With only five days remaining in the 140-day legislative session, members continue to work to ensure their bills, or at least those that are still viable, make it past each impending deadline and safely to Governor Abbott’s desk for either his signature or veto.
Last night was the last chance for Senate bills that have been passed and received by the House to be heard on second reading. Any bill not heard by midnight was declared dead.
One of the more highly anticipated bills was SB 10, authored by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and carried in the House by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond).
The bill creates a “Mental Health Consortium” which would coordinate mental health initiatives and studies across Texas’ health-related institutions of higher education, and their public-private partnerships.
Additionally, the bill creates a new program for youth mental health screening through telemedicine and permitted pediatricians to directly consult with psychiatry hubs at Texas medical schools.
The legislation was prioritized by both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick at the very beginning of the session.
However, within minutes of Rep. Zerwas laying out the bill, Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) called a point of order, suggesting there was a technical error in the bill analysis that would find the legislation in direct violation of the House rules.
The House stood in recess for nearly two hours while Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s team of parliamentarians and legal experts deliberated the merits of the alleged rules violation.
Finally, just hours before the midnight deadline, Speaker Bonnen announced that Stickland’s point of order would be sustained, effectively killing one of the most prominent priorities of Texas Republican leadership.
When asked why he raised the point of order, Stickland told The Texan that “SB 10 raised too many questions and potential unintended consequences for me to stand by and allow it to become law. I believe mental health is best addressed by strong families, churches, and communities, and not by big government.”
Opponents of the bill, including JoAnn Fleming of Grassroots America, were supportive of Stickland’s efforts.
“Grassroots America and our statewide Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition applaud the courage of State Rep. Jonathan Stickland to file a point of order on SB 10 because it lacked important details about the consortium’s membership and how it would be governed. At a price tag of $100 million per biennium, there were too many details left unaddressed,” Fleming said.
The House proceeded to hear the remaining bills on the calendar as House leaders tried to figure out a way to salvage the defeated legislation. Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood) made a motion to reconsider SB 11, the school safety and mental health bill that served as an addendum to many of the policies found in SB 10.
Specifically, SB 11 authorizes partnerships between schools and mental health organizations to address mental health problems among students. Governing these partnerships would be the Texas School Safety Center (TSSC), which is tasked with initiating “key school safety initiatives and mandates.”
Overall, it would require school districts to increase security, train staff in emergency preparedness, appoint a committee to oversee operations, and implement an emergency plan.
Notably, many of the same opponents of SB 10’s provisions also oppose elements within SB 11 on grounds of increased government intervention in the classroom and diminished parental control.
SB 11 had been passed earlier in the day with only 14 nay votes, and it soon became apparent that House leadership was aiming to amend the bill to add in the language establishing the same Mental Health Consortium found in SB 10.
Stickland immediately approached the back mic and launched a torrent of parliamentary inquiries and questions at both the Speaker and Rep. Bonnen, seemingly in an attempt to delay the vote further.
He asked Rep. Bonnen if he thought SB 11 was suitable as is, to which Bonnen responded, “I think there will be other policy offered that can make it better.”
Bonnen continued. “We actually have an opportunity to do some additional work that will further strengthen this piece of legislation and further make safe our schools in the state of Texas.”
Stickland pulled out all the stops in an attempt to kill the language for a second time, speaking against reconsideration of the bill, raising points of order, and peppering the Speaker with more parliamentary inquiries.
Speaker Bonnen eventually began the vote and the clerk began to ring the bell.
Unfazed, Stickland attempted to continue his line of questioning. “Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Speaker.”
“Mr. Stickland, we’re in the middle of a vote.”
Stickland, still standing in front of the back microphone, simply said “Wow.”
Less than an hour before the midnight deadline and with only 14 “nay” votes, Zerwas successfully revived and passed the Mental Health Consortium language that had been killed by Stickland just hours earlier.
The proposed MHC in SB 10 aims to “address urgent mental health challenges” through an “improve[d] mental health care system” in Texas. Part of the proposed function of the MHC is to foster “collaboration of the health-related institutions of higher education” that, proponents say, would improve the mental health of Texans.
The MHC creates a bureaucracy consisting of health and medical departments at 13 different Texas universities. Other parties involved are the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, three non-profits with a focus on mental healthcare, and the commission.
Each of these entities contributes to the executive committee that oversees operations.
The executive committee is then responsible for coordinating and monitoring funding, establishing procedures, and enforcing compliance of the procedures it enacts. Another power the MHC has is creating and operating a “network of child psychiatry access centers.”
Early on in the process, these provisions raised concerns over the degree of control parents would have regarding their child. Testimony from the Parent Guidance Center expressed concern about the legislation regarding the informed consent of parents as well as maintaining the privacy of treatment and genetic information used for research.
Section 113.0152 of the bill states that treatment in those centers may only be provided if “written consent of the parent or legal guardian of the child” is given first.
The Legislative Budget Board’s fiscal note estimates that the cost of the MHC would be $50 million per year as appropriated in the Senate’s substitute of the budget for the next biennium.
Following the resurrection of the MHC language, Stickland told The Texan, “Speaker Bonnen proved he controls the House and its agenda with the way he and Rep. Bonnen steamrolled the membership. I only wish he would use his power to further the conservative agenda and not bills that don’t protect parental rights and grow government. I’m deeply concerned for the state if this is the way he plans to ‘lead.’”
On February 5, during Gov. Abbott’s state of the state address, he hailed Sen. Nelson’s bill as a “big” and “bold” step towards addressing mental health. He declared SB 10 one of his emergency items “to ensure it has enough time to become law this session,” and Lt. Governor Patrick designated the bill as one of his 30 legislative priorities.
The lesson of last night’s drama over the passage of both SB 10 and SB 11 is evident. When leadership in the Legislature wants to revive a legislative priority, procedural moves can be made to ensure it’s given its best chance at passage.
McKenzie Taylor serves as Operations Manager and resident plate-spinner for The Texan. Previously, she worked as State Representative Kyle Biedermann’s Capitol Director during the 85th legislative session before moving to Fort Worth to manage Senator Konni Burton’s campaign. In her free time, you might find her enjoying dog memes, staring at mountains, or proctoring personality tests.