Here’s a quick recap of what happened over the last week:

Speaker Race Update

A group of 46 Republican House members and nominees – those that will assuredly win their November election – signed a letter this week pledging to only support a Speaker that commits to appointing no Democrats as committee chairs next session.  This represents a majority of the House Republican caucus and narrows the path for Phelan to be reelected to his 3rd term as Speaker in January.  Phelan has vowed to continue to appoint Democrats to chair House committees, saying it promotes a more bipartisanship working environment in the House.

In all likelihood, the only way for Phelan to be reelected Speaker is to develop a coalition of the 64 House Democrats and a minority number of House Republicans.  However, many of the more moderate House members that helped elect Phelan as Speaker were defeated this year by much more conservative candidates. And, the more conservative House members fight against this type of a coalition, saying the reliance on Democrats to create a leadership team harms the Republican agenda and leads to the death of conservative legislation in the House.  Many of the House conservatives are calling for a majority of the Republican caucus to select the Speaker, leaving the Democrats out of the process.  They further argue that 64 Democrats teaming with 12 Republicans is not what the voters called for when they ousted the more moderate incumbents.

Look for the hardline conservative political groups that help defeat the more moderate members put a tremendous amount of pressure leading up to the regular session on all Republicans to hold the party line to ensure the Republican caucus elects the next Speaker.

House GOP May Expel Members

Rep. Glenn Rogers of Glen Rose — who was defeated in this year’s Republican primary — has filed a complaint against four conservative incumbent Republicans for endorsing and campaigning against fellow House GOP incumbents.  The caucus has a rule – called the Incumbent Protection Program – that prohibits members of the caucus from endorsing against incumbent members.

The four members – Nate Schatzline of Fort Worth, Brian Harrison of Waxahachie, Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, and Steve Toth of The Woodlands – endorsed and financially supported some opponents of their Republican House colleagues during the primary election season.  Regarding Rogers’ race, he was defeated by Mike Olcott by a 63% to 37% margin.  Olcott was publicly endorsed by Schatzline, Harrison, and Tinderholt.  If the complaint is found to have merit, the four members could be expelled from the House GOP caucus.

Caucus chair Rep. Tom Oliverson – a declared Speaker candidate – issued a statement saying the executive committee of the caucus has an obligation to investigate the complaints against the four members and report the findings back to the full caucus with their determination and recommendation for proposed action, if any.  For their part, the four members all said they welcome the investigation and said they have no regrets for their actions during the campaign season.

While no timeline has been given for when the investigation will start or will be concluded, talk around the Capitol say the report from the executive committee could be released in a matter of days.  Any action recommended by the committee will have to be approved by a 2/3rds vote of the full caucus.

Ballot Secrecy Issues

Even though who you vote for is supposed to be kept secret, evidence has surfaced recently that brings that supposition into question.  By accessing available public records, finding out who someone voted for may be getting easier.  Last month, the March 5th primary ballot of then Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi was published by conservative blog Current Revolt.  Embarrassment followed for Rinaldi since the ballot showed him voting for Ron DeSantis, and not presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

The issue of ballot secrecy was brought up at last week’s Senate State Affairs hearing when the Secretary of State’s Director of Elections acknowledged that basically through a process of elimination – and due to increased transparency requirements from laws passed last year – it is possible to find a particular individual ballot.  Current Revolt did not disclose exactly how they determined the ballot they published was that of Rinaldi’s.  However, the increased transparency has made the process of tracking a ballot much easier through review of public records including when a person voted, where they voted, and what turnout was on a particular day.   Simple process of elimination can lead to the identification of individual ballots.

In response, the Secretary of State this week issued “emergency guidance” to counties to begin taking steps to ensure a voter’s ballot is always kept secret when responding to a public information request.  The guidance given to county officials regarding public information requests provides direction for the elections officials to redact information regarding the type of election, the type of ballot (in-person, mail-in), precinct location, and turnout figures.  AG Ken Paxton also weighed in with a ruling this week that reminds county officials that they have the duty “to protect the constitutional right to a secret ballot.”  Paxton went on in his most recent ruling to affirm that county election officials must redact all personally identifiable information.

In addition to review and discussion by the Senate State Affairs Committee, the House Elections Committee will discuss this issue at a hearing next week.  With the legislature in the interim period, no changes to the law to address ballot secrecy issues can be considered until the legislature convenes in January.  Both committees will continue their review during the interim period and have recommendations for the legislature to consider during the regular session.

Senate Looking to Ban Cannabis Products

The Senate State Affairs Committee heard testimony last week regarding the growing industry of selling high-producing THC products over the counter.  Current Texas law allows the sale of products with less than 0.3% THC by weight.  The state authorized the legal growing of hemp in 2019 as an incentive to the state’s agriculture industry.  Now, a growing number of retailers have taken advantage of a loophole in the law and are selling products using delta-8 and delta-9, a chemical by product found in hemp.  The products are being sold in the form of gummies and mints.

The members of the State Affairs Committee said that is not what they intended when the law was originally passed in 2019.  The committee is now looking to further regulate the types of cannabis related products that can legally be sold by clarifying the exact types of plants that can be used for production.  Furthermore, they are likely to recommend banning products with more intoxicating effects.  Lawmakers also worry about the potential of these products being marketed for children, so they also discussed age limits, child proof packaging, and advertising restrictions.

Texas is one of the few states in the country that has not legalized marijuana in any form for recreational use.  Marijuana has a much higher THC concentration and is therefore more intoxicating than hemp products.  Regarding marijuana, the state has a very narrow compassionate use program that allows for the use of products with 1% THC by weight only by prescription for a short list of medical conditions such as epilepsy.

Border News

President Biden announced on Tuesday that he has issued an executive order that directs agents with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to send migrants caught at the border attempting to illegally enter the US immediately back to their home countries.  Further, those caught trying to cross illegally – between ports of entry — will not be allowed to claim asylum with the exception of unaccompanied children.  The new rule will turn away migrants who cross illegally between ports of entry and try to claim asylum after seven consecutive days of more than 2,500 encounters.  The limit will be lifted only if there have been 14 days of encounters at less than 1,500 or less.  Migrants will still be able to use the CBP One app to make appointments at the border to claim asylum and will still be able to attempt to enter at a point of entry to apply for asylum.  Border agents are reporting an average of 3,500 apprehensions per day between points of entry over the last week.

Joining President Biden in the White House for the announcement were the mayors of Brownsville, McAllen, El Paso, Edinburg, and San Antonio.

Gov. Abbott immediately criticized the timing of the order, saying Biden is only taking action now because he is up for reelection this year, and has previously refused to acknowledge the border crisis or take any action to try and address the issue.  Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz both echoed Abbott’s stance, accusing Biden of making a “political move during an election year.”

Amidst the activity surrounding this announcement, the first group of National Guard soldiers have moved into the new base near Eagle Pass.  The 80-acre base was built as part of the state’s ongoing border initiative, Operation Lone Star.  Since, 2021, the state has sent thousands of National Guard troops and law enforcement personnel to patrol the border areas.  A new law passed last fall – now under review by the US Supreme Court – allows the troops to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges.  The troops have been living in hotels and trailers, with accusations of substandard living conditions.  The new base is equipped with dorm rooms and recreation areas and will serve the troops all meals.  When fully completed, the base will have the ability to house 300 troops.

Democrats in El Paso for State Convention

Texas Democrats began the 2024 Democratic Party Convention yesterday in El Paso.  Speaking will be leadership of the state Democratic party along with national figures as well.  Special guests for last night’s opening sessions included Beto O’Rourke and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona.  Officials from El Paso will also be featured including state Senator Cesar Blanco and Congresswoman Veronica Escobar.  Among other issues, the party will focus on the ongoing abortion rights issue, believing that is the main issue that can energize their voter base – along with independent voters – and make Democratic candidates more competitive in state legislative races and the race for US Senate, where their nominee Colin Allred will face off against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz in November.

Political Notes

David Covey – the well-funded opponent of Speaker Dade Phelan that was endorsed by Donald Trump and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick – has conceded the tight race that was decided by less than 400 votes.  That is well within the margin to allow for a recount, but Covey’s only comment on the race has been to claim that Phelan benefited from 1,442 Democrats who crossed over into the Republican primary to vote for Phelan, and that was the only reason Phelan was able to prevail.  Covey has not released any proof or any methodology as to how they came up with that claim.

In the very tight race for Senate District 15, it appears incumbent Molly Cook has finally defeated Rep. Jarvis Johnson in the solidly blue seat based in central Houston.  Cook first beat Johnson in the May 4th special election to fill the final months of the unexpired term of former Senator John Whitmire, who resigned his Senate seat when he was elected mayor of Houston in November.  Cook and Johnson faced off again in last week’s runoff for the Democratic nomination for the full four-year term to begin in January. After votes were counted last week, Cook held a 74-vote margin.  This week, Harris County election officials completed the counting of provisional and late arriving mail ballots.  At the end of this final count, Cook’s lead is now 62 votes.  Johnson has until June 15th to request a recount.

The National Republican Congressional Committee – whose only function is to elect Republicans to the US House – announced this week they have added Democrat Henry Cuellar to their list of targeted races this fall.  Cuellar is under federal indictment for allegedly accepting bribes to further the interests of foreign entities.  The Congressional district that Cuellar has represented since first being elected in 2004 stretches from Laredo to south of San Antonio.  Cuellar won reelection in 2022 over his Republican opponent by 13 points, so he was not initially targeted by the NRCC.  After his indictment, the group added him to the list of targeted races.  Cuellar faces retired Navy officer Jay Furman in November.

Longtime Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston announced this week she is undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.  The 74-year-old Democrat has represented a solidly blue district in Houston for 30 years, first elected to Congress in 1994.  Jackson Lee has previously survived a battle with cancer, having beaten a breast cancer diagnosis in 2012.  In a statement Jackson Lee said she is confident that she will once again prevail in this battle and looks forward to many more years “serving our community and nation.”

Many in the Capitol community are mourning the death of former Rep. Barry Telford of DeKalb, in deep east Texas.  Telford, a Democrat, served 18 years from 1987 to 2004, chairing the powerful House Calendars committee during his last terms in office.  Telford was known as being very fair to all members, always trying to find consensus among warring factions. He is survived by his wife, 2 children, and three grandchildren.  His services are being held today in DeKalb.

What’s Next??

The runoff election is complete and there is a full-fledged Speaker’s race in the House.  Four incumbent House committee chairs were defeated, so those committees may not have an active interim schedule.  However, the others will now begin to have hearings as the Speaker’s race unfolds and the preparations begin for next session.

Next week has a full week of hearings on tap.

On the House side, the State Affairs Committee will meet to review legislation relative to the state electric grid and will hear updates on the grid reliability from ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission.

The House Elections Committee will meet to review legislation related to abolishing the position of election administrator in Harris County and issues related to ballot secrecy.

On the Senate side, the Senate Border Security Committee will meet to review border security issues and receive an update on Operation Lone Star.

The Senate Business and Commerce Committee will meet to also review and receive updates regarding the reliability of the state electric grid.

Here is a link to the full list of hearings and the agenda for each hearing