87th LegislatureState HouseState SenateRepublicans Disagree on Claims that the 87th Session Was ‘The Most Conservative in Texas History’

Stakeholders weigh in on the conservative successes and failures of the 87th Legislative Session.
June 3, 2021
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The state legislature dispersed this week, marking the end of the 87th Regular Session. Well before the final gavel strike hit the sound block, intra-GOP conflict began with sides parsing through the conservative successes and failures of the session — with some calling it the “most conservative session in history” and others decrying Republican failures.

Undoubtedly, that claim’s two biggest testimonials are the passage of “The Firearm Carry Act of 2021,” colloquially dubbed constitutional carry, and the “Texas Heartbeat Act,” which bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

Neither of those bills had even made it to the House floor before, let alone had passed into law.

Other conservative successes include a restriction on Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools; religious liberty protections including a prohibition on closing places of worship during a declared disaster; an abortion trigger ban should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade; punishments for large cities that cut their police department budgets; increased funding for the Alternatives to Abortion program; and the establishment of Texas as a Sanctuary State for the Second Amendment.

On the flip side, the shortfalls include the last-minute collapse of election integrity legislation; the failure to approve emergency powers reform; the casualty of a taxpayer-funded lobbying ban from an intra-GOP disagreement; big tech censorship legislation’s midnight deadline death; the failure to pass both the gender modification ban on children and a proposal that would require student athletes to compete according to their biological sex; the nonexistence of school choice legislation’s movement; and the faltering of bail reform that was a priority in both chambers and for the governor.

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“I don’t think there is any argument that this has been the most conservative session ever,” Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), who served on the House Calendars Committee, told The Texan

“You’ve got two main pieces of legislation that are legacy accomplishments — for decades, we’ve wanted a bill like the Heartbeat bill and constitutional carry. If that’s all that we did, this would’ve gone down in history.”

Patterson also pointed to supplements such as the abortion trigger ban and the critical race theory ban to make that case. But the Frisco representative further lamented the failure to pass gender modification legislation — “Not getting that was a punch in the gut for us,” he added. 

The session did not begin with a clear runway as the pandemic prevented legislators from convening for committees during the interim and faced a sudden halt when the Texas freeze knocked the lights out, significantly preoccupying the House committee through which much of the lost legislation would move.

“On the whole, we had these monumental challenges that we overcame to produce these big legacy wins — I’m definitely on the side that this was a major success,” he concluded.

Patterson credited first-time Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) for supporting constitutional carry while “assembling the most conservative homeland security and calendars committees we’ve ever had” and former Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) for focusing on 2019’s “bread and butter issues” that he says allowed Republicans to preserve their majority needed to accomplish what they have this session.

The opinion of Republican Party of Texas (RPT) Chairman Allen West differs greatly, and he has neither withheld criticism nor ingratiated himself with GOP lawmakers.

“I think you have to give this legislative session an ‘F’ — they failed,” West told The Texan. Being the GOP chairman, West’s barometer is the RPT legislative priority list — election integrity, religious freedom, gender modification, abolition of abortion, constitutional carry, monument protection, school choice, and a taxpayer-funded lobbying ban — of which only two and a half were successfully passed.

Those were constitutional carry, religious freedom, and the Heartbeat bill — not the same as the abortion abolition but a significant step in that direction from the previous policy. West further added that the religious liberty bill was less than what the GOP had in mind and criticized the House for spurning the Senate’s model for emergency powers reform — an item he named the chairman’s priority.

He continued, “Election integrity was our number one priority and it was among the governor’s emergency items, so they could have gotten started on it a lot earlier than they did.”

“The House was only in session between 75 and 80 of the 140 days of session, but they didn’t start immediately and allowed the Democrats to do what they did.”

Among West’s biggest criticism, however, was the lack of action on the gender modification legislation. 

“How disappointing that neither chamber could pass legislation to prohibit the chemical and physical castration of our children.”

On the prospective special session, West said, “We have to have something on election integrity and we cannot go forward if we don’t counter what we see the progressive socialist left doing with H.R.1 [in Congress].” West and others see the congressional legislation as a federal takeover of elections, and the bill itself would usurp state election law to establish a more uniform system.

“I don’t see that everyone was on the same sheet of music,” he said of the “Big Three” state leaders — the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House — criticizing the House’s swap of Senate Bill 7, which West said was “very strong,” for House Bill 6 and its version.

Looking forward, West continued, “I got to hand it to Democrats, they’re always on the same page and I hope that, here in Texas, we have learned the lesson to stop allowing Democrats to chair committees and giving them a seat at the table.”

“Republicans have the majority in both chambers and they need to act like they’re in the majority.”

Rep. Justin Holland (R-Rockwall), who just finished his third session, counts himself among those who judge this session as a success. 

“I look at success much differently than somebody giving you a list of 10 must-have items that it’s a failure without —  this all-or-nothing mentality has got to stop at some point,” Holland told The Texan.

“From my perspective as a conservative, I feel like we had a great session, but there’s always outside static and noise after the session and as we approach the election cycle,” he added about the criticisms levied at state Republicans.

Holland authored the Second Amendment Sanctuary legislation that Abbott strongly supported through the process, which managed to fly through on its first try. But for other efforts, Holland continued, “Sometimes it takes several sessions to get to a point where things happen.”

“To the people saying that we placated Democrats, it’s just not the case. The Texas legislature is not a place where you shove things down people’s throats — but if you were ever going to do it, you’d throw constitutional carry, the Second Amendment sanctuary, the critical race theory ban, and the Heartbeat bill in the same session.”

Holland echoed Patterson’s position that among the biggest whiffs came with the gender modification bill. Holland said he supports that legislation, specifying, “Those procedures are horrible, it’s tragic. It’s child abuse.”

And while he met with Jeff Younger, whose son is caught up in a parental dispute over how to approach his alleged gender dysphoria, Holland said it’s a new issue for him and not something his constituents have called his office about.

“I’d like to hear more from people in my district and about where specifically these things are taking place.”

Asked about how the differences between the House and Senate procedures played out this session, Holland pointed to the latter’s more lax bylaws governing the process. The Senate often suspends rules to expedite legislation. One such example occurred on March 15 when that body introduced, considered, and passed an electricity repricing bill all in the same day.

“We can’t move like that,” Holland added, saying that “with 150 different personalities, more committees, and having to work with Democratic colleagues — relationships matter regardless of the letter behind your name.”

Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) demurred from the “most conservative” nomenclature, but further told The Texan, “A lot of it depends on how you gauge it — is it the number of RPT priorities passed or are we talking about the number of other conservative issues that were passed?”

“There’s no doubt that we did pass some good things like the spending cap or others that weren’t among the top legislative priorities, but if you want to look at the top priorities then it fell short.”

He also pointed to the continued school finance injection from last session and that, within the context of Texas’ “miraculous” financial recovery from the pandemic, the $11 billion appropriation is “very concerning and certainly not a conservative principle.”

Biedermann sees too many missed opportunities but pointed to the impending special session as a chance to deliver on some of the misses.

On gender modification, Biedermann exclaimed, “It is abhorrent that we cannot get that done in Texas to protect children.”

Objecting to the idea that all these priority issues cannot be accomplished in one session, he continued, “We wasted 75 days — we have enough time to get things done, it’s up to leadership to move things along.”

“It’s all about control, about ego between the two chambers where they want to push everything to the end so they can exert their power.”

Eyeing the special session, Biedermann is neither hopeful nor despondent about the potential for the legislature to pull across the finish line some of the things that faltered. But he pointed to the one key factor in that equation: “Nothing’s going to get done unless the governor acts and pushes the envelope.”

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.