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Straus Says House Will Stand Up to Bullies

Speaker Joe Straus said Wednesday that House members will not allow conservative activists threatening political retaliation, or gun activists threatening physical retaliation, to impact their votes.

House Speaker Joe Straus gavels out the 83rd Legislative session at Sine Die 5:03 PM on May 27, 2013.

House Speaker Joe Straus pushed back against threats both physical and political Wednesday, saying, “Texas House members aren’t going to be bullied."

Straus was interviewed by Jim Henson, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin and pollster for The Texas Tribune, as part of the Texas Politics Project Speaker Series. Straus discussed long-standing efforts by conservative groups and activists to use the threat of future primary challenges to move Republican members of the House further to the right.

The San Antonio Republican suggested their bark was worse than their bite. A challenge to Straus' re-election as speaker last month yielded just 19 votes for state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, versus 128 for Straus.

“They keep losing time and time again and they don’t learn their lesson,” Straus said.

Straus was equally dismissive of perceived threats by open carry advocates against lawmakers, who he argued weren't helping their cause. 

“We’re more about results this session than panic buttons," Straus said, referring to the reaction of some lawmakers to a widely viewed video in which gun rights advocates including Kory Watkins confronted state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, in his Capitol office. When asked if he viewed Watkins comments as “threats,” Straus said, “I don’t see anybody who saw that video can take it any other way.”

Straus said the House was broadly in favor of Second Amendment rights, but that the details of any proposed open carry bill will save or sink it.

“It’s a favorable place for gun legislation generally,” Straus said. “Maybe not the particularly extreme one that that wild man was talking about.”

In light of the mushrooming scandal related to how an Austin tech company received a lucrative no-bid state contract for Medicaid fraud detection software, Straus said the House would tackle contracting reform this session and impose “tighter restrictions, more transparency, a diffusion of authority over making big-dollar decisions and accountability.” He also suggested that the House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena power and saw its authority expanded last month, may investigate statewide contracting abuses.

“We need to put in place serious safeguards to prevent this type of abuse,” Straus said. He added: “It doesn’t have to be all $100 million contracts. It makes you wonder what we don’t know might have been allowed.”

On immigration, Straus said he shared former Gov. Rick Perry’s support for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, particularly Perry’s assessment that “he'd rather see a generation of givers than takers.”

Regarding border security, Henson pointed to Straus’ statement Tuesday after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s call for $12 million to maintain a National Guard presence at the border.

“I appreciate [Lt.] Gov. Patrick’s remarks, but Gov. Abbott is the commander in chief, and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment," Straus said.

Henson said Straus appeared to be telling people to “cool their jets.”  

“I did just state an obvious fact. We only have one governor at a time,” Straus said. “The commander in chief [of the state’s military forces] will make that decision.”

He also urged lawmakers to consider Maj. General John Nichols’ testimony Wednesday before the House Appropriations Committee. Nichols agreed that an extended deployment would affect the morale of the troops.

“We’re going to serve," Nichols said. "But what I would ask, humbly, would be predictability, because you take a service member, a citizen, and say, ‘Go out for 30 days. It might be 60, no, it’s going to be 45 now.' I would just request predictability so that I can say, ‘Can you go for a year? Can you do it?'”

Also during the interview:

On prospects for a medical marijuana legalization bill:

While he made clear that he wasn’t predicting such a bill would pass, he said there’s “more discussion this time” on the issue than any previous session.

“The stories that are being told and the people that are coming forward to tell them are real-world stories of medical issues in people’s families. It’s clearly not just some fringe movement of people who are trying to back-door using some recreational drug.”

On the future of the public integrity unit:

While some lawmakers have proposed moving the PIU out of the Travis County district attorney’s office or defunding it entirely, Straus said lawmakers needed to fund the unit in some form.

“To say we’re going to defund the ability to investigate corruption among public officials, I think, is not the message the Texas House wants to send,” Straus said.

On a growing anti-vaccine movement:

"I don’t see the anti-vaccination thing going terribly far,” Straus said, though he described comments by politicians shedding doubt on the safety of vaccines as “very alarming” and encouraging a “lack of faith” in the medical community.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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