McALLEN, RGV – On the eve of a special legislative session in Austin, a McAllen lawmaker and a local Tea Party leader have offered widely different opinions on the value of having state Rep. Joe Straus as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.
State Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra, D-McAllen, gave Straus, R-San Antonio, high marks in remarks last week to the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.
Jim Barnes, president of McAllen Tea Party, was less supportive, suggesting it was time for Straus to go.
“I have to commend Speaker Straus for holding the bar, making sure, as best he can, that all Texans are taken care of,” Guerra said, at a legislative report card luncheon hosted by the RGV Hispanic Chamber. “He works very well with the Valley delegation. He is a good man. He has a good heart. He is very business-oriented. But, he also says, let’s take care of our public schools, our teachers and our students.”
Guerra said Straus deserved particular praise for ensuring more funding for mental health. “We have to thank Speaker Straus for really taking that issue on,” he said.
Straus was elected to the Texas House in 2005. He was elected Speaker by members of the House on January 13, 2009, thanks in large part to support from Democrats.
“We need to give a big applause to Speaker Joe Straus,” Guerra said, at the RGV Hispanic Chamber luncheon. “Speaker Joe Straus held the bar as much as he could. I’d like to hear you all give him a big hand because he helped us quite a bit.” The audience applauded Straus, as per Guerra’s request.
“He does not mind standing up to the Governor and Lieutenant Governor and saying ‘no’ we are not going to do that. (Saying) I’m not worried about bathrooms in Texas, I’m worried about public schools. That’s what’s important and Speaker Straus gets that,” Guerra said.
Guerra said that “luckily” the speaker of the Texas House is chosen by its membership, not the electorate across the state.
“There are 150 of us in the House of Representatives. They (House speakers) are not chosen by the State of Texas, not by Red Neck Texas, okay? The speaker of the House is basically elected by the members.”
Guerra said Straus reflects majority sentiment in the House. “The rural Republicans and the Democrats in the House of Representatives see eye to eye on almost everything. We see eye to eye on public schools, properly funding public schools, infrastructure, highways, things that are important to Texans. Unfortunately, in the Senate we have a different situation.”
Barnes made his views known about Straus in an e-newsletter he sent to Valley Tea Party and Republican Party supporters.
“The Bexar County GOP executive committee took an extraordinary step in draining the swamp in Texas. Here is the background for that momentous event. The Texas State GOP Convention spends many hours developing a platform that is acceptable to the thousands of delegates. The problem is that it hasn’t even been a set of talking points when the legislature meets,” Barnes said.
“The Establishment Republican Leadership never really got their arms around it to do anything with it except to ignore it. SREC meetings have had some rambunctious moments discussing it. Now we have a State Chair that thinks the platforms mean something.”
SREC stands for State Republican Executive Committee.
“Ten of the 20 items on Governor Abbott’s Special Session call list are items that were in the GOP Platform that were stonewalled by Speaker Straus in the last Legislative Session. They were passed by the Senate and were never allowed to come to a vote in the House or even assigned to a committee,” Barnes said.
“The Bexar County GOP, Straus’ home county, voted no confidence in his leadership. Every County GOP Executive Committee should take the same action or don’t bother to send any delegates to the next State Convention.”
Barnes gave recommendations to McAllen Tea Party members: “Call Speaker Joe Straus (512-463-1000) and demand that he support the legislative agenda as laid out by the Governor and Lieutenant Governor or step down as speaker.”
In his speech to the RGV Hispanic Chamber, Rep. Guerra said he was not looking forward to the special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott.
“People keep asking me, what about the special session. In the infamous words of Bette Davis in that old movie, ‘You better fasten your seat belts because it is going to be a bumpy ride.’ I really believe things are going to get a lot worse in Texas before they get better. That is just the reality of what we are dealing with,” Guerra said.
Eventually, though, things will get better, Guerra said, thanks in part to the hard work of state Sen. Juan Hinojosa and the Valley legislative delegation. He said it was important the Valley’s voice be heard loud and clear in Austin. “We are the 11th or 12th largest economy in the world. Sometimes, in the House of Representatives, I shake my head and say, wow, is this how we make laws? It is amazing.”
Guerra said parts of the regular legislative session were “disheartening,” particularly funding cuts to Medicaid. He said he was “gutted” that Medicaid was cut drastically.
“You should have seen what came over from the Senate. No fault of Senator Hinojosa, he is outnumbered. You only require a simple majority in Senate. In the House, you need two-thirds. We (House members) voted for a lot more money. The Senate gutted the Medicaid,” Guerra said.
“It was a balancing act. Do we vote against, when a simple majority rules in a special session? That was a scary proposition. We did the best we could.”
As he did with Straus, Guerra paid tribute to state Rep. John Zerwas, chair of the appropriations committee. “He is a great guy. He said, ‘Bobby, we have got to vote for this budget because if it goes to a special session we will get kicked in the teeth even more.’ Oscar said the same thing.”
State Rep. Oscar Longoria of La Joya is vice chair of the appropriations committee.
Another terrible part of the regular session was Senate Bill 4, Guerra said. The legislation allows local law enforcement personnel to effectively act as immigration officers. “All of us from the Rio Grande Valley were appalled,” Guerra said, noting that his family can trace its roots in Texas back to 1750. He said the Guerra family in South Texas has lived under six different flags.
“The thought that my kids could be driving in Red Neck Texas someplace, get pulled over for violating a traffic law and asked for their papers is appalling. It is appalling not only for my family but for all Texans. And especially for all of us in the Rio Grande Valley. Those that have been here for many generations and those that have recently come here, it is embarrassing.”
Guerra said that the ill-will caused by bills like SB 4 spilled over into a fight on the House floor on the last day of the regular session. “I let the young bucks fight it out. It was a real circus,” Guerra said.
Guerra also spoke about two of his pieces of legislation. One aims to combat the Zika virus. The other allows high school students to take rigorous computer science courses and have them count as an advanced math or science credit. This bill was inspired by the work of Mission Economic Development Corporation’s Code the Town project and was enthusiastically supported by Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.
In his email newsletter, McAllen Tea Party leader Barnes urged Republicans in the Valley to attend the special session.
“The Republican Party of Texas is calling on you to help us draw a line in the sand this special session. Let’s fill the House and Senate galleries with Republican activists to show support for our Party and our Platform,” Barnes said.
“Extreme far-left groups are planning to bus in paid protestors to create chaos in the chambers in an attempt to disrupt the important proceedings on the floor. But we are drawing a line in the sand to say, ‘Not on our watch.’”
Barnes urged GOP supporters to pledge one day of their time during the next 30 days to visit the state Capitol. He said they should “take a friend and wear red to send a positive message to our legislature.” This, he said, would “show the news media that conservatives really do care about the issues affecting our state.”
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a four-part series on the RGV Hispanic Chamber’s Legislative Report Card Luncheon. Click here to read Part One, focusing on state Sen. Juan Hinojosa. Click here to read Part Two, focusing on U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez. Click here to read Part Three, focusing on state Rep. Terry Canales.