This session's biggest mental health bill just got killed on a technicality

Texas Tribune News

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, on the House floor on Tuesday.
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, on the House floor on Tuesday.
Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

A mental health bill prioritized by state leaders was killed by a procedural maneuver Tuesday evening in the Texas House.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, raised a “point of order” on Senate Bill 10, which would create a Texas Mental Health Consortium bringing psychiatric professionals from Texas medical schools and other health care providers together to connect children to mental health services. The bill also aims to promote use of telemedicine and mental health research and to expand the state’s mental health workforce. After the House recessed for nearly an hour and a half so parliamentarians could analyze the technicality, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, somberly announced a ruling in favor of Stickland.

SB 10 was one of several proposals that the state’s GOP leaders championed in the wake of the deadly shooting last year at Santa Fe High School. Gov. Greg Abbott named it an emergency item in his State of the State address earlier this year, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick designed it one of his 30 legislative priorities. Bill author state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, told senators earlier this year that it was her “best shot” at helping students in the aftermath of the Santa Fe shooting. It cleared the upper chamber unanimously more than two months ago.

“It’s unfortunate that there were some people who were getting some negative comments from their constituencies that felt the need to vote against this bill or somehow kill this bill,” state Rep. John Zerwas, who sponsored the bill in the lower chamber, told The Texas Tribune. “And one of those happened to be Jonathan Stickland whose pretty adept in finding points of order and calling them and he wins some, he loses some and unfortunately he happened to win one with Sen. Nelson’s bill.”

Zerwas, R-Richmond, said he was unsure about the possibility of adding SB 10 in an amendment to House Bill 10, a similar bill in the Senate concerning mental health research. The legislative session ends Monday.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces in which there’s not a whole lot of time left to do anything,” Zerwas said. “I think we’ll just have to see if there’s a willingness on the part of the Senate to revive and rescue this bill.”

Stickland’s built a reputation for being a thorn in the side of House leadership, both under Bonnen and former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. A former member of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, which he resigned from earlier this session, Stickland cast the lone “no” votes on a number of high-priority bills this year, including the lower chamber’s school finance reform proposal.

On a number of occasions this session, Stickland has tried to kill legislation ranging from the controversial to the uncontested. On a Friday morning in April, for example, Stickland successfully knocked off several measures from that day’s local and consent calendar, typically a hub for relatively uncontroversial pieces of legislation. Stickland’s reasoning? Liberties were under attack.

Stickland’s successful maneuver Tuesday to halt SB 10, which had bipartisan backing, came hours after both chambers moved forward other pieces of legislation aimed at increasing school safety — and just days after the one-year anniversary of the deadly Santa Fe shooting.

Earlier Tuesday, the House expanded the Senate’s sweeping school safety bill by requiring students to learn about domestic violence prevention and providing an undetermined amount of state money for campus security measures. That was in addition to existing provisions that would establish threat assessment teams identify potentially dangerous students and ensure school employees — including substitute teachers — are equipped to respond to emergencies by requiring they have classroom access to a telephone and other electronic communication.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate approved a House bill that would abolish the cap on how many trained school teachers and support staff — known as school marshals — can carry guns on public school campuses.

This story is developing and will be updated.