Matt Rinaldi’s conservative pilgrim’s progress: `We’re winning the battles more often now.’

Good morning Austin:

Earlier this week I did a First Reading on my interview with Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas. Villalba, who ended the regular session in kind of funk, felt rejuvenated in the special session, mostly because he felt Speaker Joe Straus had stood tall.

Yesterday I interviewed Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, who is the Dallas County Republican least politically like Villalba. Rinaldi ended last session in the thick of a brawl on the floor of the House that put the death threat in sine die.

To the extent that Rinaldi is frustrated by the special session, it is because he thinks Straus is too tall in teh saddle.

Here are excerpts from our interview conducted on my favorite bench outside the Capitol cafeteria.

FR: Would you rate the special session a success?

RINALDI: It remains to be seen. It looks like we’re going to pass some sort of property tax rollback provision. I don’t  know if the rollback is going to be six percent or four percent, which makes a huge difference, and whether or not it’s going to apply to all citizens of Texas,  or whether it’s going to be bracketed to just a few.

So, being the number one priority and not even knowing how that’s going to come out, it’s hard to assess the session.

What’s really important to me is property tax reform, the women’s privacy act and school finance reform and none of those three have yet been passed, so it remains to be seen how successful the session is.

I think a four percent rollback rate applying statewide would be ideal. A four percent rollback rate would mean cities and towns would  be able to raise taxes 20 percent in a five-year period, and any elected official who would oppose that rollback rate is saying they should be able to raise it more and voters shouldn’t even be allowed to have a say. It’s ridiculous.

I would like it four percent and to apply to every political subdivision.

FR:  What is the significance of Calendars Committee Chairman Todd Hunter backing off on not allowing amendments to the property tax bill when it comes to the floor Saturday?ificance of Hunter relenting on the rule to allow amendments

RINALDI: It was an unprecedented move to  attempt to silence members. To tel them that the most important bill to million of Texans who are being crushed under the weight of sky-rocketing property taxes can’t even hear different approaches being debated. I think it was a heavy-handed iron-fist approach. I’m glad that it was rejected.

There were enough votes to defeat the rule. Leadership doesn’t have the hold it once did.

It’s the same story with real property tax reform, with the women’s privacy act as it was for a while with the school finance reform commission. The conservative legislation that the governor has put on his call, that he’s pushed is being obstructed by the House leadership.

Straus has certainly been very demonstrative this session. I think he’s been flexing more muscle than he ever has. I also think he’s weaker than he’s been since I’ve been here.

More demonstrably than ever now, it’s not a member-driven body. Everything’s been driven from the top down. It’s effectively a legislative dictatorship the way it’s being run now, and I think that Calendar rule exhibited that.

FR: If so, the dictatorship relented in that case.

RINALDI: You still need the votes.

He’s flexing his muscles more than ever but I also think the leadership is weaker. (Absent Straus) I think you’d get an outcome more like in the Senate, where 18 of 20 bills passed right off the bat.

I would pass all 20. I think the 20 issues were well-chosen by the governor. I think they were prime conservative issues, mixed with issues that received bipartisan support. I think for the House to have passed only a few of these before this week is unacceptable.

Before this week, the House had been in session about six hours and passed three of the bills that the governor put on his call. We passed other bills that were for show. The Senate passed 18 of the 20 and worked for 36 hours to do it.

I’m thrilled we passed the abortion insurance bill. I think that was a good substantive piece of legislation and huge victory. I hope we are going to pass annexation reform, but I hope it’s annexation reform that applies to everybody. We seem to be excluding those who live in rural areas and I think that’s troubling.

Saturday we are going to have a property tax reform bill. We’re gong to see if it’s real reform or if it’s just a bill to pass to say we passed a bill, and we’re going to have amendments hopefully to make it stronger to provide some real relief for homeowners.

The governor and lieutenant governor have worked to pass all 20 bills and the sole obstruction has been House leadership.

(Fourteen legislators have asked the House Republican Caucus to meet Thursday, the day after the session ends, to talk about the procedure for electing the speaker in the next session.)

RINALDI: I think any procedure would have to be to have our nominee for leadership to be chosen within the Republican Caucus and then that nominee would be chosen by the whole body and I certainly, myself, would pledge to support any nominee that is chosen by the caucus.

FR: Should the choice of speaker be a secret ballot?

RINALDI: I’m undecided. I don’t know. I know the one thing I’m 100 percent decided on is the Republicans ought to be choosing their nominee for speaker and then that nominee ought to be chosen by the body with all of us agreeing to support the Republican nominee.

FR: Will Straus be speaker next session?

RINALDI: I don’t know.

FR: Straus and his supporters say that he is not willful, that what you are seeing is the will of the House..

RINALDI: But it’s clearly not, otherwise we’d be taking votes on these things. His actions have been designed to prevent votes, things are killed in committee. It’s designed to prevent a public vote on a bill.

FR: What would like to see on school finance?

RINALDI: I’d like to see a school finance commission be appointed to look at ways to build the school finance system from the ground up and look at ways to eliminate Robin Hood.

FR: Would you like to do away with property taxes altogether as a source of school funding?

RINALDI: I think property taxes are an inefficient method of raising revenue because you’re taxing capital. When you tax something, there’s less of it. Economic growth comes from capital. I think you want to tax consumption so you incentivize people to produce more and consume less.

FR: The Senate Education Committee is meeting on the House school financing plan Friday.

RINALDI:  The Fisher-Price Bill. That’s what I call it, because we’re spending imaginary money, voting on a bill that has absolutely no chance of passage. I liken it to putting a Fisher-Price steering wheel on your desk, so while we’re voting on an imaginary bill we can drive an imaginary car – honk, honk.

Huberty’s school finance bill will not become law. That was a show put on by leadership.

I’m in favor of teacher pay raises. I though the lieutenant governor’s plan was a good one. I liked what he said at the beginning of session about eliminating Robin Hood. People don’t realize how small in the overall budget is the amount of money spent on Robin Hood each year and we could effectively eliminate it in one budget session by making the state make the payments for the local school districts.

FR: Why a commission?

RINALDI: We know the traditional legislative process has failed to produce a significant change in school finance over the last several legislative sessions, so we need to do something that’s more likely to produce a better product, and I think a school finance commission focused solely on rebuilding a school finance system from the ground up is definitely more likely than the legislative process to produce a product to at least start the discussion.

FR: On the privacy/bathroom bill. Was opposition from the business community instrumental in its demise?

RINALDI: Business community? Forty-five businesses that wrote a letter? Arbitrary, random business letters writing letters?

FR: Some big ones. Some name brands.

RINALDI: There are some big ones. But as an overall percentage of the economy though …

It might be important to the speaker.

In the end, the governor showed his support. The lieutenant governor showed his support. The speaker has made that his last stand and has refused to move. So in the end it’s him standing alone against it.

FR: Do you hear a lot about it from constituents?

RINALDI: The funny thing is the misinformation campaign has been so widespread.

People are under a misapprehension about what the bill does. When I tell them it doesn’t provide criminal penalties for using the wrong bathroom, they usually say, “Oh, never mind.”

What the bill actually does is prevent businesses from being sued for adopting one particular bathroom policy over another and leaves them free to make their own decisions on it. Then they are definitely in favor of that. And then when I say it sets a policy for schools that prevents boys and girls from using the same restrooms or showering together, they say, well that’s common sense. People don’t realize that all it is setting the clock back to two years ago before all this gender theology craziness started … the Obama Title IX directive.

FR: Will the failure of that legislation and others among the 20 that you backed, leave you feeling that you lost ground in the special session?

RINALDI: I don’t think it feels like lost ground. If we come out of special session with an abortion insurance bill that saves lives, I’m glad we had it. If we come out of special session with some property tax relief, then I’m glad we had it.

However, if we come out with one or two things, a property tax bill that doesn’t accomplish real reform and people use that as an excuse not to do more, that’s where it can be harmful.

You don’t want to pass bills just to pass them, because then people say the work is done.

All twenty items would have passed if they came to the floor.

I think you would have had the votes for at least 18 of 20 them easily.

FR: So you’re not buying the argument that the way House works its will is simply more deliberative than the Senate, and that’s what’s special about the House.

RINALDI: Pfff. Notate that as “laughs.”

That’s what people would have said about the Senate until they got real conservative leadership in the Senate and you see a lot different result. When people say that they are making excuses.

FR: But isn’t the Senate more lockstep?

RINALDI: I think the Senate is far more cohesive than the House.

FR: But are they happy?

RINALDI: I see more disgruntled Republicans in the House then I do in the Senate, because these are people who ran on conservative issues and obviously, they want to accomplish them. When the walls (in the House) keep getting put up and things are being driven from the top down in way they disagree with, I think you are going to see people get more disgruntled.

I think we definitely are moving in a more conservative direction. Votes we lost last session, we won this session. Like the sanctuary cities bill. That’s a huge example, on a very high-profile bill.

The Cook vote on trying to strip the Krause amendment (to pay for the restoration of funding for acute care therapy for disabled children with disaster relief money instead of tapping the rainy day fund) as well. You have a committee chair of the most powerful House committee trying to strip an amendment from a bill and loses. That wouldn’t have happened last session. It happened now.

We’ve had two straight sessions with a budget that didn’t increase more than population plus inflation in any year, which is something that didn’t happen in the previous 15 years. We finally addressed a substantive illegal immigration bill with the sanctuary city bill, which has not happened in previous sessions.

HB 2 was a tremendous abortion success, but also the dismemberment abortion ban, defunding Planned Parenthood were all huge pro-life victories, and not just one, but numerous abortion victories this session,  the abortion insurance bill now in the special session.

On conservative priority after conservative priority, we’re still having to fight for it but we’re winning the battles more often now.

FR: Do you think Gov. Abbott should consider calling a second special session?

RINALDI: It could be worthwhile, but only if the governor makes clear that he will keep calling us back until a certain bill (or bills) is passed.

Here is the description of the last day of the regular session from Lawrence Wright in his New Yorker piece, America’s Future Is Texas With right-wing zealots taking over the legislature even as the state’s demographics shift leftward, Texas has become the nation’s bellwether.

The session concluded this year on Memorial Day, and so fallen soldiers were honored. Legislators said goodbye to colleagues with whom they had endured a hundred and forty of the most intense days of their lives.

Meanwhile, buses began arriving at the capitol. Hundreds of protesters, some from distant states, burst through the doors, filling all four levels of the rotunda and spilling into the House gallery. They unfurled banners (“SEE YOU IN COURT!”) and chanted, “S.B. 4 has got to go!” One of the protest organizers, Stephanie Gharakhanian, explained to reporters, “We wanted to make sure we gave them the sendoff they deserve.”

A few of the Democrats in the chamber looked up at the chanting protesters and began to applaud. State troopers cleared the gallery and broke up the protest, but by that time some of the Republicans on the floor had taken offense. Matt Rinaldi, a member of the Freedom Caucus from Dallas County, who is sometimes rated the most conservative member of the House, later told Fox Business Network that he noticed several banners bearing the message “I AM UNDOCUMENTED AND HERE TO STAY.” He called ICE, and then bragged to his Hispanic colleagues about it.

A shoving match broke out on the House floor. Curses flew. Afterward, Rinaldi posted on Facebook that Poncho Nevárez, a Democrat from the border town of Eagle Pass, had threatened his life. “Poncho told me he would ‘get me on the way to my car,’ ” Rinaldi wrote, adding that he made it clear that “I would shoot him in self-defense.”

FR: Does your fame/notoriety help or hurt you politically?

RINALDI: Among Republicans, being strong on immigration helps. Among the general public, the sanctuary city issues, if you look at the Texas Tribune poll, it polls very well even among independent voters. 70 percent of independents supported the policy in the sanctuary city bill, 85 percent of Republicans. My district is highly minority, but the minority is Asians who supported the sanctuary city policy 55-45 in that poll.

If you look at the Asian-American precincts in my district, they vote overwhelmingly Democrat but they vote overwhelmingly for me. I have a very close ties with the Indian community. In the end all politics is local and I do have very close connections with individuals in my community from both parties, so that’s why I do well there.

FR: In view of how the session ended, was it hard to come back, were their lingering hard feelings, were people giving you funny looks, have you talked to Poncho?

RINALDI:  Yeah, we talk to each other..I’ve talked to him. We’ve talked. (Rep. Ramon) Romero and i have talked.

FR: Do you think the incident has compromised your ability to be an effective legislator?


People know I stand up for my principles. People know I act on that.

This morning I asked Nevárez what he thought.

“We talked and forgave each other if that’s what he’s referring to,” he texted me. “Don’t know much about effectiveness part but time will figure that out.”

Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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