Valley lawmakers say they’re losing a friend

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican, announced his retirement Wednesday morning, stunning some state lawmakers in the Rio Grande Valley who said the region will be losing an ally.

“He’s been a friend to the Rio Grande Valley,” said Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen, highlighting Straus’s commitment to public schools and health care.

Straus, R-San Antonio, will not seek re-election, leaving the speakership open to the possibility of a more conservative lawmaker, an evident concern for some state representatives in the Rio Grande Valley who opposed recent legislation like the amendment to Senate Bill 4, which allows officers to inquire about a person’s immigration status during traffic stops.

Straus was able to prevent Republican lawmakers from passing legislation known as the bathroom bill, which would have prohibited transgender people from using restrooms or dressing rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

“We spent 10 times as many hours discussing the bathroom bill versus dealing with the crisis in public school finance,” said Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville. “I don’t think that’s what Texans want us to be doing.”

Oliveira, who has served alongside five different speakers, said he had never experienced a session like this past one.

“The same things that are plaguing Washington … are starting to rise in Texas government,” said Oliveira.

But the possibility of a speaker who could prioritize legislation like the bathroom bill, instead of economic issues and education, worries some lawmakers.

“If I were part of the business community right now, I’d be very concerned” with the upcoming speakership election, Oliveira said.

Currently, 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats make up the Texas House of Representatives.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, called Republican solidarity in the House “splintered at best.”

Democrats hope to pick up seats, giving them more influence into who leads the chamber.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus — including all Rio Grande Valley representatives — took part of Wednesday afternoon to join in on a private conference call discussing Straus’s retirement.

“As long as we stay united in our efforts,” Canales said, “… I believe that at the end of the day, the Democratic Caucus will have the deciding say on who the speaker of the House is.”

Valley lawmakers said they have not yet decided who they will support since only a few lawmakers have announced their intention to run for the speakership position.

“I want to hear everybody out and get all the facts,” Canales said.

Though praised by Valley lawmakers, Straus was criticized by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick who in the past called him a closet Democrat.

“I think he’s done a great job for the entire state,” said Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya, “And many times he’s kind of the voice of reason.”

Local lawmakers highlighted their appointments to key committees as an affirmation of Straus’s commitment to Rio Grande Valley.

“He’s going to be missed,” said Sergio Munoz, D-Mission. “We’re very grateful for his leadership.”