This Week: In ‘Mother’s Day Massacre,’ Tea Party Caucus Derails 100+ Bills


From Left: State Representatives Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and Drew Springer, Muenster  Sam DeGrave

Keep up with the Observer’s sharp reporting on the Legislature and throughout Texas with this weekly newsletter. [newsletter]

Members of the Texas House Freedom Caucus went on an indiscriminate bill-killing spree Thursday and Friday as two major legislative deadlines passed.

The handful of far-right tea partiers — known for using legislative procedures to kill measures they see as an attack on conservative values — were upset after several of their bills were torpedoed by House leadership Thursday night. In response, they began running out the clock on Republican- and Democratic-backed proposals that likely would have passed before the midnight deadline.

On Friday, the group of about a dozen lawmakers derailed an entire slate of more than 100 bills that were on the Local and Consent Calendar, an expedited path for legislation that is not expected to be controversial or face opposition. Bills on that calendar sail through unless at least five members object.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus gather around the desk of Representative Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler  Sam DeGrave

Some Lege watchers, playing off the upcoming holiday, began calling the incident the “Mother’s Day Massacre.” As the dust settled, lobbyists, lawmakers and activists began to assess the damage.

Among the bills that likely died this week: a proposal to tackle the state’s farmworker housing crisis, a medical marijuana bill, two that would’ve addressed Texas’ alarmingly high maternal mortality rate, an anti-“lunch-shaming” bill that would’ve kept schools from identifying students who receive free or reduced lunch, an anti-gentrification measure and proposals to add protections for LGBT people to housing and employment laws.

While there’s a chance several of the proposals that did not advance this week — such as priority anti-abortion measures — will find life this session as an amendment or Senate version, the majority will have to wait for 2019.

Bills for ‘Baby Jail,’ ‘Religious Freedom’ and Sandra Bland Act Advance

A Central American group of women and children found in McAllen by Border Patrol.  Jen Reel

The Texas Senate voted Tuesday to license immigrant family detention centers, which critics call “baby jails,” as child care facilities. The bill, which was written by a private prison corporation, allows the state to exempt the centers from any minimum standards it deems necessary in order to license them. Under the legislation, the centers could detain immigrant children for the duration of their asylum cases — much longer than current law allows.

Conservatives in the House advanced a “religious freedom” bill this week that could result in the denial of prospective adoptive parents who are LGBT, unmarried or don’t attend church weekly. House Bill 3859 could also shield faith-based foster families who subject gay children to harmful conversion therapy or refuse to provide reproductive health care to teens.

A stripped-down version of the Sandra Bland Act unanimously passed the Texas Senate Thursday. The bill isn’t the uncompromising criminal justice overhaul its author intended, but it does raise standards of care for inmates with mental health issues.

A GOP-backed bill speeding through the Texas Legislature would abolish straight-ticket voting, the option that allows Texans to vote for a party’s entire roster of candidates with a single selection. In 2016, 63 percent of Texans cast a straight-ticket ballot. Democrats have called the bill a form of voter suppression and said it could embroil Texas in yet another civil rights lawsuit.

Families hold up photos of their kids who suffer from debilitating ailments, who they say could be helped by legalizing medical marijuana.  Sophie Novack

More than half the Texas House signed on to legislation that would legalize medical marijuana for patients with a debilitating medical condition, but the proposal fell victim to legislative deadlines this week. House Bill 2107 was declared dead by its Republican and Democratic authors, who said the bill gained “unheard of” momentum for pro-marijuana legislation in Texas. They vowed to pass the measure during the 2019 legislative session.

Late last Sunday night, Texas Governor Greg Abbott sparked criticism when he signed Senate Bill 4, the controversial “sanctuary cities” ban that allows local police officers to be deputized to enforce federal immigration law. Abbott decided against a press conference or notifying the media and signed the bill into law around 7 p.m. after a five-minute, vertically filmed speech on Facebook Live.

Birder Victor Emanuel at the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory.  Jen Reel

We spent an afternoon with the king of birding in Texas, Victor Emanuel. His new memoir, One More Warbler, hit shelves this week. “Birders are the luckiest people,” Emanuel says. “If you’re interested in tropical fish, you have to go to where you can see them. … You want to see art, you have to go to an art museum. We don’t have to do any of that! Beauty is all around us. Birds are all around us. We can see birds everywhere. At least the ones that are left.”

Upcoming Observer Events

Join us Saturday, May 20, at 6 p.m. at Book People in Austin, where author and Observer contributor Rachel Pearson will read from her new memoir, No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine. Observer editor Forrest Wilder hosts the conversation. Read an excerpt from Pearson’s book in our April issue and get more details about the event at the Book People website.

This year’s MOLLY National Journalism Prize gala, a celebration of great reporting and nonprofit journalism on June 8, will feature a keynote conversation with Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate. Get your tickets now!