Cooking Calendars

After spending three sessions killing conservative reforms in the House State Affairs Committee, State Rep. Byron Cook may soon be getting a promotion that would give him even broader leeway to thwart the will of Republican primary voters.

Sources in the Texas Capitol are telling Texas Scorecard that Cook (R–Corsicana) is being considered for a promotion to chairman of the powerful House Calendars Committee. The shift would be part of several moves designed to tee-up State Rep. Four Price (R–Amarillo) as the successor to take over when Speaker Joe Straus (R–San Antonio) gives up the gavel. Many in the capitol speculate that Straus may retire following this session, though such a departure is far from certain.

Moving Cook to Calendars would surely bring the Texas House to a standstill that would be as frustrating for rank-and-file Republican members as it would be for conservative activists outside the capitol.

Cook has served as Chairman of the State Affairs Committee for several sessions where he has used his perch to kill legislation favored by grassroots conservative groups. Meanwhile, he has been openly hostile to legislation that would eliminate sanctuary cities and has authored legislation to give drivers’ permits to illegal aliens.

Thankfully Cook has been profoundly ineffective in moving his own legislative agenda. Despite his powerful perch, he managed to pass only one bill last session – a bill to reduce teen suicides in public schools. But even that legislation – which no one opposed – was nearly tanked by Cook’s antics.

In other words, he’s good for one thing – killing conservative legislation.

If Straus and his chief political strategist, former horse and dog-racing lobbyist Gordon Johnson, decide to pull the trigger, they’ll have to find somewhere to put State Rep. Todd Hunter (R–Corpus Christi), who has served as chairman of Calendars since 2011.

Hunter has been rumored to want off of Calendars so that he can begin building less-hostile relationships with members in preparation for his own run for speaker when Straus eventually steps down.

The Corpus Christi lawmaker was elected as a Republican in 2009 after previously serving three terms in the 1990s as a Democrat. He reportedly fears that his role on Calendars, where he is expected to play the role of gatekeeper for Straus, puts him at odds with members when he kills their bills.

Meanwhile, Straus’s allies have already said last year in the Amarillo Globe-News that Price is next in line for speaker. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican whose district neighbors Straus’s laid it on thick, telling the newspaper that Price is a “gale force wind from the High Plains that is going to blow the Capitol doors open.”

In reality Price has kept his head down as he has been groomed for his big promotion. He has been assigned to carry several priority bills by the speaker as a way of earning his stripes as a policy wonk. According to sources the Straus and Price families have family connections going back generations and the two share a very similar demeanor.

If Cook is moved to Calendars, Price would likely take his place as State Affairs chairman. That position has historically been a launching pad for speakers, with Democratic Speaker Pete Laney holding the position for a decade before he was elected speaker in 1993.

With Cook serving as chief-executioner on Calendars, Price would be able to work with grassroots groups and let their priorities out of his committee. Straus could let Price play good cop to Cook’s bad cop and rely on the latter to prevent anything favored by the Republican base from reaching the floor.

Meanwhile, Hunter could use whatever committee he is appointed to chair as a tool to curry favor with special interests while he hobnobs with other members in hopes of securing their votes.

From Straus and Johnson’s perspective, either Price or Hunter would seem willing to keep Straus’s coalition with the House Democrats in place.

Appointing Hunter to chair the Insurance Committee could have the incidental effect of pushing tort reform advocates into the arms of Price. They have been skeptical of Hunter since he presided as mediator over millions of dollars of settlements between Democratic mega-donor Steve Mostyn and the taxpayer-backed Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.

As Hunter’s chances for the speakership appear to increase, that could create a sense of urgency for tort reform advocates to embrace Price, who would be positioned to play the role of their legislative ally.

If this all comes true, Texans both inside and outside the Texas legislature will need to buckle up because they will be in for a bumpy ride during the 85th legislature. Conservatives outside the capitol will be forced to watch as Cook moves to openly kill reforms they have worked towards for decades. Yet it will be even worse for those who have backed Straus. They will find themselves as pawns in a Machiavellian game designed to keep Straus’s backers and the Democratic coalition in place for years to come.

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Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel for Empower Texans. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony received his J.D. in 2012 from UT Law School. While in school, Tony served as Senior Vice Chairman for Young Conservatives of Texas and helped manage its legislative affairs. During the 83rd Texas Legislature he served as Chief of Staff for Rep. Jonathan Stickland. Tony resides in Austin and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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