When House Bill 400 got stalled for a third time Monday night—yet again because a point of order—I wondered exactly why some House Republicans are so determined to pass the bill out of the House, when support for it will be risky and the Senate doesn’t have the votes for a less controversial version.
The controversial bill makes it easier to fire and furlough teachers, as well as cut their pay. Conservatives who support the bill argue it’s the easiest way to save teachers’ jobs in light of the proposed vast budget cuts to education. It gives school districts more flexibility on who to fire—rather than having to layoff the newest teachers first—and ultimately, they say, fewer teachers will get fired if a district can employ other methods to cut costs.
The problem is that teachers’ groups don’t agree. All four groups—from the conservative ones to the progressive would-be unions—are fighting tooth and nail against the measure. It doesn’t take a genius to know that getting teachers’ groups upset is a risky political business. In fact the commissioner of education has said that measures that decrease teacher protections could lead to a more all-out push for unionization and collective bargaining.
Plenty of Republicans House members are nervous about voting for a bill with political consequences—particularly because in the Senate, a much more moderate version of the legislation doesn’t have the two-thirds required to come to the floor. If the Senate doesn’t have the votes to debate their own bill, how will they have the votes to debate a more controversial version? Why should House members take a politically risky vote if the will will simply die in the Senate?
That’s until Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands and the author of HB 400, reminded me of the latest parliamentary discovery: House Bill Day in the Senate.
What was once an unknown designation became vitally important when the Senate leadership announced the body could debate and pass the Senate version of the budget on House Bill Day and it would not need two-thirds support. It was an unprecedented move, breaking with tradition. For bills that originate in the House—like the budget—House Bill Day affords Republicans the ability to pass with only a majority in support.
That may be the play here for HB 400. While the bill is more controversial than the Senate version, a couple members told me that HB 400 would have an easier time passing the Senate since it would only need a majority, and the Senate bill would need two-thirds. Eissler seemed confident that should the bill get out of the House, it would pass the Senate. But that’s dependent on the Senate leadership allowing such a move.
It’s not an easy call. While HB 400 makes permanent changes to how teachers can be treated, it also would definitely mean fewer teachers get laid off in light of the state’s budget crisis. During the Senate budget debates, Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro took a swing at those who weren’t supporting her version of HB 400. “Let’s not talk about pink slips when we’re not able to take a hard vote to help those teahers from losing their jobs,” she exclaimed, citing the bill.
If the Legislature does not pass HB 400, the political implications of the budget will be tougher for legislators to ignore. Tens of thousands of out-of-work teachers will become the face of state budget cuts. If they do pass it, teachers’ groups will be on the warpath against those legislators. Not to mention the Senate might once again use an obscure rule to break with the two-thirds tradition for the second this session. We’ll find out Tuesday if the House can successfully pass the bill without any more hold ups.
It’s a tough position. Evidently making drastic cuts to public education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.