State Sen. Bryan Hughes acknowledges disappointment that the recently ended legislative session didn’t tackle red-meat conservative issues, but he was delighted overall that lawmakers accomplished the trio of bipartisan goals they set for themselves when the 140-day session started.
“It all got done,” the Mineola Republican, who represents the Longview area in the Texas Senate, told the News-Journal editorial board this past week.
A balanced, two-year budget — the only thing legislators are required by law to do — school finance reform and relief from rising property taxes were indeed achieved by the 86th Legislature in Austin.
But there were no laws limiting abortion access or expanding where and how Texans may arm themselves.
Texas conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan lamented the session at its finale, saying conservatives had expected bold colors from the GOP-dominate Legislature but got “pale pastels.”
Hughes, a tea party favorite who aligns himself with Sullivan and his Empower Texans agenda, noted the loss of two Senate Republicans and nine GOP House seats in the November election preceding the session eliminated the GOP super-majority of recent sessions.
“I would have to say that, on balance, I’m disappointed too,” Hughes said. “I’m not the king. ... But I have to say, the stuff we all want and were aiming for — property tax relief and reform, teacher pay and school finance — that stuff got done, and that stuff got done well.”
Having finished his second legislative session as a senator, after serving seven sessions in the House, Hughes said he will focus between now and the 2021 session on two major goals. Those are getting ready to redraw political boundaries after the 2020 Census is reported and reviving election security elements he championed unsuccessfully this past session.
“Nothing, nothing,” was his reply when asked if any of the election reforms recommended by a bipartisan interim panel he chaired had survived. “The report was signed by everyone on the committee. Once the political process kicked in ... it became something the Democrats couldn’t support.”
Opposition to his Senate Bill 9 came chiefly against a provision enhancing the penalty for mail ballot tampering from a misdemeanor to a felony, with detractors arguing it would discourage people from helping elderly or disabled voters cast ballots.
But Hughes still has no solid explanation, beyond the politicized atmosphere, why opposition sprung up against a requirement that every county use electronic voting machines that leave an auditable paper trail.
“Sadly, it became a lightning rod,” he said. “Some of the stuff on social media on SB 9 was so bad. The New York Times came to my defense. ... This is not a partisan issue at all.”
Hughes also reported he’s heard nothing from the attorney general’s office about its probe of suspected mail ballot fraud in Gregg County’s 2018 Pct. 4 Democratic primary for county commissioner.
“They’re not able to give us any details,” he said. “But that (investigation) is moving. A lot of interviews have been completed; they are going through a lot of documents.”
He added that he does not know whether or not to expect charges to arise from the probe.
Property tax reform actually was achieved in two bills — caps on how much local tax rates can grow without voter approval, and a $5 billion infusion into the state budget to offset school property taxes. School boards get that money only if they lower their tax rates, Hughes added.
House Bill 3, the school finance plan, started out with a $5,000 across-the-board raise for teachers and school nurses. But it ended with a requirement that districts devote an unspecified amount of the new state money to those pay hikes.
“We’ll have two years to see how this goes, to see if the money is going to the right places,” Hughes said.
The senator doubts there will be a special session to save the state agency that certifies plumbers, after legislation to continue the Board of Plumbing Examiners another decade got mired during the session’s waning days. He’s also curious about Gov. Greg Abbott’s statement last week that he can extend the agency to the 2021 session by executive order.
“Assuming there’s not a statewide solution, I think different cities are going to take different approaches (to plumbing oversight),” Hughes said.
As vice chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, Hughes anticipates joining public hearings around the state in preparation for redistricting the 87th Legislature will take up.
And he insisted that drawing political lines is the responsibility of lawmakers, not bipartisan but unelected panels that handle the once-a-decade re-draw in some states.
“They are supposed to take politics out,” he said. “I think we’ve seen, in other states they don’t. They just take the transparency out. As bad as the current system is, it’s better than anything else.”
Hughes lamented the failure of appointee David Whitley to win Senate confirmation as secretary of state, which among other things has oversight of elections.
Whitley fell from grace over a list of nearly 100,000 voters he wrongly claimed were not U.S. citizens. The list was drawn from comparing the citizenship status on driver’s license applications with 10 years of poll data, but it did not take into account how many people had become citizens since applying for a driver’s license.
“We’re going to find there are several thousands of people on the voter list that are not citizens,” he said. “I believe there are Democratic members of the Texas Senate who would have voted to confirm him had it not become such a hyper-partisan issue. I would have voted to confirm.”
Hughes said he likes his chances to win a second, four-year Senate term in 2020.
“It’s pretty easy to outsmart me,” he said. “But it’s hard to outwork me.”