At the end of April as the Texas House was debating legislation to ban sanctuary cities, four lieutenants of House Speaker Joe Straus skipped a vote on a crucial amendment intended to strengthen the law.
While House Democrats did almost everything they could to stop Senate Bill 4 by State Sen. Charles Perry (R–Lubbock), the provision drawing the most opposition was a conservative amendment offered by State Rep. Matt Schaefer (R–Tyler), the leader of a group of a dozen conservative House lawmakers known as the Texas Freedom Caucus.
Two of Straus’ top allies, House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth) and Byron Cook (R–Corsicana), had worked with Democrats to strip the teeth out of the bill during the committee process. In short, Schaefer’s amendment sought to put the teeth back in.
Sources in the Capitol say Straus believed he could whip enough Republicans into torpedoing the amendment and dispatched Cook and Geren in opposition to Schaefer.
The battle lines were drawn: Straus and his lieutenants on one side, and Schaefer and his band of conservatives on the other.
The vote wasn’t even supposed to be close, but chaos ensued on the House floor as Republican lawmakers loyal to Straus fretted and wrung their hands. Now records show that four of them even ran for the hills. Rather than vote as they were told, four of Straus’ top lieutenants who were supposed to be whipping members to vote against Schaefer skipped the vote themselves.
Claiming they had a late-night conference committee meeting to discuss the budget, Republican State Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Sarah Davis of West University Place, Larry Gonzales of Round Rock, and John Zerwas of Simonton skipped the vote and later refused to enter a journal statement explaining how they would have voted. That move allegedly has Straus and House Democrats fuming.
With four of Straus’ lieutenants absent, the Republican Caucus rebelled and sided with Schaefer to adopt the amendment by a substantial margin. Shortly after the vote, Texas Scorecard filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act seeking copies of any records from the budget conference meeting that had allegedly taken place.
But save for a single sheet of paper from Davis, no lawmaker had any records relating to a meeting where they claim to have discussed a 915-page budget. This is proof that their late night meeting either didn’t take place, or existed for little purpose beyond giving them an excuse to miss a vote on which they would have been forced to choose between following orders from leadership and fulfilling the wishes of their constituents.
Texans need leaders who will stand on principle, not go and hide when they face a tough vote.