By Mike Ward
Originally published March 4, 2015
AUSTIN – When the Senate Education Committee convened on the Senate floor Wednesday, just minutes after the day’s session recessed, senators quickly discussed and passed a bill doing something about high school graduations.
Even though the meeting involved public business, their discussions were not.
The reason: A new Senate rule, sergeants-at-arms insisted as they ordered staff and reporters to outside of a brass rail several feet away where the proceedings were mostly inaudible. Even though the meeting officially was listed as a “public hearing.”
Afterward, Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said he was unaware the meeting had been made off limits. “We’re not doing secret meetings, no, and I don’t know why this occurred,” he said.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Rick DeLeon, who ordered reporters and staff away from the meeting, referred questions to Patsy Spaw, the secretary of the Senate.
Spaw said the new policy was implemented to keep order on the floor after the day’s sessions, not to limit public access to committee meetings that are supposed to be open to the public. There had been previous issues over the quality of recordings of the meetings, when noise levels were high in the echo-prone Senate Chamber, she said.
In the past, when Senate committees have so-called “desk meetings,” the public, news media, legislative staff and lobbyists have been allowed onto the Senate floor to be present at the proceedings, just as they would if the meetings were held in a committee hearing room at the Capitol.
Had he known about the new policy, Taylor said he would have moved to a senator’s desk nearer to the brass rail, where staff and reporters could have had better access to the proceedings. Instead, the meeting was held at a desk nearer to the center of the Senate floor, where most of what was said could not be understood.
Staff members who were kept away from the meeting quickly protested to their senator bosses, and reporters filed a complaint with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose office said he was unaware of any such policy and promised to investigate.
Education lobbyists clustered outside the Senate Chamber and not allowed inside to attend the meeting were unhappy, as well.
An aide to Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office does not enforce public meetings violations against the legislative branch. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who polices public meeting violations, was not immediately available for comment.
For her part, Spaw conceded that the policy “did not work. We won’t do it again.”
Committee meetings on the Senate floor were an issue in January, when several senators, including state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, tried to get them banned when the Senate approved its rules for the session. Their argument was that desk meetings did not offer the same public transparency of the Senate’s proceedings as hearings that are held in committee rooms equipped with streaming video that can be seen live online.
A majority of senators in the GOP-controlled chamber, many of whom were elected on platforms that state government should be more accountable to Texans, rejected that change.
“This was an effort to get away from having those big, ugly scrums where no one can hear . . . a first attempt to come up with a solution to make the process better,” Watson said. “I think it’s fair to say it didn’t work.”
Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, said the policy that effectively closed Wednesday’s meeting is part of a troubling trend.
“There’s an increasingly dark cloud over public access in the Texas Senate,” he said. “This kind of move is clearly intended to suppress the right of the people to know what is going on in their government, to hear who’s saying what at these hearings and to see what is transpiring as it happens, to know the basis of the decisions that are being made.”
Taylor said the bill that was being discussed in the meeting was Senate Bill 149, a measure that creates special graduation committees for some Texas high-school students who cannot graduate because they have not passed a state-required test, even though they may have other achievements that could substitute.
School officials have estimated there may be as many as 28,000 students who cannot graduate this year because the quandary.
If the purpose of Wednesday’s last-minute meeting – announced by Taylor just minutes before the Senate recessed until Monday – was to speed up Senate passage of the bill, as some senators suggested, the opposite could now be true.
The lack of a real public hearing could subject the bill to a point of order when it comes up for final passage in the Senate, and that could necessitate a do-over in the committee before it gets to the full chamber for consideration – if any senator questions it.