By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
“Democrats to chair fewer Texas House committees amid GOP pushback” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, announced House committees Wednesday, reducing the number of Democratic chairs and picking new leadership of some key panels.
Phelan selected Democrats to chair eight of the 34 standing committees, down from the 13 he appointed at the start of the last legislative session. He has faced a push from his right to reduce Democratic influence in the GOP-led chamber.
Phelan also tapped fresh faces to lead at least two closely watched committees. He appointed state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, to chair the Public Education Committee, replacing a Democrat, Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston. Phelan also appointed Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, to helm the State Affairs Committee, a powerful panel with wide jurisdiction. The previous chair, Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, did not seek reelection last year.
Phelan also increased GOP clout in the House by picking a powerful veteran of the chamber, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, to serve as speaker pro tem. It is a largely ceremonial position that nonetheless signals the confidence of leadership. The previous speaker pro tem was a Democrat, Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, whom Phelan removed from the post amid the 2021 Democratic quorum break to Washington, D.C.
On paper, the appointments represent a win for conservatives who want the majority party to have more influence in House. But it could be more of a mixed bag for given that Buckley has been an opponent of school vouchers — a major priority for the right this session — and Phelan put a Democrat in charge of a select committee that could handle controversial proposals on what children are being taught, for example.
The partisan balance of the committee chairs was one of the most anticipated aspects of Phelan’s announcement Wednesday. For over a year, conservative activists — and several allies in the House — have been agitating to outlaw Democratic committee chairs, which Phelan has defended as a worthwhile tradition. As the session opened last month, he defeated a push to amend the chamber rules to prohibit Democratic committee chairs, but the drama did not end there. The state Republican Party, whose legislative priorities include banning Democratic committee chairs, launched radio ads in Phelan’s district pressuring him not to appoint them, and the speaker responded with his own radio ad touting his conservative credentials.
Phelan’s intraparty critics offered mixed reviews of the committee appointments.
“Today the Texas Grassroots experienced some victories,” Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, said in a statement. “Our push took Democrats from 13 chairmanships to 8.”
Still, Slaton and others took issue with the remaining Democratic chairmanships, like Moody’s appointment to chair the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which handles criminal law. The panel was also previously chaired by a Democrat.
As he announced the committee assignments from the dais Wednesday morning, Phelan did not directly address the debate over Democratic committee chairs. His office said in a news release that he made the appointments “based on a number of factors, such as seniority, personal preferences, the demographics of the chamber and the regional make-up of the body.”
Phelan said last year he planned to appoint roughly the same proportion of Democratic committee chairs as in 2021. His office declined to comment on the newly reduced ranks of Democratic committee chairs.
Republicans have slightly grown their majority since the last session. When Phelan announced committee chairs then, the GOP controlled 82 seats in the 150-member chamber — one seat was vacant at the time — while they now hold 86 seats.
Phelan’s decision to switch out Dutton for Buckley as chair of the Public Education Committee comes as some Republican leaders make their biggest effort yet to a program that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to take their kids out of public school and send them elsewhere, including private schools. However, it remains to be seen if Buckley will be any less opposed to the proposal than Dutton was. Buckley voted for an anti-voucher amendment to the House budget last session.
Buckley did not directly address the issue in a statement on his appointment, only saying he looks “forward to working with members of the committee and my colleagues in the Texas House to craft policy to provide the best opportunities forTexas teachers, students and their families.”
One of the biggest advocacy groups for school choice nonetheless praised Buckley’s appointment.
“Representative Buckley will be an excellent chair for the House Public Education Committee, and we look forward to working with them this legislative session,” Mandy Drogin, campaign director of an education initiative for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said in a statement. “This is an important first step in ensuring that Texans have a system that respects the parent and ensures transparency and a high-quality education on school campuses.”
Dutton, for his part, still got a chairmanship, landing at the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.
In addition to the 34 standing committees, Phelan also named leaders for two select committees. He tapped Rep. Sam Harless, R-Houston, to lead the new Select Committee on Health Care Reform and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, to head the Select Committee on Youth Health and Safety.
The appointment of a Democrat to chair the youth safety committee could prove to be significant, given that Phelan has suggested it would be the clearinghouse for a number of social conservative priorities this session, like proposals to ban gender-transitioning medical care for kids. The previous chair of the committee was a Republican, Rep. J.M. Lozano of Kingsville.
While Phelan appointed new chairs of important committees like Public Education and State Affairs, he largely kept his lieutenants in place elsewhere. Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, will continue to chair the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, will continue helming the Calendars Committee, which controls which legislation makes it to the floor. And Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, remains chair of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
Meanwhile, another committee with high-profile jurisdiction — the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee — has a new chair, Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, who switched parties to become a Republican in 2021. The previous chair of the panel, which oversees border security, was Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who did not seek reelection because he ran unsuccessfully for agriculture commissioner.
And there will be a new leader of the Elections Committee, which was an area of tension last session as both parties fought over a measure that would impose new rules on voting. Rep. Reggie Smith, R-Sherman, will replace Rep. Briscoe Cain, a hardline Republican from Deer Park who will now chair the Agriculture and Livestock Committee.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/08/texas-legislature-democrats-chair-committees/.
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