Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick further shrinks Senate Democrats’ clout, awards them few plum posts

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AUSTIN — Senate committee assignments released Friday dealt another blow to Democrats’ clout in the chamber. The party lost a powerful chairman’s position and a seat on the influential state budget-writing committee.

The changes come after Republicans already voted this week to undercut Democrats’ power by limiting their ability to block legislation from coming to the floor.

The GOP holds a solid majority in the Senate with 18 of the 31 seats. But Democrats have steadily grown their ranks in recent years, including in last November’s election when Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, ousted freshman Republican Sen. Pete Flores.

Patrick’s rule changes and continuous reduction of Democrats’ sway in committee assignments underscore the chamber’s drift toward Washington-style, hard-nosed partisanship, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.

He noted that in 2013, which was former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s last session as the Senate’s presiding officer, Democrats held five committee chairmanships. The number dropped to two in each of Patrick’s first three sessions as lieutenant governor. Now, Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, the body’s longest-serving member, is its only Democrat with a gavel, Jones said.

Twice, Patrick has reduced a threshold of votes needed to bring a bill to the floor, each time reducing the fraction just enough to ensure there were enough Republicans to dominate every roll call, the professor noted. On Wednesday, the once-vaunted “two-thirds rule,” which Patrick cajoled colleagues in 2015 to slice to three-fifths, became a five-ninths threshold.

“Combined with the adoption of the five-ninths rule, the near complete GOP dominance of committee chairs underscores that the Texas Senate under Patrick’s leadership is much closer in form and function to the majoritarian U.S. House than to the consensual Texas Senate that existed under his predecessors,” Jones said. He ticked off David Dewhurst, a Republican, and Democratic former lieutenant governors Bob Bullock and Bill Hobby.

On Wednesday, Patrick defended lowering the vote thresholds for bringing bills to the floor

“We’re the majority. Elections matter,” he explained at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event. “If we don’t change the rules today … the Democrats would be controlling the Senate.”

Patrick spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester, asked Friday to respond to Jones’ remark that Patrick’s actions have amped up partisanship in Austin, replied in an email, “Standing by the statement we issued today on this.”

She was referring to a Patrick news release in which he said, “The committee appointments I am making today call on all senators — Republicans and Democrats, freshmen and senior members — to play an integral role in crafting public policy that will ensure our state remains strong and every Texan can prosper.”

In those appointments, Patrick again tapped Whitmire to lead the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. But Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, who in 2019 was the only other Democrat to head a Senate panel, won’t have a chairmanship this year.

Last time, Lucio chaired an intergovernmental affairs panel that the Senate did away with this year.

This session, no Senate committee chairs are Black or Hispanic. In 2019, Lucio, who is Hispanic, was the only one.

Also, the all-important Finance Committee, which writes a budget and handles tax bills, previously had four Democrats. Now there are three.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, continues to helm Finance. She’s one of two North Texans helping lead powerful committees. Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, again will run the business and industry panel.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, is vice chairman of Higher Education.

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, will be vice chair of Administration. Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, is vice chair of Nominations. Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, lost his Agriculture chairmanship. The panel was disbanded, its duties folded into a committee handling water and rural affairs issues.

Assessing those changes, Rice’s Jones said, “The Metroplex also takes a modest symbolic hit, with Senators Hall and Paxton the only non-freshman Republicans to not chair a committee.”

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