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Analysis: Voucher opponent protecting Texas legislators from voters

Lawmakers rarely get blamed for votes that never take place, and that's the basis for one of the oldest protection rackets in the legislative toolkit: Killing a controversial bill before it comes to the full House or Senate.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, newly appointed chair of the House Education Committee, talks public education at TTEvents on Feb. 28, 2017.

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The House's new public education chairman opposes the school voucher bill that the lieutenant governor — from the same political party, but from the other side of the Capitol — says is the civil rights issue of our age.

This egg might never hatch. It might never get out of a House committee, if it manages to get to the House at all.

Asked whether vouchers — using public money to send kids to private schools — is dead this legislative session, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, told The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith on Tuesday, “I believe so, yes.”

This isn’t just some dude talking. Huberty is the new chairman of the House Committee on Public Education. That puts him between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pet project and a vote by the full Texas House.

This is why those boring old committee assignments in the House and Senate get so much attention. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, replaced retiring Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, with a guy who — like Aycock — is opposed to using taxpayer money for private schools.

On some level, the reasons for his opposition don’t even matter. If the chairman of the committee that will hear the bill doesn’t want it to pass, it’s hard to make it pass.

Huberty’s early-session move is a fine example of a not-so-secret protection racket in the Texas Legislature (and in its cousins in other states and in Washington, D.C.). Legislation that a politician never has to vote on is legislation that doesn’t come back to haunt that politician.

Suppose you were a legislator and you knew that your own voters were split on a particular issue. Voting would make some of them happy and some of them mad. Anger is a strong political motivator and a dangerous thing to inspire in the electorate.

Look at Congress, where votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act come as regularly as Tuesdays. That’s a classic safe vote. Republican voters don’t like Obamacare, and Republican legislators are there for them. The tougher vote — the one avoided in those previous efforts — is the vote in favor of a particular replacement for the ACA. Voters are split on that, and as Republican members of Congress know, Republican voters are themselves split.

Better not to vote until there’s some harmony.

In the Texas Legislature, there is no harmony on vouchers. Lawmakers have tried several different variations over the years: straight-up vouchers, scholarship programs, now a combination of tax credit-funded scholarships and a new confection called Education Savings Accounts.

On some level, the reasons for his opposition don’t even matter. If the chairman of the committee that will hear the bill doesn’t want it to pass, it’s hard to make it pass.

The groundswell of support from voters of either party has never materialized. Some people think it would be a good idea, or at least a worthwhile experiment, to let students opt out of public schools and take some of the money that would be spent on them to pay private or parochial school tuition. Opponents come in from all kinds of angles. Some think public money should remain in public schools. Others want to make sure private schools getting public money are accountable to taxpayers and parents, and there is also opposition from some who fear that state regulation would follow those tax dollars into parochial and private schools.

Elected officials who want vouchers have never been able to get them through the Texas Legislature. And if Huberty holds, it’s probably not going to happen in 2017, either.

One of those truisms borne of experience: Nothing is dead in the Texas Legislature while lawmakers are still in session. Resurrection is part of the game.

Vouchers could turn up as an amendment to another education bill, to legislation that rewires funding for public schools, to anything that has a similar enough subject to justify that sort of an attachment.

It would be weird, but Straus could always decide to send the vouchers bill somewhere other than Huberty’s committee for consideration. The members of the House could express an overwhelming change of heart and demand the opportunity to bring vouchers to the floor for a vote — either to pass it along to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has said he would sign such a bill, or to kill it outright to make a statement.

Until and unless they do that, Huberty has done — on a high profile piece of legislation — something lawmakers do dozens of time every session: protected members from having to vote on a controversy that split their voters.

By the way, it’s not just the House where these ripples are being felt. Not everyone in the Senate wants to vote on school choice, either. Now they’ve got an interesting defense: If the House isn’t going to vote on it, why should they?

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • As policy, the proposed regulations for transgender Texan's restroom choices have some gaping holes in it. The politics, however, are easy to understand.
  • The safety net for Texas children has some big holes in it, and most lawmakers want that fixed. But it's going to cost money — a harder sell in a conservative Texas Legislature.
  • State officials have done a lot of work to stop sex trafficking in Texas, but the results revealed by the Tribune's Sold Out series are demoralizing. The state's own safety net is part of the pipeline for victims of trafficking.

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Politics Public education State government 85th Legislative Session Dan Huberty School finance Texas Legislature