This is a story of vigilance, a zombie bill that wouldn’t die, and the courage of one man who stood in the doorway of truth and held back the forces of evil. Most of all, this is the story of God’s faithfulness.
As many of you know, at the beginning of the spring the Texas Home School Coalition inducted its first class of “THSC Watchmen”: six home schooled graduates who dedicated five months of their lives during the Texas legislative session to protecting the Texas home school community and the parental rights that had made their own educations possible.
During the session I had the privilege of leading this team, which reviewed and analyzed every single bill that was filed by the Texas Legislature (more than 9,000) and tracked every bill that had the potential to positively or negatively affect home schooling or parental rights.
A Bad Bill, You Say?
In February we came across Senate Bill 768 (SB 768) by Sen. Carlos Uresti. In its original form this bill dealt with several parts of the Texas Family Code specifically related to the parent-child relationship, which is why it came up on our radar. What made us particularly cautious about this bill is that it would change Texas statute in a way that would allow the laws in other countries to affect Texas courts.
In the worst-case scenario, if a family in another country were jailed for home schooling (like some home school families in Germany) and then fled to Texas, CPS could use the grounds that they were convicted for home schooling in Germany as reasons for taking away their children here in Texas.
“That sounds absurd,” you say, but remember that CPS seems to specialize in doing absurd things, like “kidnapping” children because of job security.
Now let’s make a couple of things clear. First, just because a bill is filed doesn’t mean that the author is serious about it. Sometimes legislators will file a bill to appease a wealthy donor back in the district. Or sometimes the author has filed the bill intending to work it through the process but ends up becoming preoccupied with more “important” legislation. So when we first found SB 768 we performed a quick analysis and then added it to our list of bills to keep tabs on (which we’ll be publishing in a few weeks, so keep your eyes peeled) and moved on.
In March we received word that the bill had been scheduled for a hearing. Right away we dispatched THSC Watchman Jeremy Newman to testify against the bill and make our concerns known. Jeremy listened to the initial layout and explanation by the bill’s author (Senator Uresti) and then rose to make his own testimony against SB 768.
The committee as a whole was receptive to Jeremy’s points, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that Jeremy’s testimony was followed by Cecilia Wood’s. Cecilia is an experienced family law attorney and parental rights advocate from Austin who provides critical and much-appreciated legal support at the Texas Capitol for conservative organizations, such as Concerned Women for America and the Texas Home School Coalition.
In her testimony she agreed that what Jeremy had said was accurate and that the bill should be amended to remove the offending language. Then Cecilia pointed out that another part of the bill, which appeared to be innocuous, would actually create an undue financial burden on innocent families fighting to keep their children out of the clutches of CPS. (see documentation at end of post for full details )
Directly after the testimony was over Senator Uresti and his staff asked Jeremy and Cecilia to accompany them into a private corner where they could discuss the matter frankly. Senator Uresti acknowledged his staff’s oversight about making foreign laws apply to Texas citizens and agreed to remove that part of the bill, but he was less enthused about Cecilia’s testimony and promised that his staff would work with us to find a compromise.
Thus began a month-long ordeal in which Cecilia and Senator Uresti’s office corresponded back and forth on how to come to terms. During this time thousands of bills were moving forward with public hearings, floor debates, and key votes that our Watchmen team was dealing with while we continued to monitor SB 768.
Once you’ve worked through a complete legislative session you get a feel for which bills have a lot of support, and are going to clearly move forward, and which bills are lower priority, are stagnating, and will eventually die through attrition. By April we had placed SB 768 in that latter category.
On April 8 our monitoring systems reported that the bill had been voted out of the Senate committee with slightly different language. The changes removed all references to foreign law (good!), but the bill still retained language that would give CPS an unprecedented advantage against innocent families undergoing CPS accusations (very bad!). Namely, it could force families to undergo two CPS trials when the first one couldn’t prove wrongdoing. Parents would have to pay for both trials, while all the while their children remained locked into the CPS system.
It became clear quickly that this bill was bad. Very bad.
Right away we contacted Uresti’s office to let his staff know that while we appreciated that they removed the foreign law language, we still found the bill unacceptable. They were quick to say that they were still willing to negotiate and that we could all still figure something out.
Ten days later, on April 18, the bill passed the Senate and was sent to the House. No changes had been made; it still had the same awful provisions that CPS wanted. The argument by Uresti’s office for the past month had been that these provisions were necessary in order for CPS to receive additional funding from the federal government.
Aha! So that’s why! The professed motive behind this bill is that a dysfunctional and bloated bureaucracy wants more money to continue its dysfunction and bloat? Great. Just great.
How much money were we talking about? They wouldn’t say. In fact, they said they didn’t actually know.
What? Are you kidding me? You’re planning to change Texas law and you don’t even know how much money you’re going to get in exchange? Exactly how did you get elected in the first place?
Then it dawned on us: Uresti’s office probably had no intention of ever compromising on that portion of the bill. That was the entire purpose of the bill: to change Texas laws for the worse because Big Daddy Federal Government was dangling a carrot in front of Texas CPS.
Sick. Just sick.
The bill was scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee on Monday, May 6, at 2 p.m., or upon adjournment of the Texas House. Through a series of strange and unexpected events, our Watchmen team was able to register our position against SB 768 but just barely missed the chance to testify against it. Thankfully, Cecilia was present during the oral testimony and once again gave a stellar refutation to the bill.
The House committee took testimony and then left the bill pending. Once again, this was a sign that perhaps the legislators were finally clueing in that this was a really bad bill. With less than a month remaining in the session, it was likely that this bill wasn’t going anywhere if they didn’t vote it out soon.
Turned out, this bill was far from dead.
One week later the committee voted the bill out unanimously on Monday, May 13, and its official House sponsor was Rep. Elliott Naishtat (Democrat) from Austin, all of which wasn’t too surprising. What was surprising is that it had been sent to the Local and Consent Calendar.
For those who are unfamiliar with the process in the Texas House, whenever a bill is voted out of committee the chairman of that committee can elect to send it to one of two places: the Regular Calendars Committee or the Local and Consent Calendars Committee. Controversial bills are sent to the Regular Calendars Committee, while bills that are expected to pass unanimously in the House are sent to the Local and Consent Calendars Committee.
Is the Local and Consent Calendar ever abused? Yes, definitely. It’s not uncommon for a legislator to try to “sneak” a bill onto the Local and Consent Calendar. If successful, his bill will be brought up early during the day, with possibly a hundred other bills that are quickly glossed over and voted on by legislators who aren’t really paying attention to what’s happening. After all, why should they? The bills are supposed to be non-controversial and would have unanimous support anyway.
We were in a pickle and we desperately needed to prevent SB 768 from ever being passed by the Local and Consent Calendars Committee. There was one thing that was in our favor: time.
Time Was On Our Side
We knew that it would take a few days for the clerks to file the necessary paperwork to get the bill in front of the members of the Local and Consent Calendars Committee. Plus, there were a couple hundred other bills queued up in the committee. What were the chances that the members would try to pass SB 768 while ignoring all of those other bills? Finally, the deadline for the last batch of bills that the Local and Consent Calendars Committee could pass was set for 9 a.m. on Monday, May 20. This was a waiting game that based on everything we knew, we could win.
Our Watchmen team continued working on other bills, tracking them, amending them, and killing them when necessary. We watched the calendar as the days slipped by. Soon we had reached the weekend, and the bill still hadn’t moved out of the Local and Consent Calendar. We had this one in the bag for sure!
On Sunday, May 19, the day before the deadline we watched closely to see if the bill was going to move—and nothing happened. Finally, on Monday morning, May 20, at 9:15 a.m., the deadline came, the bill hadn’t moved, and we declared victory!
Victory at last . . .
. . . or so we thought.
A Curious Thing
We marked SB 768 down as a success on our hit list and then moved on for the rest of the day with other bills that vied for attention. The next deadline on our calendar was just a couple of days away: Wednesday, the last day for all Senate bills to pass the House.
On Tuesday night a curious thing happened. We had finally wrapped up work for the day around 9 p.m. and were taking a much-needed respite. One of our Watchmen, Ben Snodgrass, is also a student at Patrick Henry College and was working on a report for his school that night. At 10 p.m. he took a break from his report and naturally did what someone who lived and breathed the Texas Legislature would do: he started reading bills—for fun.
Even though Ben and the rest of us knew that SB 768 had died the previous day, Ben decided to pull it up anyway. To his astonishment he discovered that not everything was as it seemed.
SB 768 had “come back to life” and was scheduled to be voted on in the House Local and Consent Calendar—the next morning.
At the beginning of every legislative session the House adopts rules by which to govern itself. Because these rules are made by the members of the House of Representatives, these same lawmakers can vote to suspend their own rules.
The chairman of the Local and Consent Calendars Committee is Senfronia Thompson (Democrat) of Houston. She’s been a representative for more than 40 years and is one of the most powerful members of the House. On Tuesday she made a motion to suspend the House rules so that her committee could meet and place certain legislation before the body the following day. Her motion carried, and her committee placed 131 bills on the Wednesday agenda that had supposedly died in the Local and Consent Calendars Committee the previous morning.
SB 768 was one of those bills. Just like that, the bill that would never die—that we had finally killed—had come back to life.
Instantly our team mobilized. We opened up charts and spreadsheets and began analyzing data, trying to understand what had happened and what our options were to stop the bill. We began compiling information and crafted an opposition document that succinctly explained why SB 768 was harmful to families.
Slowly we began to realize that our only realistic option was to find a single House member brave enough to stop a bill that appeared to have the establishment pulling for it.
The one drawback and risk associated with placing a bill on the Local and Consent Calendar is that if a single legislator decides he doesn’t like it, he can rush to the back microphone and speak against the bill for 10 minutes. According to the rules this procedure would remove the bill from the Local and Consent Calendar and send it back to the original House committee that had recommended the bill be sent to the Local and Consent Calendars Committee.
But for a legislator to knock a bill from the Local and Consent Calendar was considered pretty gutsy. Not only would it make the chairman of the originating House committee look bad, since he had originally given it the erroneous “OK” as a non-controversial bill, but the bill’s author would view the legislator as the “killer” of his bill and might possibly try to retaliate.
At the Texas Capitol there are legends of legislators who got crossways with each other during a session and then spent the rest of their time on Capitol Hill killing each other’s bills. Unprofessional, but true.
What this meant for us is that while we could kill the bill with one legislator, it would have to be someone with enough fire in his or her belly that he or she wouldn’t mind any possible retaliation, either on Capitol Hill or at the ballot box.
We began sifting through names of likely candidates to do the deed for us. By midnight we could list a handful of representatives whom we felt would have the courage to pull off something like this.
The next morning Jeremy Newman and I hit the Texas Capitol bright and early and began combing the hallways with our list. We discreetly distributed our literature to offices that we felt would be sympathetic and we worked the representatives for almost an hour when we finally found our man.
Representative Jonathan Stickland invited us into his office and patiently listened as we explained the many flaws with SB 768. About halfway through our spiel he asked, “Will this make CPS mad?”
“Then tell me no more. I’ll do it.”
With those words the real fun began.
The House finally convened, and our entire THSC Watchmen team viewed the proceedings from the House Gallery, where we were joined by our friend, attorney Cecilia Wood. We watched as Representative Stickland walked to the back mic multiple times and knocked numerous Local and Consent bills to the bottom of the agenda, shaking up many members of the House establishment.
Finally, SB 768 was called up by the House speaker, and Stickland strode to the back mic and pronounced words that I will never forget: “Mr. Speaker, I intend to talk for 10 minutes, or 10 hours, or 10 days, or whatever it takes to make sure this bill does not become law.” Unsurprisingly, the House leadership was loathe to let the bill die so quickly, so they postponed it until after lunch.
Shortly after the lunch break our team, which was still seated in the gallery, watched Representative Stickland walk into the back hallway with the bill sponsor, Rep. Elliott Naishtat. Seconds later Cecilia Wood got a phone call; Stickland and Naishtat wanted to meet with us.
Not Happy At All
Cecilia, Jeremy, and I went to the back hallway to meet the representatives. Naishtat was not happy, at all. If looks could kill we would never have left the Texas Capitol alive.
Naishtat gave the usual song and dance about why the House should pass the bill: CPS was missing out on money from the federal government. Finally, Stickland asked him how much money we were talking about, and for the first time we got a solid number: $2 million.
Two million dollars? That was it? This was almost laughable. In the grand scheme of things, two million dollars is almost nothing to the Texas Legislature—or to CPS, which has an annual budget of more than $1.25 billion.
Stickland was incredulous and said that for two million dollars he would never enact this legislation if it harmed even just one family, let alone thousands. Naishtat made one last appeal, saying that we should pass the bill and then fix its flaws during the interim, but we were firm in our stance that passing a bill without thinking through the consequences was irresponsible and no way to make laws. (Reminds me of a certain federal healthcare mandate, actually.)
With that, Stickland strode back onto the House floor and handed the parliamentarian a slip of paper with the signatures of four other representatives who were willing to kill the bill, and SB 768 died for good.
An Act of God
If you think about it, there was no good reason we should have been checking “dead” bills in the middle of the night. But for some reason we did. Or more specifically, Ben Snodgrass did.
Ben chose to look at bills when he wasn’t expected to be working. Not only that, but he chose to look at bills that we knew were “dead” and that didn’t need any more attention. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have discovered that SB 768 was still alive until it was too late to take any action.
Can we say that “eternal vigilance” played a part? Absolutely, we should definitely commend Ben for going above and beyond the call of duty, but even more importantly, we should recognize that God was looking out for us.
If God had not prompted Ben to look at bills on Tuesday evening, then right now, at this very moment, SB 768 would be Texas law. If a freshman legislator had not bucked the expectations of the establishment and fought for what was right, with no regard for himself, SB 768 would be Texas law.
CPS would have a new tool in their arsenal to destroy the lives of hundreds of families that would have otherwise been declared innocent. CPS would be able to keep children away from parents and in the clutches of the government system longer. CPS would significantly increase the number of court cases that already clog our judicial system and would force innocent parents and taxpayers alike to shoulder the burden of hiring attorneys for longer periods of time.
The only winners in such a world? Government bureaucracy and trial lawyers. The losers? Fit parents, young children, and taxpayers.
God has His eye on His people, and SB 768 is living (or “dead”) proof of that fact.
Many of you may have heard that, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe when the Texas Legislature is in session.” I assure you, it’s all true.
Without the vigilance of ordinary people willing to sacrifice their time to fight for their way of life, our freedoms would be guaranteed only until a government agency noticed there was no one watching the walls.
Without the courage of legislators willing to stand for what is right, even when their colleagues couldn’t care less, our Republic would be as sturdy as a sandcastle on a beach.
Without the divine hand of God guiding our steps, our freedoms would have no basis for existence, let alone continuance.
It’s because of the persistence of ordinary citizens, the perseverance of principled legislators, and the blessing of God that we can proudly say:
“We live in Texas, where people are free.”