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Northeast Texas legislators Slaton, Van Deaver return to Austin as new session ramps up

Newly redrawn districts have changed the composition of the Texas legislature, which began its 2023 session this week.
Tamir Kalifa
/
Getty Images
Newly redrawn districts have changed the composition of the Texas legislature, which began its 2023 session this week.

Slaton, one of three Republicans who voted against returning House Speaker Dade Phelan, cited his opposition to the practice of allocating committee chair roles to member of both major parties.

The Texas Legislature is back in action, seeking to enact laws that affect Texans from the Piney Woods to the Trans-Pecos and from the Panhandle to the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The Legislature will look similar to the body that adjourned at the end of its 2021 session, but not entirely. Redistricting – helped along by a good bit of GOP-managed redistricting – has turned the House of Representatives into a more Republican-friendly chamber, with 85 GOP senators taking office alongside 65 Democratic colleagues.

Two of those Republicans represent Northeast Texas; what’s more, they take their seats with a healthy chunk of money left over from the previous session. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hagar estimates the Legislature will have an additional $33 billion to spend … if it is so inclined.

The Legislature is still getting organized and – if it follows custom – likely won’t get serious about legislating for a while as it prepares to conclude its regular session in early June.

Two Republicans, Rep. Gary Van Deaver and Rep. Bryan Slaton, represent House Districts 1 and 2 respectively. They bring differing perspectives and ideologies to their jobs and how they intend to represent their constituents.

Slaton, from Royse City, wasted little time in roiling the legislative waters by being one of three House members to vote against Speaker Dade Phelan’s second term as the Man of the House. Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, was elected speaker by a 145-3 vote.

Slaton said he voted against Phelan because “there was a better candidate seeking the speakership.” Slaton backed GOP Rep. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington to be speaker of the House for this session. Slaton said he dislikes Phelan’s pledge to appoint Democrats as chairs of House committees.

It has been a tradition of speakers of both parties to appoint legislators from opposing parties as committee chairs.

“We are the only state that does that,” Slaton said, adding that giving Democrats legislative chairmanships “gives them more power than they earn on election day.” Slaton also noted that Democrats “called us names” when they bolted from a special session and denied a quorum of legislators. “They called Republicans racists,” Slaton said, adding that “it’s just not true.”

House District 2 covers all or part of Hunt, Hopkins, Rains and Van Zandt counties.

The second-term legislator wants the state to work on building a wall along Texas’s border with Mexico and “send the invoice for the cost of that wall to the federal government.” He said border security should be a federal priority and believes the federal government should reimburse states that take steps on their own to buttress border security.

“Liberal states enact liberal policies but conservative states such as Texas should be able to enact conservative policies and laws,” Slaton said.

“I want to protect parental rights and protect gun rights,” Slaton said. He added that Texas should do more to protect children against what he called “sexual modification” by those who would seek to change the gender of children through “chemical castration” and other means.

Rep. Van Deaver, of New Boston, is serving his fifth term in the Texas House, representing Bowie, Red River, Lamar, Cass and Morris counties in the newly redrawn District 1.

He sees the top priority for his constituents as property tax relief. “Inflation is hurting my constituents,” Van Deaver said, “and they need help with property tax relief. It’s not that government entities are raising their rates, it is that appraisals keep going up.” Any property tax relief assistance coming from the Legislature, Van Deaver said, “must be sustainable,” suggesting it must bring long-term relief to struggling Texans.

He believes the House should be able to use some of the budget surplus projected by the Comptroller’s Office toward reducing property taxes.

Van Deaver believes the 88th Legislature “is off to a great start,” beginning with its quick vote to place Dade Phelan into the speaker’s chair for a second legislative term. He said the House intends to look as well at more equitable funding for higher education. Van Deaver fears that many rural community and junior colleges might be in danger of closing because of lack of money. “Some of them are on the brink of going away,” Van Deaver said.

He cited Paris Junior College as one institution that could be on the bubble. “Paris (JC) is struggling with shrinking enrollment,” he said. He blames the COVID-19 pandemic for having an adverse effect on higher ed, but said the current system of funding isn’t entirely fair. “Paris JC is taxing a lot of ag land, while urban schools don’t have that particular issue,” he said, adding that he wants to “level the playing field” for rural community colleges.

Van Deaver differs with Bryan Slaton on the value of allowing legislative Democrats to serve as House committee chairs. He also said he trusts Speaker Phelan’s ability to run the House of Representatives. He said the House’s bipartisan tradition of shared governance provides a contrast to the way U.S. House of Representatives is run. The past four speakers have been Republicans and all of them have appointed Democrats to run House committees, Van Deaver noted. The most recent Democrat to serve as House speaker, Pete Laney, also appointed Republicans to serve as chairs.

“Our system works well for us,” Van Deaver said.

Van Deaver places social issues a bit lower on his priority list than many within the Republican legislative caucus, but says he shares the concerns voiced by his fellow GOP lawmakers. “Sure, we need to take a look at some of these issues,” Van Deaver said. “If my seven-year-old granddaughter tells her parents that her school is teaching her something we don’t deem appropriate,” Van Deaver said, “well, I intend to do something about that.”

Correction (Jan. 22): A previous version of this story identified Bryan Slaton and Tony Tinderholt as a members of the Texas Freedom Caucus. They are no longer members. A current list of Texas Freedom Caucus members can be found at the organization's website.