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SB: Phoning it in

Chairman Dutton puts Speaker Bonnen momentarily on the spot, making fleeting reference to the way Bonnen moved to end the nastiest debate of the 2017 session.

As the Texas House was nearing the end of Tuesday’s property tax debate on Senate Bill 2, Chairman Harold Dutton, D-Houston, made reference to an unconventional procedural move that has been previously used – perhaps only once – to end floor discussion when party-line votes had become a pattern.

Rep. Dutton asked Speaker Dennis Bonnen whether there was anything in the rules that would allow for a motion to go ahead and write in the House Journal and the public record that all the remaining amendments were decided on party-line – or close to party-line – votes and wrap up the debate.

The look on Bonnen’s face indicated he knew exactly what Dutton was talking about. But he responded that there was no such motion that could be made.

The thing is Speaker Bonnen did exactly that to end one of the most contentious debates of the last decade.

In the early morning hours of April 27, 2017, then-Ways and Means Chairman Bonnen took to the front mic with what was described by some as a “creative” motion.

With many amendments still on the speaker’s desk awaiting debate on Senate Bill 4, the ban on “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants, Bonnen moved that the House vote to instruct the clerk to record in the journal that the members had voted on all remaining amendments and show that the result was party-line votes. That’s what had been happening in real time for hours anyway, Bonnen argued successfully.

Veteran observers of the Texas Capitol said they could not remember any other time such a move had been executed on the House floor. Some accused the members of “phoning it in.”

In some sense, though, it was a merciful act by Bonnen because it cleared the way for a 3AM second reading vote that came after a 15-hour debate that was heated at times, tearful at others.

Gov. Greg Abbott would later sign the “sanctuary cities” ban in a Facebook Live video on a Sunday night.

It was a drive-by signing. His office did not tell the House or Senate authors that he was going to do it that way. For major legislation that is an emergency item, as was SB4, governors typically have a big ceremony surrounded by authors, co-authors, and other dignitaries.

Then-Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, got into a shouting match with Latino members on the House floor at the end of that session after he bragged of calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement to round up Latinos protesting that same legislation.

To add insult to injury, GOP consultants later privately admitted during the 2018 primary that the ban on sanctuary cities was not, by itself, a winning message for Republican incumbents. Yes, their voters liked it but they still want President Donald Trump’s wall and wondered aloud at GOP events why it hasn’t been built. To be effective in campaigns, the “sanctuary cities” ban had to be packaged on mail pieces and in TV ads alongside other conservative messages like voting for pro-life legislation.

Some young Latinos in the Texas Capitol community, who in many ways represent the future of the building, have said that the way Senate Bill 4 was debated and passed in 2017 informs much of what they know and care about when it comes to the legislative process.

For many others, it’s almost as if it did not happen.

Seemed that way on Tuesday.