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

Texas House Republicans Meet

The Texas House Republican Caucus met this week in Frisco.  Rep. Craig Goldman of Fort Worth announced his resignation of the House Republican Caucus during the two-day gathering which included a meeting of the caucus members and a fundraising golf tournament.  Goldman is in a runoff for a Fort Worth area Congressional seat and said he needs to fully concentrate on his election.  For now, Vice-Chair Tom Oliverson is elevated to Chair of the Caucus until a new chair is elected.  Oliverson has announced his candidacy for Speaker of the Texas House, mounting a challenge to incumbent House Speaker Dade Phelan, who is in a runoff in his reelection bid to retain his House seat.

According to reports from the members only meeting, a major discussion point during the meeting was whether or not Rep. Oliverson should accept the position of chair since he is a declared candidate for Speaker.  And if so, would he be expected to endorse and help all nine Republican House incumbents that are currently in runoffs.  Oliverson has assumed the position of chair.  And under caucus rules, he has 30 days to call an election to elect a permanent chair of the caucus.

Solar Eclipse

Austin and the Hill Country are right in the path for the best viewing of the full solar eclipse that will happen Monday afternoon.  Over 1 million people are expected to make their way to Austin and surrounding areas starting this weekend.  Many towns are preparing for the influx of more people and the run on grocery stores has begun, as local residents are stockpiling food and other necessities in case supplies are scarce due to the increased number of visitors to the area.  Traffic in western Travis County and Hill Country towns such as Marble Falls and Llano is expected to be very heavy starting as early as today.  Most area school districts have canceled classes for Monday, but Austin ISD will remain open and make the day a learning opportunity for students.  AISD will provide the special glasses for eclipse viewing and have a day of activities so students can properly engage in the viewing of the eclipse.  The solar eclipse will begin near Eagle Pass at the Texas/Mexico border at 1:27PM and will end in Texas at 1:49PM.  Eagle Pass, San Antonio, areas west of Austin and up through the metroplex will be in the path of the total eclipse and could experience up to 4 minutes of darkness.

Universities Scrutinized over New DEI Laws

During the 2023 regular session, the legislature passed a law that banned all initiatives, staff, and offices related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at public universities.  Now, the Texas Senate is calling on administrators at all public universities to prove how they are complying with the new law.  In a letter to all university system chancellors and regents last week, the chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee – Senator Brandon Creighton — warned that the state will take legal action and freeze funding if any institution is found to be out of compliance with the law.  Creighton said in the letter that he is concerned that some institutions have simply renamed DEI offices and changed employee titles to give the appearance of compliance.

The Senate will hold a hearing in May to hear from university administrators on how they are complying with the new law.  They will be asked to ensure – according to the letter from Creighton – that there are no DEI offices, no diversity training, and no considerations given for race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin in hiring practices or student admissions.

The debate over DEI policies was and continues to be very emotional and controversial.  Proponents of DEI claim that protections and assistance are needed for students that have been historically excluded due to race, color, or sexual orientation.  DEI opponents say that a fundamental shift is needed on Texas college campuses to ensure we are operating in a merit-based environment.  Creighton said the hearings are necessary to determine if more needs to be done next session to strengthen the laws against DEI so the necessary changes in the operations of higher education can continue.

And earlier this week, in response to the letter warning universities to comply, the University of Texas laid off 60 staff members who previously worked in DEI related positions.  Most of them worked in the Division of Campus and Community Engagement.  That Division office – previously called the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement – will now be closed.

Senator Cruz Podcast Raising Ethical Questions

The junior Senator from Texas – up for reelection this year – is facing scrutiny over payments made by the radio network that carries his podcast to a Super PAC supporting his candidacy.  In 2022, iHeart media began broadcasting “Verdict with Ted Cruz” three times a week over their massive network.  Over the last year, iHeart has made payments totaling $630,850 to the Truth and Courage PAC that was established to support Cruz’s reelection bid this year.  To complicate things further, Cruz is the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees and regulates the communications industries in the country.

Several government watchdog groups have questioned not only the ethical boundaries being stretched regarding these contributions, but their legality as well.  The nonprofit group Campaign Legal Center – founded to support and enforce federal campaign laws – has raised the possibility of Cruz soliciting contributions from iHeart to the PAC.  Solicitations by federal office holders to super PAC in excess of $5,000 is a violation of federal law.  Campaign Legal Center was initially founded by a former Republican appointee to the Federal Election Commission, but in recent years has pursued decidedly more liberal causes such as voting rights for convicted felons.  Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint against Cruz with the Senate Ethics Committee in 2022 shortly after the podcast began on iHeart stations.

For his part, Cruz has repeatedly said he makes no money from the podcast or iHeart media.  Through a spokesman, Cruz called the latest news “lazy attacks during an election year.”  Cruz has also compared the podcast deal with iHeart to an appearance on a cable TV show.

The Committee has closed the complaint having found that Cruz has not violated any campaign laws.

And, with Congress not in session this week, Cruz held a fundraiser back home in Harris County where he told a crowd of nearly 100 donors that the Democratic Party considers his race winnable and has “put a bullseye on the state of Texas.”  Cruz claims the Democrats have committed to spend over $100 million to defeat him and feel Cruz is one of the most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection to the US Senate this year.  Cruz said he is taking the race very seriously and expects a very tight race. In 2018, Cruz won reelection by less than 3 percentage points against former Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

Border News

The federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Wednesday from the state and the federal government regarding Senate Bill 4, passed last year that allows state law enforcement to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges.  Enforcement of the bill is currently on hold as the question of its constitutionality works its way through the court system.  Simply put, the courts must decide whether or not states will be allowed to pass legislation regarding enforcement of immigration laws.  The US Supreme Court has previously ruled that immigration enforcement is the sole responsibility of the federal government.  The state of Texas argues the law is necessary because the federal government is not doing its part to enforce immigration laws and secure the southern border.  One point of interest in the arguments occurred when the state of Texas Solicitor General — referencing the 2012 Supreme Court opinion that said local and state police do not have the right to enforce federal immigration law – said the new Texas law “maybe went too far” regarding precedent already established by the Court.  The hearing lasted nine hours, and no timetable on a decision from the appellate court was given. The decision by the 5th Circuit could allow the law to go into effect or could allow the hold on the law to remain in place.  Ultimately, this issue will be decided by the US Supreme Court.

More than 200 migrants were arrested in El Paso last week on rioting charges in connection with the March 21st incident at a border gate when several migrants cut through the razor wire and assaulted members of the National Guard.  Present at the gate were an estimated 1,000 migrants trying to enter the US, and it is reported that at least 300 broke away from the larger group and rushed the gate and National Guard soldiers.  Most of those arrested face misdemeanor riot charges, but seven have been charged with felony charges of attacking a public servant.  On Easter Sunday, a federal magistrate ordered the release of an unspecified number of migrants, most of which were released into federal custody.  Prosecutors have vowed to review each individual case to determine the best path of prosecution, if necessary.

In response, the state has sent 700 additional National Guard soldiers to El Paso to enhance border enforcement.

Political Notes

In the very closely watched runoff for the Republican nomination for Senate District 30 in north Texas, Jace Yarbrough received a huge endorsement from the Texas Farm Bureau this week.  The AGFUND – the political arm the Farm Bureau — has over 500,000 member families engaged in agriculture related businesses throughout the state.  Yarbrough kept the momentum going by receiving an endorsement from Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler.  Schaefer is not seeking reelection but is seen as an influential voice in the more conservative circles of the Republican Party.  Yarbrough finished second in the first round of voting to Brent Hagenbuch, just two points behind.  Hagenbuch has the backing of Gov. Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.

The influential Texans for Lawsuit Reform released a list of endorsements this week for several of the Republican House runoff races.  Of note, TLR endorsed four Republican incumbents – Reps John Kuempel of Seguin; Justin Holland of Rockwall; DeWayne Burns of Cleburne; and Gary VanDeaver of New Boston – whose opponents have been endorsed by Gov. Abbott.

A local Beaumont TV station has offered to host a debate between Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan has and his runoff opponent David Covey.  Phelan immediately accepted the invitation and when Covey was slow to respond, Phelan capitalized on the lack of response by nicknaming him “Ducking David”.  Phelan says that by not agreeing to engage in a public forum “speaks volumes” about his opponent.  Phelan went on to question Covey’s commitment to transparency and his readiness to address the issues.  Covey finally responded to the invitation a day later saying it was Phelan who had previously refused to debate and has continually avoided public forums during the primary campaign. Covey said he is reviewing his schedule and wants assurances that the debate is open to the public.

This comes as the conservative PAC Club for Growth announced they would be spending $900,000 in the Beaumont market to try and unseat Phelan.  The group’s ads describe Phelan as a “Democrat in disguise” in the heavily conservative district.  The group will also spend big to try and unseat other Republican incumbents facing runoff opponents.  The PAC has committed another $3 million at least during this cycle against Reps. DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, John Kuempel of Seguin, and Justin Holland of Rockwall.

Hispanic Republicans in the legislature have launched a new caucus in the statehouse.  The new Texas Hispanic Republican Caucus will have members from both the House and Senate.  According to the statement announcing the new group, the Caucus will “amplify the voices and priorities of conservative Hispanics from across the state.”  The formation of the new group comes as Republicans are making inroads with Hispanics, who have historically aligned with the Democratic Party.  Roughly 40% of Hispanic voters supported Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

What’s Next??

Hard to say what’s next.  With the House in disarray, interim study issues may not be released until after the runoff – if at all.  The Senate may issue interim study issues soon, but no date has been set.

With 9 incumbents being forced into runoffs, the fundraising for the May 28th election is in full swing.  Eight candidates held fundraisers in Austin this week, and others are sure to follow.