Mediocre Session Features Some Good Work
by Lawmakers Who Put State over Party More
June 15, 2021
GOP leaders and lawmakers scrambled frantically this month to spin up a happy face for a Texas regular session that was actually a bust on just about every front beyond a band-aid for a long-neglected electric grid and the dishing of partisan lollipops to Donald Trump and the conservative base.
The Republicans who rule in Austin passed on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for greatness in the face of monumental crisis - choosing to make history instead with a record number of bills that they tailored for the hard right and passed with unanimous support from the majority party and no regard for the greater good.
The 2021 regular session began on the same day in January when 400 people died from COVID-19 infections in the Lone Star State. With Governor Greg Abbott having declared December to be the 9th inning for Texas in the pandemic, none of the GOP lawmakers here seemed to notice when 19,802 more Texans died while they were in session over the course of 140 days this year.
But the Republicans at the Capitol have never been more in touch with the primary voters in a party that's lunged farther to the right in the past year than it has at any point in its history. Lawmakers called in sick for the session's first two months with covid as the chief excuse. Abbott and the Republicans were caught in a helpless position with no real chance to respond when the independent Texas electric grid crashed in an epic winter storm in February. They invested record sums of time on theme bills that were designed to benefit less than half the people in Texas at the expense of the rest.
The majority party saved its worst for last with a monumental meltdown on an elections restrictions bill that's since been exposed as contaminated, corrupt and potentially criminal before Democrats killed it with a walkout on the final night for votes.
“With Republicans trying to move toward their nuclear option, we had to be prepared to respond in kind.” State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio
While the Legislature scored some scattered victories on measures that aimed to address the state's real needs, the dumpster fire on the voting plan was the defining moment for the Republicans with Senate Bill 7 as their signature priority in the session that closed for business on May 31.
GOP diehards might be delighted to learn that the Legislature passed more partisan theme measures than it ever had in the past. The 2021 session was a wasteland for the most part, however, for legislation that had been crafted for the greater good without regard for party.
With no sign of heroes and fewer stars than ever, the biennial Capitol Inside assessment of the Texas Legislature's top performances is a tribute to those who found unique ways to rise above the craziness with the coronavirus, the election challenge, the riot and the killer winter storm all taking place within the same year.
The Best of the Texas Legislature in regular session in 2021 contains six Republicans and a quartet of Democrats who all had productive impacts on the session in a myriad of ways. GOP State Senator Joan Huffman of Houston and Republican State Rep. Chris Paddie of Marshall were the most valuable players in their respective chambers with their work on proposals devised for the entire state.
The honor list includes a pair of perennial all-stars and longtime colleagues in GOP State Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Democratic State Senator Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. In a year when crazy became the new norm, Nelson and Zaffirini were the same overachievers that they've always been as the author of the most important bill and the sponsor of the most bills that cleared the Legislature in 2021 respectively.
The first team features a second Republican from the east wing in State Senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown and another Democrat in State Senator Royce West of Dallas. Schwertner is on the list as a product of the cumulative body of accomplishments that he recorded after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released him from the Senate joint after a stint for violations of the #MeToo movement in a steamy texting saga.
Democratic State Reps. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie emerged as all-stars in 2021 as well as a result of exceptional work as the chairs of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and House Democratic caucus respectively. State Reps. Lyle Larson of San Antonio and Matt Schaefer of Tyler are ranked among the 10 top Texas lawmakers for the regular session for reasons that are as different as the two men are politically.
West wasn't a candidate for the list until the final day for votes in the regular session when he blew the whistle on a brazen and possibly illegal last-second attempt by Republicans to beef up the voting bill with new restrictions that hadn't been approved in either chamber or by the negotiators on Senate Bill 7 themselves. The GOP sponsors of the bill that seeks to restrict the rights of voters have yet to offer a coherent public explanation for the changes in a conference committee report that could be evidence in a criminal case with charges of tampering with a government document based on some of their conflicting accounts up to now.
Republican State Senator Bryan Hughes of Mineola had been the Legislature's most valuable player for the first 139 days of the regular session in 2021. Hughes had been the perfect choice for the chief sponsor's job on the election bill as a country lawyer who's a staunch Christian with a heart of gold and sterling reputation with unimpeachable credibility. While Hughes rarely strayed from a script that could have come right off the pages of a national party napkin, he always seemed to say the lines with love in his heart that seemed to be sincere.
But Hughes effectively disqualified himself from the all-star team with his role at the center of the fresh new scandal that the conference report on SB 7 turned out to be as a corrupt attempt to undermine the integrity of the election process in the Lone Star State under the guise of improving it. Hughes has a chance to repair his credibility with the resurrection of the elections measure in a special session at some point in the next few months.