Legislative preview

Republicans will maintain a majority in both chambers when the 86th Session of the Texas Legislature convenes Jan. 8, 2019. Yet, despite that and the prospect of conservative leadership from presumptive Speaker of the House Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R – Angleton, Christian conservative advocates said the mid-term elections chipped away at the conservative majority and, possibly, their will to advance controversial causes.

The TEXAN spoke with religious liberty and pro-life advocates about the upcoming session and how it bodes for issues they champion.

A unanimous Republican caucus nominated Bonnen Dec. 1 to replace Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who stepped down from both the post and the Legislature after the 2017 session. The full House will vote for a new speaker on opening day.

Conservatives complained that Straus’s 10-year control of the gavel and committee leadership killed their legislation, including the Privacy Act. While Bonnen’s legislative history demonstrates pro-life and religious liberty convictions, if elected Speaker of the House, he will face an increasingly moderate Republican base and Democrats emboldened by mid-term additions to their liberal ranks, Christian lobbyists said.

“Too many Republicans get gun shy after an election like this and mistakenly think that moving to the center will bring appeasement, while Democrats are always aggressive even while in the minority,” Dave Welch, president of the Texas Pastors Council told the TEXAN.

Welch rallied Texas pastors during the last session to champion, unsuccessfully, the Privacy Act. The bill would have required men and women to use public restrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms according to their biological sex rather than gender identity. He suggested the bill might be reintroduced this session.

The 2017 legislature’s efforts to pass the Freedom to Serve Children Act faced staunch opposition from the legislature’s LGBT advocates. And their influence has grown since the mid-term elections. Two lesbians and one self-described bisexual, all female Democrats, defeated Republican incumbents, including Matt Rinaldi of the House Freedom Caucus.

“Having five of us there that are going to be advocating for a lot of the same issues that are important to our communities, there’s no telling what we can do,” Mary Gonzalez, a lesbian, told the Dallas Morning News Nov. 7. “That, and given that Democrats gained so many seats, it gives me lots of hope that we can actually make huge strides this session.”

Despite the ideological shift —Democrats flipped 12 House seats—Cindy Asmussen, SBTC Ethics and Religious Liberty Advisor remains hopeful that under a Bonnen speakership conservative legislation will not be undermined.

Rep. Scott Sanford, a Republican from McKinney, told the TEXAN he expects “a more member-driven process, which should allow for a more transparent legislative process culminating in more bills getting to the floor.

“I don’t expect power to be as centralized this session, allowing the legislature to get to work earlier and debate more bills based upon the support of legislators, not the whims of a few,” he said.

He expects school finance and property tax reform to highlight agendas on both sides of the aisle.

Such diligence will be necessary as pro-life legislation “will see more obstacles and fewer champions” this session said Emily Horne, Texas Right to Life (TRL) legislative associate. Pressing for legislation that protects preborn children with disabilities tops the group’s agenda this session.

“These preborn Texans are not even protected from late-term abortions like their counterparts that do not receive a diagnosis of disability,” Horne told the TEXAN.

The group will again seek legislative relief to prevent hospitals from withdrawing life-sustaining support from patients unable to make decisions for themselves. That measure failed in 2017.

Although the Texas Legislature lost three “pro-life stalwarts,” Horne said both chambers remain firmly pro-life. The Senate, led by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, has 20 “reliable” pro-life votes out of its 31 members and the House has 86 from its 150 members, she said.

But passage of pro-life legislation does not ensure its implementation. The Dismemberment Abortion Ban passed in 2017 was immediately challenged in court by pro-abortion advocates. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Dec. 3, and a decision is expected by spring.

While advancing religious liberty and sanctity of life bills is a priority for Texas Values, a legal organization promoting biblical virtues of family, defensing against bills that threaten those rights is also essential said Nicole Hodges, Texas Values policy analyst.

Legislation establishing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Texans as protected classes under state law has already been introduced in both chambers she said. Gays and lesbians in states with LGBT nondiscrimination laws have filed lawsuits against business owners who, because of their biblical convictions about marriage and human sexuality, declined services to gay weddings and a pride parade.

Republicans, knocked on their heels in the mid-terms, could “play it safe” and back off the hot-button issues with the hope of maintaining control of the legislature in 2020, Asmussen and Welch said.

“I choose to think they will work hard to get as much accomplished and passed as possible because the fact is that the majority of Texans still hold to conservative values and they want something to get behind and support,” Asmussen said. “Texans do not want legislators who refuse to stand on the principles that got them elected in the first place.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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