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How The Texas Freedom Caucus Won The 2017 Legislative Session

Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune
The Texas Freedom Caucus in a hastily called press conference telling the press their intent to kill bills on the Local and Consent calendar in retaliation for what they say is unfair treatment during the House session on May 11, 2017.

Last week, Texas made national news when state lawmakers got into a shouting match that escalated into shoving and even death threats.

But anger among politicians working at the Texas Capitol had been growing for weeks, and some lay blame for that at the feet of a small group of extremely conservative lawmakers. They call themselves the Texas Freedom Caucus

The moniker is inspired by the group of far-right conservatives in the U.S. House that has played an oversized role in running Congress. And just like at the federal level, the 12 members of the Texas caucus have shifted the debate in the Texas House to the right.

Freedom, Liberty And Limited Government

The caucus appears to have simple goals: block any increase in taxes or government. And each time they oppose legislation, they make sure to drive that point home.

"This discussion and my opposition to this bill has been on one simple thing: whether this should be handled by the government or should be handled by communities and individuals," Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) said during a debate on the House floor this session.

There are similar groups popping up in legislatures across the country. In Kansas it’s the called the Truth Caucus. In Georgia, the Appeal to Heaven Caucus. But no matter the name, the principles play well on the campaign trail in deep red states.

But Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) says it makes governing harder.

"That sounds great in a soundbite. But in the end what does that mean?" Villalba said. "That means that people aren't getting aren't getting school lunches, and that research isn't being done, and that schools aren't funded and that children go hungry. That's what that means."

Turning Up The Heat

While many of the Republicans in the Texas House agree with the Freedom Caucus' ideals, their tactics have angered others. This group kicked off the legislative session by killing off uncontroversial bills, like ones creating a utility district or allowing the creation of a local tax. That created some bipartisan irritation.

"They see it as a tax increase potentially. And so on a principled standpoint, they like to oppose it," Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) said about the caucus fighting the creation of a local hotel and motel tax in some districts. "Whereas locals say, 'Hey everywhere we travel to we pay a tax.' Why can't the folks that come to see us pay the same tax to let us better our city, as well?"

Then it was on to using amendments to fold in far-right principals into major legislation. That pushed lawmakers to a simmering boil.

When a bill on immigration and local law enforcement came up, Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) added a provision to allow anyone detained by police to be questioned about their immigration status.

"[W]hen the police are doing their work – and as part of that they are enquiring into this person's identity – and they learn that the person has, for instance, a federal detainer, that they can honor that," Schaefer said.

For Democrats, it was the breaking point.

'I Called ICE'

That anger fueled last week’s skirmish on the House floor when Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), told Hispanic Democrats he had called federal immigration officials on protestors at the Capitol.

Some Republican complained throughout the legislative session about the group and its tactics. But in the end, the vast majority have voted with the Freedom Caucus on everything from religious liberty amendments to the anti-sanctuary cities bill.

Into The Sunset

But did the Texas Freedom Caucus do anything more than irritate, frustrate and anger the rest of the Texas Legislature?

In the end, yes.

While the group made no friends in the Texas House, the Texas Senate was certainly pleased. The upper chamber, and its leader Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have been battling the House all year.

Patrick has been pushing several Tea Party-minded measures, like public school vouchers and a so-called bathroom bill. That legislation would require transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate. It also would have blocked municipalities from passing their own non-discrimination policies on bathroom access.

Those measures and others were either dead on arrival or heavily watered down in the House.

But on one of the final nights of the legislative session, the Freedom Caucus used House rules to block a very important bill from coming to the floor for a vote. The bill would have extended the life of several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board. Without the bill, those agencies would be forced to close in 2018.

The Senate had its own version of the bill, which it could have passed to save the agencies. Instead, thanks to the actions of the Freedom Caucus, Lt. Gov. Patrick threatened to let it die, if the House didn't pass a bathroom bill. The House didn't, and the bill died in the Senate.

Now, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott will have to decide if he needs to call lawmakers back to Austin for a special session to pass legislation and potentially save those state agencies.

The lieutenant governor and the Freedom Caucus are pressuring Abbott to add a bathroom bill and other topics to the agenda.

2018 And Beyond

Beyond a possible special session, the Freedom Caucus could also play a large role in the next round of state elections. The Texas governor, lieutenant governor, other state-wide officers, and the entire Texas House is on the ballot in 2018. And in the GOP primary, those seeking reelection could be judged based on whether they voted with or against the Freedom Caucus.

Rep. Villalba did vote with the group at times, like on the anti-sanctuary cities bill. But he did so less than enthusiastically because, he says, those votes could be used against him in the primaries.

"And the primaries are going to be voted by people who are very strident in their political beliefs. And so you have to be careful that you don’t offend the primary voters, even though the people at large aren’t in favor of something," Villalba said.

The Dallas-area Republican says the drive for ideological purity will make it tougher for more moderate Texas Republicans to win reelection.

And, in a brief moment of bipartisanship, Democrats agree.

They’re hoping the Freedom Caucus’s tactics will help them win seats in 2018.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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