Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released his committee assignments almost two weeks ago, but House Speaker Joe Straus took his time, as is Legislature tradition. House committee assignments, which came down late this afternoon, are the last piece of the Legislature’s machinery to be assembled before it kicks into high gear.
Because Patrick had a bounty of freshman senators to deal with and a desire to boot Democrats from positions of influence, the makeup of some of his committees is dramatically different than last session. But for Straus the rule of thumb appears to be: more of the same. In general, the same kind of legislators who had influence last year—moderate, Straus-friendly Republicans and moderate Democrats, each of whom share a love of business and the status quo—will hold the reins of power this year.
The most important is the Appropriations Committee, which handles the budget. Moderate state Rep. Jim Pitts had it last year, but he retired. This year the top gig goes to state Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton), another moderate and the former vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) keeps his vice-chairmanship. An accountant in private life, Otto is the kind of lawmaker who wins plaudits from Texas Monthly, which once described him as having “the stolid look of a subject of a Rembrandt portrait.” Well.
Ways and Means, in turn, goes to Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), who was a top Straus lieutenant last session, frequently holding the gavel in the speaker’s absence. Dallas Democrat Yvonne Davis becomes the vice chair—the committee was headed by two Republicans last cycle.
The all-important Calendars Committee, which breathes life into (or takes life away from) bills as they move through the legislative process, stays pretty much the same, with Republican Todd Hunter and Democrat Eddie Lucio III retaining the chair and vice-chair positions, respectively, and keeping the same mix of Democrats to Republicans—five of 15.
Public Education, usually a hotbed of activity during the session, could pose challenges for Patrick’s school choice agenda. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) keeps his chairmanship. There are a number of rural Republicans, who are generally disinclined to vote for vouchers and are protective of public schools. Of all the committee members, the rep most likely to endorse education reforms might be Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston).
Committees that have been used to shut down regulatory and reform efforts in the past remain big obstacles to change. Environmental Regulation lost one of its few Democrats—there are now only two donkeys among the committee’s nine members. Investments and Financial Services, which effectively killed payday lending regulation last year, has two Democrats out of seven.
But some committees look better for Democrats. Transportation, which could be a busy committee this cycle, is actually led by two Ds, Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) taking the top spot and Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco) taking vice-chair. Neither held those spots last year. And Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) leads County Affairs, an unsexy committee that handles important business.
And there are plenty of unusual footnotes. Rep. Gary Elkins (R-Houston), the Sith lord of Texas payday lending, was named the chairman of Government Transparency and Operations. Molly White, the freshman rep who’s off to a rough start, will now have a venue for her theories about Muslims in Homeland Security and Public Safety. Homeland Security’s vice-chair, Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass), has had some experiences at the Capitol lately that might inform his understanding of the need for public safety.
Legislators who voted against Straus in the leadership election got hosed, more or less, as you’d expect they would. Poor Scott Turner, who ran a hapless campaign against Straus for the speaker’s gavel, got shunted all the way down to International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs, which has been known in past years as a place for the speaker to stick too-promising Democrats—Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) is the chair—and unloved Republicans. (Perhaps unfairly.)
But Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from the Metroplex who bucked his tea party supporters and loudly supported Straus, came out of his ordeal pretty decently. He sits on Appropriations, Local and Consent Calendars, and Investments and Financial Services—the last committee is sought-after for its members ability to raise money from the many well-heeled outsiders who have business before it.
Here’s a last thing to chew on: While almost all of the committees have a masculine, musky flavor, seven of the House’s 38 committees don’t have a single woman.