At the start of his second term leading the lower chamber, Dade Phelan talked to reporters about several legislative issues that will be decided this year.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said Thursday a select committee he formed in 2021 will address a number of social issues that conservatives are pushing this legislative session.
During a media briefing at the Capitol, the Beaumont Republican was asked if he had any appetite this session for GOP legislation targeting LGBTQ Texans, specifically a proposed ban on gender-affirming care for transgender children.
“It’s gonna be part of a much larger issue,” Phelan said. “I created a select committee on youth health and safety for this specific reason, dealing with all these issues, whether it’s the issue you highlight or whether it’s issues in the classroom.”
Phelan said there are “some — very select, I think — school districts” that have been “entirely inappropriate in getting between the discussions of the parents and children.” He noted he has a first grader, “and if he came home and talked about sexuality in any form or fashion to me, I will be down to that school in minutes.”
His comments signaled some solidarity with those advocating for a Florida-style ban on classroom lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation at the elementary school level. One bill filed in Texas would extend through middle school. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the presiding officer in the Senate, has said he wants to pass such legislation, which critics warn could further marginalize LGBTQ students and families while exposing teachers to potential legal threats.
Phelan formed the select committee in September 2021, with his office saying at the time that the goal was to “improve coordination of mental health services, education, juvenile justice, and family and protective services for Texas youth,” particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic. He expanded the committee after last year’s Uvalde massacre and tasked it with looking into school shootings. The panel’s chair is Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, and its vice chair is Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, who is a lesbian.
Phelan said he also wants a focus on the influence social media companies have on children. After being reelected as speaker Tuesday, he delivered a speech in which he said that major tech companies are “prey[ing] on the insecurities of children, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, sexualization and indoctrination.”
Phelan has a complicated history with LGBTQ issues. He said in 2019 that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community” but in his first year as speaker, he allowed passage of a controversial bill to restrict transgender students’ participation in school athletics.
Still, Phelan kept off the floor legislation to outlaw gender-affirming care for kids, despite intense pressure from his right. He did not specifically address that proposal Thursday other than to say it is one of the issues the select committee would examine.
Here are several other topics Phelan addressed in the briefing Thursday:
Democratic committee chairs
A day after shutting down a highly anticipated effort to eliminate Democratic committee chairs in the Republican-controlled House, Phelan defended the practice as a “longstanding tradition” that makes Texas exceptional. He said so many people are moving to Texas because the “Texas Legislature, especially the Texas House, delivers on our promises” to voters.
Phelan reiterated his desire to revive Chapter 313, the corporate tax break program that lawmakers allowed to expire last year. He said that decision was “a little shortsighted” and emboldened nearby states who have their own tax incentives.
“This session we can have a new program,” Phelan said. “We can have all that oversight and and transparency and accountability and hopefully move forward, just so we can compete with other states.”
Phelan said there will be “plenty more debate” in the House about the botched law-enforcement response to the Uvalde massacre. He suggested the House investigative committee on the Uvalde shooting could update its report “in the coming days or weeks.” That report first came out in July and cited “systemic failures” in the law enforcement response. Hundreds of officers who responded to the school, including those from the Texas Department of Public Safety, did not confront the shooter for more than an hour after initial reports of shots fired.
As for the fate of DPS Director Steve McCraw, Phelan said McCraw “serves at the pleasure of the governor, and so that’s the governor’s decision.” But Phelan said McCraw was “open” with the House investigative committee “and we think this next session he will be equally as open.”
Phelan traveled to Uvalde last week and visited with families of victims. The city’s state representative, Democrat Tracy King, cited that outreach as he gave a speech Tuesday seconding Phelan’s nomination for speaker.
Phelan said Thursday that King will have a bill this session to raise the age to buy an assault weapon, a priority of some Uvalde families. Phelan said he had the “deepest respect” for King but said — as he has before — that he does not believe the House has the votes to pass such a bill, even setting aside constitutional issues that Gov. Greg Abbott has cited.
“[Those issues] will not prevent a bill from being discussed and being debated,” Phelan said. “I just know, given I can count votes, and I told the families very candidly in Uvalde, ‘I don’t want to mislead you. I just want to tell you, this is where the votes are in the Texas House.’”
Advocates for expanding gambling in Texas are preparing to make a second push this session after seeing their proposals fizzle out in 2021. Phelan reiterated that he has no problem with their cause, noting he lives “a stone’s throw” from casinos in his district bordering Louisiana.
He continued to emphasize, though, that he does not want to see a situation in Texas where people “walk into every convenience store and see 15 … slot machines.”
“I want to see destination-style casinos that are high quality and that create jobs and that improve the lifestyle of those communities,” he said, adding that he thinks the “average voter would approve” that “in this day and age.”
Photo: Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, presides over the chamber on Tuesday. Phelan was elected as speaker for a second term this week, at the beginning of the 2023 legislative session that runs through May 29. Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune