AUSTIN, Texas — On the eve of the special session, KVUE sat down with Speaker of the Texas House Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) to reflect on the regular session and discuss the topics of the special.
Ashley Goudeau: How do you as speaker of the house score this past regular session?
State Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont): "I thought we had a great session, especially all the headwinds we had coming in with COVID and Winter Storm Uri, a potential huge, massive budget deficit, double-digit unemployment. Considering when we left last session, we were supposed to have an $8 billion surplus and we came in with a $5 billion deficit, we fully funded public education, higher education. We will do things with telehealth, telemedicine, broadband. We made criminal justice reform a priority here in the House and passed many of those items. Health care reforms, passed many of those items. I thought we did an excellent job, especially here in Texas House. And we left with some unfinished business, and that's why we're back here today. But that's, that's not uncommon to come back and and finish some priorities that members of the House and Senate left undone. And so I was, I wish we had gotten more done on that in the last week, especially brain health bills, no-knock warrants, some more criminal justice reform issues that came down to the wire on that last session, the last day. But I'm not surprised we're back. Election integrity was a priority item of the governor, as was bail reform. And I knew we'd back at some point this summer, and so we'll start tomorrow at 10 a.m. and take up the governor's call."
Goudeau: Was there anything that was on your priority list that didn't get passed in the regular session?
Speaker Phelan: "So every speaker has kind of their idea of what their priority will be as their time in this office. And know, Speaker Straus talked a lot about mental health reform and Speaker Bonnen spent a lot of time and effort and did an excellent job on property tax reform and education reform. And so what I'm really focused on in my first tenure here is criminal justice reform and health care reform. And we, we had two excellent packages. A lot of it got out of the House – most of it got to the House, some of it out of the Senate, and the governor signed some of it as well. It's going to take multiple sessions to get all that done. And as I go into next session, I'm already looking at juvenile justice reform. I think that's the next, the next focus of this office. But, you know, I feel great about the packages, bipartisan packages, that we introduced here in the House and what we got across the finish line in my first session. I couldn't be more proud of that work that this office did, along with all the members who supported it."
Goudeau: On the last day of the regular session you repeated this phrase, 'Our rules matter.' You said this is, of course, the day after the Democrats used those rules to break quorum and kill Senate Bill 7. What was the message you were sending?
Speaker Phelan: "Well, the rules are very specific here in the House. And when I first ran for speaker, I was very, you know, I wanted to be very pointed with the folks I was asking for their support because I'm still a member of the Texas House. I'm from southeast Texas. I represent House District 21. But I've become speaker by getting the majority of my House colleagues to support me, and I want them to focus on the process that we have here in the House. Politics is one thing and, you know, and the policies another, and we can all argue over politics and policy. But the process should remain the same no matter who you are in the Texas House. The rule book applies evenly and fairly to everybody, and that applies to every bill, every amendment. And so our process matters, and towards the end of the session, we didn't have the ability to suspend rules and take up, for instance, this election bill early. It came down to the last day, and there was some, there was pressure there to try to change the rules, to bring it up earlier to where it wouldn't be up against the clock. And that's just not how the House operates. The integrity of our rule book to me is very important. It's one of the reasons I ran for speaker, to maintain the integrity of the House rules. And that's why I always say our House rules matter and we don't just suspend them on a whim, regardless of the policy or the politics."
Goudeau: The regular session has largely been characterized by GOP leaders and as a successful, conservative session. You yourself just started our interview by saying it was a great session. So if it was great from the perspective of the Republican Party, why do we need a special session? Minus of course the Article X veto, because that would require you to come back. But session after session bills that are priorities, bills that are important don't get passed, and that's just sometimes how it works in Texas. So why is this special necessary?
Speaker Phelan: "So that's the governor's decision and I respect his decision. It's in his power within the Constitution to call us back and then he gives us the topics in which we will debate and send to him. And so that's, that's well within the power of his office. Election integrity was something he named a priority, an emergency item back in January. Also, bail reform, one of his top priorities. So he has the ability to bring us back to talk about what he wants us to discuss, and so, and those are items we should address. We did see an election cycle where in certain counties in this state, things were just conducted differently under the auspice of COVID. Well COVID is not here. So let's just have a uniform election code. I say this quite often, we don't prosecute under 254 penal codes. We have one penal code. So let's have one election code, and let every county operate their elections in the same form and fashion. I don't think that's asking too much. And the bail reform is something that's near and dear to the governor's heart, and he sees that as an opportunity to make some changes to our criminal justice system. So he has again, he has the ability to bring us back. But if you look at other items on the call, there's bills in there that he vetoed, that he gave us a path to fix to where he can sign. So, and I wouldn't be surprised, Ashley, if we have some more items added in the coming weeks, including the bills that he vetoed with a path to make them law. So that's a positive. He's given us an opportunity to kind of fix what he sees are problematic items within each bill to where they can become law. One has to do with dating violence, and it was a Democratic senator, Democratic House member, who passed it, but he found a conflict in there and he gave us a path to fix that conflict. So he's given us really a wide range of issues to discuss. It's his discretion and I'm just here to be the presiding officer of the Texas House tomorrow at 10 a.m. to begin discussing those items."
Goudeau: This is your fourth term in office, obviously passionate about the political system and how things work in Texas. So what do you make the governor's veto of Article X?
Speaker Phelan: "It's a unique option to bring this back and get our attention. And again, I've said this, you know, I'm a former staffer, so I know what it's like to live in Austin and depend on that paycheck. This is not an inexpensive place to raise your family, but it certainly is something that has got the entire member of the Legislature's attention. We will show up to obviously reinstate Article X. In this office here, as the Texas speaker, I want to make certain that we get the election integrity bill done, bail reform done, Article X done. And we, I'm really glad he added tax relief to the call. That is something that I've heard from all my constituents as I went home this summer about their skyrocketing appraisal values, and so I'm glad he's adding that to the call. And that's something that the Speaker's Office is going to get behind and be laser-focused on as well. I think that's very impactful to all Texans. I don't think you should be renting your home from your taxing entities, and so we can provide meaningful relief for taxpayers across the state of Texas. So there are no surprises in politics. I'm not surprised we're coming back to take care of some unfinished business the governor wants to address."
Goudeau: When you think about that election reform bill that you say you guys are going to get passed, there were some, I think people on both sides of the aisle, that said flaws in Senate Bill 7, the Senate bill that actually came to the floors of the chambers in the final days of session – we heard from the former Secretary of State, a Republican, she said that the 2020 election was secure. So what else needs to be done in terms of election reform?
Speaker Phelan: "I don't think this has to do with fraud. The bill as it left the House, really focuses on the process and how elections were conducted. Again, you know, what would prevent a county from having six months of early voting, as opposed to one county with two months or two weeks of early voting? What would prevent one county from saying you have to have three forms of I.D. as opposed to having one form of I.D.? We just need a uniform election code where all the county clerks and all the administrators of the elections across the state of Texas are operating their elections in the same exact manner. And that's what we saw coming out of COVID. We saw disparities with some counties having 24-hour voting or drive-thru voting. Well, if that works for that county, then all counties should do it. But that's not what we're hearing up here. What we're hearing is we want a uniform election code. And whether it's two weeks of early voting or three weeks, whatever we decide, we need to decide here in the Texas Capitol, not at the courthouse that vary in 254 counties. But to answer your question, we're past that. We're into a new special session and we're going to take a fresh look at the election integrity issue. We're going to have a new bill and it's going to go through the process. There will be debate. We'll have a full and open committee process. We will have members of the public be able to testify. We also have the virtual option here in the Texas House. And we will have a full debate on the House floor and everyone will have an input on that bill."
Goudeau: But to say that we need an election code almost implies there isn't an election code. And we have one.
Speaker Phelan: "Oh it's a very complex election code. I've served a term in 2015 on the Elections Committee; it's extremely complex. But you saw, because of the pandemic, you saw opportunities, and certain counties took those opportunities, to conduct the election in their own form and fashion. And I don't think that's the right way of handling it. Again, we shouldn't use a pandemic to start changing the penal code and allow one district attorney to apply a penal code one way and a different in another way. So let's just have a uniform election code and agree on what the ground rules are going to be for everybody. And I think you have counties that have more resources that could conduct early voting for six months if they wanted to. And we have other counties that can barely man the voting locations on Election Day. And that's, you know, that's the reality of it. So let's just have a uniform election code, agree on what everyone's going to do every time we go cast our ballot, whether that's mail-in balloting or in-person balloting, and not leave it up to local elected officials to decide how to conduct their elections as they see fit."
Goudeau: When we look at the special session call that the governor put out, 25 hours before the session was set to start, there are several items on there that were priorities for the lieutenant governor. But criminal justice reform, which was such a big priority for the House, was not necessarily on there. What does that say to you and to the members of the House?
Speaker Phelan: "Well, that's what's great about what we're doing here in the House, is we're trying to turn criminal justice reform into a mainstream topic and we have, and health care reform into a mainstream topic. So when I first was elected, some of these bills could not get committee hearings and some barely passed the Texas House. This past cycle, you saw them pass with, out of 150 votes, maybe four no votes. We made them mainstream. And that's, that's a difficult thing to do. And so we have a lot of work ahead of us. I think most Texans agree that criminal justice reform is the right path forward and that health care reform is a bipartisan topic that people discuss at the breakfast table and the dinner table. So that's what I love about the Texas House, where I think we're closest to the people and we understand what the average Texan is going through every single day and we focus on those. You know, the other topics that the governor put on there, again, we will have a very respectful, impactful, robust debate about it, and it will be the will of the House as we move forward on that legislation."
Goudeau: We've heard from a number of Texans who believed, or at least hoped, that something related to the power grid was going to be in the special session call. Do you feel as though the actions that the Legislature took this past session, and then we have the four directives from the governor – is that enough or does more work need to be done to secure our grid?
Speaker Phelan: "I think we've done an excellent job in both chambers to give the PUC and ERCOT the necessary tools they need to completely restructure their organizations and move forward – be more transparent, have better communication. We need to give them time to work on the legislation we sent them. They were just signed into law in June. I really agree with what the governor did this week by mandating the PUC work through the agency rules as far as additional generation and more reliability. I think that gives them the tools. And truthfully, Ashley, if we need to do more, we're going to be back here this fall discussing redistricting. We all know that, that's when we get the census data. So if there's additional legislation we need, statutory changes, we'll be here, we'll be here to accomplish that."
Goudeau: I want to ask you about one of the things that is call, and that is more funding for border security. The Legislature already is spending $1 billion. How much more do we need to be taking on a federal responsibility? And where are we going to get that money from?
Speaker Phelan: "So my understanding, that particular call on the proclamation deals with grants to local law enforcement. So, you know, we funded DPS, we funded game wardens through, whether it's man-hours or technology or vehicles, watercraft, whatever, drones – we've given them the tools they need to do the work of securing the Texas border. Again, this has to do with human trafficking and running guns and drugs being brought into the state of Texas and beyond. And I live on the I-10 corridor. Much of it comes through my community as it goes to Louisiana and Florida and parts beyond. It's a national issue. So the grants will be, from my understanding, the request will be coming from local law enforcement as they need the additional tools as they see fit. And that money could be some of the federal stimulus money we've been sent from the federal government, obviously. And there's also, as of today, the comptroller came out with a BRE, revised BRE, which gives us billions of dollars in additional tax revenue that we were not anticipating. And of course, we have other additional sources from last session. We didn't spend all the money we had in the budget as well. We passed a very respectful conservative budget. So there's opportunities for the funding. But it will be my understanding, indicative of the local law enforcement to request those funds for those local sheriff departments."
Goudeau: My time is running out with you. So my final question for you is, what is really your hope for this special and the Legislature moving forward?
Speaker Phelan: "Well my hope, as it was in the waning days of session, was to again, you know, have a process that's respectful of all the members, have a very robust, open, deliberative debate – you know, finish election integrity, bail reform, those emergency items from the governor. You know, restore funding to Article X so staff will be paid going forward on Sept. 1. And again, any type of property tax relief we can provide for Texans is a huge win, and I'm ready and willing and able to get that done as well."
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