To begin with, let me remind everyone that prior to the start of the 2017 Regular Session, and again at the opening of Architects Day on February 10, our consistent message this year has been, “don’t expect much to pass this session. The Senate and House are at odds, ‘Business Rs’ are at odds with ‘Movement Rs’, and the Trump factor has now added a totally new and unpredictable variable, so this will be a successful session if we don’t get hurt, if we just don’t lose any ground.”
Consider some raw numbers in terms of bills introduced versus bills passed in 2017, then contrast them with some previous sessions:
There were 6,631 House and Senate bills filed, 1,211 passed (of which 50 were vetoed by Gov. Abbott), second only to 2009 when over 7,400 were filed. (Note: 2009 was the first year Joe Straus was Speaker of the Texas House (split almost right down the middle with 76 Rs and 74 Ds), and immediately after the “Hope & Change” election of 2008. It was a very different atmosphere to say the least.) According to a construction-lobbyist friend, 1,211 is the fewest number of bills passed since 1995—22 years ago, and 2017 gave us the lowest percentage of bills passed-to-bills filed (18.26%) since 1891—126 years ago.
Much of what we predicted is what ultimately happened, some of it directly impacting architects. As late as mid-April, with about seven weeks remaining, we had nine “priority” bills still in play, including our two highest priority measures—shortening the Statute of Repose and making Right to Repair a condition to file a construction-related lawsuit. At the close of the session, three of our nine priority bills were passed, all to become effective September 1 this year. (One of the three, HB 2121, was rumored to be a potential veto target, but nothing of that sort happened, so all three surviving priority bills will become law.) We should be proud and happy that our 2017 “legislative batting average” would likely qualify us for Cooperstown (i.e., Baseball Hall of Fame); I know I am. Stay tuned for in-depth analysis of what each of the bills passed means for you and your practice.
When did the wheels come off, and, more importantly, why did they? I believe things turned south big time on April 26 when the House took up SB 4, the “Sanctuary Cities” bill. The Freedom Caucus (FC) used the rules to demand that the vote on virtually every action be officially recorded, which meant any Republican nervous about being challenged from the right in next March’s primary election couldn’t/wouldn’t stray far, if at all. For more than 10 hours over two days, this bill was decided on virtually straight party line votes. Democrats offered 57 amendments, and with few exceptions, each went down by a vote in the low 90s to 55, the number of Ds in the 150-member House. The rumor was that Speaker Straus didn’t demand that key lieutenants oppose FC chairman Matt Schaefer’s “show me your papers” amendment, but nine Rs did, providing the closest margin of any amendment vote, 81-64. But 20 of Straus’ Republican committee chairs, most of whom were totally unopposed in 2016, voted with Schaefer, so divisive language that had been stripped from the Senate bill in committee was put back, leading pundits to declare the FC “Record Vote” strategy an effective one. From then on, however, partisan differences became personal, just one more factor along with chamber and intra-party struggles working against getting anything done.
According to most media reports, the BIG explosion came May 11, the Thursday before Mother’s Day—prompting “Mother’s Day Massacre” headlines to describe the Freedom Caucus knocking more than 120 bills off the next day’s Local & Consent calendar, as well as slowing the rest of the May 11 calendar to an absolute crawl, something insiders call “chubbing.” Caucus members said this was done because the Local & Consent Calendar committee had knocked several FC members’ bills off the Local calendar printed earlier that day—an accurate claim—and they just weren’t going to be ignored or picked on any longer. (L&C Chairwoman Senfronia Thompson said the committee’s action had been in response to the FC targeting bills carried by L&C members, also true.) Obviously, things were already very chippy…and they didn’t improve over the next 18 days, especially once word of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick offering the FC strategic tips slipped out.
The piece de resistance of came on Memorial Day, the 140th and final day, when hundreds of SB 4 protestors started chanting loudly in the House Gallery, disrupting proceedings one floor below. As Texas Rangers were escorting the noisy crowd outside, several Democrat legislators saluted them for having come to the Capitol to make their voices heard. This prompted one Republican member to claim that he had called Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) to come and arrest those he said were flaunting their illegal immigrant status. This led legislators to push and shove each other on the House Floor, some allegedly threatened violence against colleagues. To call the scene “unbecoming legislative conduct” would be a monumental understatement. Some lobbyist friends said they thought it was as predictable as it was personal, leading many to wonder how a Regular Session that ended on such a toxic note could produce a Special Session capable of accomplishing anything significant.
(For an interesting article capturing this year’s Regular Session of the Texas Legislature, read Lawrence Wright’s piece from The New Yorker.)
The next few Advocacy blog items will feature an attorney’s take on how the changes in law brought on with our successes with HB 2121, HB 3021 and SB 807 will directly affect Texas architects or architectural practice. By then, it will be time to start thinking about how what happened during the Regular and First Called Special Session (don’t relax, there may be several of those suckers) will impact the 2018 political season.
Meantime, my advice to you is what I’ve always done as one who suffers from motion sickness—i.e., somebody who gets carsick easily—“grab hold of the steering wheel; be in the driver’s seat.” Suffice it to say, it’s about to get bumpy on the twisting-turning road of Texas politics!