Dispatches from the Dome

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First-term Rep. Marsha Farney of Georgetown passed her first bill as a state rep this week—and per a longstanding House tradition, the more senior members put her through a little initiation in the form of some good-natured hazing.

Farney’s bill designating pecan pie as the Official State Pie of Texas had no opposition and was sure to pass, but reps lined up to grill her about it anyway—their somewhat painful way of welcoming Farney to public service.

“Don’t you think we’re giving pecans too much love at this point?” asked sophomore Rep. Kenneth Sheets.

“Would you be willing to amend this bill to say that adding chocolate is illegal and you cannot call it a pecan pie if you put chocolate in it?” said Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving.

Farney took it in stride and her bill passed unanimously, right after announcing that in honor of her bill, the grill in the Capitol was selling pecan pie.

‘Lightning round’

The House also had its first “Local and Consent” calendar on Wednesday, in which bills that have no opposition or are strictly local in scope are passed without debate with less than a minute’s explanation.

Watching reps speed through these bills on the House floor can be a bit like watching a “Legislative Lightning Round,” with the president pro tem on the dais calling out names and making motions at the speed of an auctioneer.

The only way to kill a bill on the L&C calendar is to talk about it for 10 minutes, one of the few legislative tools in Texas that comes close to a filibuster. It rarely happens.

Last session, a state rep talked to death a bill that would have regulated puppy mills. It was not non-controversial by any stretch, and the only reason it got onto the L&C to begin with was because the bill’s author was also the head of the L&C committee.

The bill ended up passing the traditional way.

The L&C also was the site in 2007 of a chairmen’s revolt against then-House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican, whose lieutenant was using his position as then-chair of that committee to punish Democrats by killing their local bills, generally considered off limits and the bread and butter of every state lawmaker.

The Republican chairmen—all appointed by Craddick as part of his leadership team—responded by delaying their own local bills in a show of solidarity, and the Democrats eventually got their bills passed.

Which part of ‘no’ do you not understand?

The Texas House has a Republican majority, but that does not automatically mean it supports every bastion of conservative principle.

Case in point: private school vouchers.

Conservative grassroots groups believe the state should use funds that currently go to public schools to pay for underprivileged children to go to private or parochial schools instead.

If a student is in an underperforming school, they argue, he or she should have a choice to go to a better one, no matter what his or her income bracket.

Liberals say it drains funding from public schools, making things worse for the children who are left behind with no vouchers. They say the private schools are not subject to the same state standards of education and the idea does nothing to fix issues faced in public education.

When Republicans took the House in 2003 for the first time in 130 years, advocates instantly began a run at vouchers, with dismal results. In 2005, Republicans lead a charge against the speaker and the lobbyist pushing for vouchers and killed the idea with a ‘no’ vote on the House floor.

A session later, they approved a budget amendment that banned public education funds from supporting private schools, effectively defunding any voucher idea.

The idea stayed dead for years, until the Texas Senate this session began entertaining a voucher bill and the House welcomed a record-breaking class of freshmen, many of whom were well-funded by conservative voucher advocates and none of whom had been around for the first two rounds.

So a veteran House Democrat introduced the very same amendment before the House and the freshmen lined up to debate with him about it.

Then, the House delivered a 103-45 vote in favor of the amendment—again—all but killing the idea for the session. Again.

Quote of the week

“Thank you for the grace you have shown us.” —Freshman Texas House Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, to senior House members after an 11-hour budget debate

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