The Austin Chronicle

Sacrificing Seniority

By Richard Whittaker, February 16, 2010, 11:51am, Newsdesk

No-one wants to be the new kid, not even if you're an elected official. When it comes to authority in the Texas Legislature, being a member of the majority party counts for a lot, but tenure can count for more. So it seems odd that the Republican caucus could lose a lot of valuable seniority if their primary season sees a lot of upsets.

Theoretically, the rules of the House change every session, but one of the first steps is always to compile a list of member ranked by seniority. The speaker allocates committee appointments, but there's an advantage to being a senior member. To quote the existing House rules:

For each standing substantive committee, [except the Committee on Appropriations,] a maximum of one-half of the membership, exclusive of the chair and vice-chair, shall be determined by seniority. The remaining membership of the committee shall be appointed by the speaker.
Seniority means getting the choice of good appointments, good committees, hell, even first dibs on good parking spots and the best seats on the floor. Losing senior members hurts a party's ability to get the good spots. The Republicans are already losing a lot of ranking State Reps due to retirements, but their primary season sees a bunch of orthodoxy-driven challenges to long-lasting incumbents that further dents their seniority issues.

Take the case of House Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith, R-Euless. First his opponents took the low road by falsely attacking him as soft on sex offenders, then the push was placed behind a wrong-headed accusation that he opposed voter ID. In fact, Smith had a version of election reform that contained voter ID but also had enough valuable reforms to the Texas election code and the over-stretched electoral system (such as voter education) that it probably would have passed the House with Democratic votes. We've repeatedly pointed this out to Empower Texans' CEO Mike Sullivan through our @Legeland account, but his conservative think tank has decided to play kingmaker in Euless and throw their weight behind challenger Jeff Cason instead.

As one Democratic analyst noted with incredulity, even if the Republicans hold the House they lose seniority picks on major committees. Cason, if he takes out Smith, will not be a committee chair, especially not on something as vital in a redistricting year as Elections.

It's a similar situation in Williamson County, where Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, is fighting for his political life against businessman Ben Bius. The challenger has somehow created an argument that Ogden, a budget-and-tax-slashing Republican, isn't fiscally conservative enough. Ogden was originally leaving the Senate anyway, but changed his mind specifically to work on the budget. The reality is that he is one of the most senior on the Republicans on the floor and, if he beats Democratic challenger Stephen Wyman in November, is broadly expected to be Senate Finance chair again next session. But what happens if he loses out to Bius?

Simple truth: Freshman senators don't chair the Senate Finance Committee. Freshmen Senators don't even sit on Senate Finance. It's really doubtful that the ranking Republicans were happy about losing Ogden by retirement: The one up side was that it was broadly expected that he would be replaced by Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown. Then Ogden got back in the race, so Gattis delivered the double-whammy of stepping aside and deciding not to run for re-election in his House District 20 seat. Now the WilCo GOP delegation has definitely lost Gattis (widely viewed as a statewide or congressional candidate within the decade) and could conceivably lose Ogden to Bius.

Ogden and Smith are far from alone. Ranking incumbents like Education chair Rob Eisler, State Affairs chair Burt Solomons, Redistricting chair Delwin Jones, Pensions, Investments and Financial Services chair Vicki Truitt, and House Administration chair Charlie Geren all find themselves on the receiving end of the ire of more-conservative-than-thou challengers. That's a lot of seniority to lose in one election cycle.

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