Abbott, the 86th legislative session’s sense of comity finally wore off last week.

Last Monday, three Dallas-area Democratic state representatives, and, inadvertently, a Republican, prevented Judiciary and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Jeff Leach, R-Plano, from calling a quorum. Two of those Democrats oppose Leach’s House Bill 16, called the Born Alive Protection Act. HB 16, and its Senate companion SB 23 from Health and Human Services Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, barred so-called “legalized infanticide.” The bills are part of a new national effort to limit abortion access by President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders.

The Texas bill is similar to national legislation that failed last month in the U.S. Senate. Supporters say the bills will protect babies born alive after attempted abortions. Opponents say the bill further limits access to abortions and unfairly penalizes doctors.

After waiting and waiting and waiting some more, Leach begrudgingly declared a quorum was not present and announced the committee could not meet. Democratic Reps. Yvonne Davis, Victoria Neave of Dallas, and Julie Johnson of Carrollton later joined Jessica Farrar of Houston in issuing a joint statement announcing that they had boycot the hearing. On Monday, the bill made it out of committee with Neave as the only Democrat voting aye. She said she did so to reflect her Catholic faith.

The Democrats, meanwhile, maintained they did not intend to prevent a quorum. Leach released a statement condemning the Democrats’ move.

“The Texas House has a rich history of conducting the people’s business in a manner that is productive, positive and respectful. After all, this is the people’s House – and we should openly welcome and be eager to listen to the voice of our fellow Texans – even when we disagree. I am now in my fourth term as State Representative, and over the years there have been countless issues on which I have strongly disagreed – yet I have always been committed to listening to those willing to share their stories here in their Capitol. As Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, I am even scheduling hearings on legislation that I likely will not be able to support, including bills of my fellow committee members,” he said, “I’m extremely disappointed and disheartened in the decision by my friends and fellow committee members to skip this morning’s hearing simply because they don’t agree on the issue at hand. In doing so, they have blatantly disregarded and silenced the voices of Texans and have greatly undermined our legislative process.”

In their statement, the women, who are the only women and Democrats on the committee, fired back.

“We are surprised that Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence was unable to make quorum this morning. The Republicans on the committee enjoy a majority.”

While some members of the Texas Legislature insist on attacking as well as offending women directly and indirectly, we will not join this charade by participating in this political grandstanding on issues which are already codified in Texas and Federal law. We refuse to offend our fellow Texas women, their families, and licensed physicians by wasting time on unnecessary legislation designed to intimidate and restrict women’s access to healthcare. Our time and taxpayer’s money are much too important for this trivial approach to governing,” the letter read.

The committee met later in the afternoon with all members present –– including Republican and General Investigating Committee Chairman Morgan Meyer of Highland Park, whose absence prevented the committee hearing. Leach said his flight was delayed. Meyer told the Dallas Morning News he was on “dad duty.”

“My morning routine often includes dropping my kindergartner off at school and ensuring my 5th and 7th graders get out the door in time for carpool, and with my wife out of town today, I notified Chairman Leach that this would create a slight delay in my arrival,” he said.

It’s the price of serving in a “citizen legislator” he said.

The female committee members were present later for bills. (It’s common for members to come and go during committee meetings, with other committees is simultaneously meeting.) And tensions undoubtedly flare up when it comes to issues like abortion.

But the real chatter around the Capitol was about Meyer’s early morning absence. He is now one of two remaining Republicans in the Dallas County delegation after his party’s near wipeout in November. The other is Urban Affairs Committee Chairwoman Angie Chen Button of Garland. (Freshmen Congressman Lance Gooden and Sens. Angela Paxton of Plano, Bob Hall of Edgewood represents only parts of the county.) Voting for the Born Alive Act would be his first contentious vote ahead of 2020, and that matters.

Meyer won against Democrat Joanna Cattanach in November by 200 votes. Button defeated Brandy Chambers by 1,100 votes. With Democrats only nine seats away from seizing the majority in the statehouse, urban and suburban Republicans are among Democrats’ top targets.

But Republicans also say Johnson’s boycott could hurt her, as she occupies a swing northwest Dallas County seat. After defeating former Rep. Matt Rinaldi of Irving by a margin of 56 to 43 percent, Johnson became the first Democrat to represent all of Coppell and parts of Carrollton, Farmers Branch, and Irving. Neave also represents a southeast Dallas County swing district representing parts of Dallas and Mesquite. But Neave is a second term representative who handily defeated opponent Deanna Metzger 57 to 42 percent, a larger majority from her 800 vote defeat of Republican incumbent Kenneth Sheets in 2016.

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