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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unveils committee assignments with one Democratic chair

Monday, January 23, 2023

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday announced Senate committee assignments, keeping his key lieutenants in leadership positions. And despite pressure from conservative GOP activists to ban members of the minority party from leading committees, Patrick reappointed Democrat John Whitmire to chair the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

In a statement, Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said the committee assignments would “ensure we succeed in addressing the priorities of the people of Texas.” In an acknowledgement of the debate over appointing Democratic lawmakers to positions of power, Patrick said: “The overwhelming majority of bills voted on by the chamber will have bipartisan support. But make no mistake, the priority bills will address the concerns of the conservative majority in Texas.”

A small but vocal group of hardline conservative activists have pushed for legislative leaders like Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan to refrain from giving leadership positions to Democrats, arguing that they would hold up the passage of conservative legislation. Earlier this month, hundreds of activists streamed into the House and Senate galleries wearing bright red shirts that read, “Ban Democrat Chairs.”

The push also has garnered support from Texas Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi, a former state representative. Banning Democratic committee chairs is among the party’s eight legislative priorities.

The debate has largely been focused on the House, which has a long-standing tradition of appointing committee chairs from the minority party. Phelan, like speakers before him, has argued that it contributes to a sense of unity in the chamber and sets the Texas Legislature apart from Congress’ rank divisions. He has pushed back on claims that Democrats tank GOP legislation by saying conservative priorities that have the support of a majority of the chamber have been enacted into law.

But the issue has been less contentious in the Senate. Patrick’s governing philosophy is that the majority party should control leadership positions. Under his tenure as the Senate boss, Democrats in leadership positions have dwindled. And Patrick has said publicly that once Whitmire, of Houston, leaves the Senate, he will no longer appoint any Democrats to lead committees.

Whitmire, who has served in the Senate since 1983 and long led the panel that oversees criminal justice legislation, is running for Houston mayor in November.

Rinaldi seemed to approve of Patrick’s committee assignments and called on Phelan to “announce a similar plan to reduce and eventually eliminate Democrat chairmen in the House, rather than continuing to defend the practice.”

“The Lieutenant Governor’s committee appointments position the Senate well to pass every Republican legislative priority this session,” Rinaldi said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “We are also grateful for the Lt. Gov. being responsive to the party’s concerns regarding Democrat chairmen and reducing the number from 32% of committees before he took office to one during his tenure.”

Fourteen of the 15 standing Senate committees announced Monday will be led by Republican lawmakers. A sixteenth special committee on redistricting also will be run by a Republican.

Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican from Houston, will chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee and the chamber’s special committee on redistricting. Huffman, a Patrick ally, took over the powerful finance committee last year after longtime Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, who had chaired the budget-writing committee since 2014, announced she would not seek reelection. Nelson was appointed Texas secretary of state by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month.

Huffman has spent months already working on the budget and last week released the Senate’s first draft of the budget. She will also lead the redistricting committee, which is expected to do minimal work on the Senate’s political maps to appease doubts over the legality of last session’s redistricting process.

Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, another Patrick ally, will also chair two committees: state affairs and jurisprudence. In the last legislative session, the Republican ran the powerful state affairs committee, from which he passed a law banning abortions in the state after six weeks, one of the most restrictive bills in the country at the time. (The U.S. Supreme Court reversed federal protections for abortions in 2022, effectively outlawing abortion in Texas almost entirely). Hughes also will take over the jurisprudence panel from Huffman.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican, maintained control of the Education Committee, which will now oversee higher education legislation in addition to bills that impact K-12 learning. He also will also chair a new subcommittee on higher education.

Conservative lawmakers have promised to make education a top focus, with leaders like Patrick targeting tenure in higher education and Creighton advocating for a “parental bill of rights” that would likely limit what educators can teach children about race, gender and sex in public schools.

“We’re gearing up to advance one of the most conservative sessions in Texas history, a forward-thinking agenda this nation has not seen,” Creighton said, during Abbott’s inauguration last week.

Touting the strength of the new freshman class, of which several members had served multiple terms in the Texas House before being elected to the Senate, Patrick appointed three first-term senators as vice chairs of committees.

Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who had previously served 24 years in the House, will be the vice chair of the business and commerce committee; Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, who served 16 years in the House, will be vice chair of the veteran affairs committee; and Sen. Kevin Sparks, a Midland Republican who is Patrick’s conservative ally, will be vice chair of the nominations committee.

Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, who had served four years in the House before being elected to the Senate, will be vice chair of the subcommittee on higher education.

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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