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House waters down some of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities, adding to late-session uncertainty

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

House waters down some of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities, adding to late-session uncertainty” 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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With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, the Texas House has started moving on some of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s more controversial priorities in the Senate, such as proposals targeting drag shows and college professor tenure.

But the lower chamber is putting its own tweaks on the bills, watering them down in some cases and leaving it unclear whether the powerful Patrick will go along — if the bills even make it out of the House. The situation is adding even more uncertainty to the home stretch of a regular session that has already been fraught with threats of overtime lawmaking.

The biggest example flared up over the weekend, when the House debuted its latest rewrite of the Senate’s priority bill on school choice — and Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to veto it. Patrick agreed with Abbott, who said the House’s latest stab at Senate Bill 8 “does little to provide meaningful school choice.”

For multiple sessions now, the House has served as the more deliberative, moderate chamber — much to the frustration of Patrick, who rules the Senate with an iron fist and drives an envelope-pushing conservative agenda.

To be clear, the House has aligned with the Senate on some priorities this session. On Monday, the House approved a version of Senate legislation banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors that appears to be OK with the upper chamber and its allies.

The Senate author, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, marked the House passage with a celebratory tweet calling it a “victory.” And Jill Glover, chair of the Texas GOP’s Legislative Priorities Committee, tweeted Monday that SB 14 was “NOT watered-down.”

But on other topics, the House is refusing to go as far as the Senate. That is especially true when it comes to Patrick’s priorities on higher education, which include ending tenure and shuttering diversity, equity and inclusion offices. Last week, a House committee approved versions of those bills that were pared back in notable ways.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, chair of the Education Committee, made clear in a statement that he was not pleased with the House changes.

“Whether prohibiting divisive DEI or eliminating tenure, the Texas Senate has advanced the boldest higher education reform legislation in the nation,” said Creighton, R-Conroe. “Texas voters expect their elected lawmakers to advance legislation that returns taxpayer funded institutions to their core mission —innovate and educate — not legislation that sounds bold, but does nothing to confront compelled speech or other divisive programs that do nothing to promote diversity on campus.”

It is unclear at this point if any of the watered-down proposals will even make it to the House floor. Legislative deadlines are rapidly approaching and other disputed issues — like the power grid and property tax relief — are drawing more attention. But they could serve as bargaining chips as legislative leaders hash out end-of-session deals — and in any case, they set a revealing baseline for what the House thinks of them.

The office of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, declined to comment, and Patrick’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Pushback on DEI, tenure bills

Reining in higher education is a cornerstone of Patrick’s priorities this session, but the House Higher Education Committee has shown little appetite in matching Patrick’s zeal. Phelan said last year he opposes getting rid of tenure.

On Friday, the House Higher Education Committee passed an overhauled version of the Senate’s anti-tenure bill that keeps tenure while codifying guidelines and requiring regular performance reviews for those who earn it. The panel also approved a new version of the Senate’s anti-DEI bill that would still end most DEI programs but let them continue if they are necessary to comply with accrediting agency rules or federal grant requirements.

Those were welcome changes for groups that were alarmed by what came out of the Senate. But even they acknowledge the upper chamber could balk, insisting that Senate priorities be restored to bills sent to House-Senate conference committees.

One of those groups is the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

“Since different versions of both bills passed the Senate, Texas AAUP is very concerned that the more draconian Senate versions of the bills — which eliminate new offers of tenure and nearly all DEI programs — could emerge from the reconciliation process, should the House pass the House version,” they said in a news release.

Another Patrick priority in higher education — ending the teaching of critical race theory in college — faces even bleaker prospects in the House. The proposal, Senate Bill 16, passed the Senate over a month ago but has not yet received a House committee hearing. Saturday is the deadline for a House committee to advance it.

Sherry Sylvester, a former Patrick adviser who now works at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, expressed optimism that both the anti-DEI and anti-tenure bills could still make it out of the House. She noted that the House already “sent a very strong signal early” when it voted to keep an anti-DEI provision in the state budget weeks ago.

“There’s a lot of agreement between the two chambers, and when you consider the forces, the huge blowback from these bills, it’s not surprising to me that people would take different approaches to it,” she said.

School choice, drag shows

On school choice, Patrick received a big boost from the governor when it comes to inter-chamber conflict. Abbott has made it his No. 1 priority this session, and in his statement threatening a veto of the latest House rewrite, Abbott called out the lower chamber for twice scaling back the bill that came out of the Senate.

“​​The Senate’s version of school choice makes about 5.5 million students eligible, while the House’s version of that bill proposed last week would make about 4 million students eligible,” Abbott said. “The latest House version of school choice, which came out this weekend, only applies to about 800,000 students.”

Despite Abbott’s veto threat, the House Public Education Committee went ahead Monday with a hearing on the latest House overhaul of Senate Bill 12.

The House also put its imprint on a Patrick priority bill to restrict children’s exposure to drag shows. On Friday, the House State Affairs Committee advanced a version of the legislation, SB 12, that removed references to drag performers and more generally sought to regulate “sexually oriented performances.”

The Senate author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, has not yet weighed in on the change. However, a far-right group pushing for the proposal, the Texas Family Project, signaled Monday that it is OK with the new version.

“Texas Family Project is committed to protecting Texas children from obscene sexual displays,” said Austin Griesinger, the group’s policy director. “We believe that a drag show is no place for a child, and are in strong support of SB 12, which will ensure that sexually-oriented displays only occur at sexually-oriented businesses.”

The coming days will continue to illuminate what the Senate is willing to tolerate.

On Thursday, a Senate committee is set to consider House Bill 7, the lower chamber’s priority bill on border security. After a Democratic procedural maneuver doomed a separate bill creating a new “border protection unit,” the House attached that idea to HB 7. But it weakened the proposal at the same time — in particular by requiring the unit to use only commissioned peace officers instead of civilians — raising the question of whether the Senate will try to restore provisions.

Kate McGee contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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