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House Speaker Dade Phelan on Thursday unveiled four of his priority bills for the legislative session, which included Democratic goals like the extension of Medicaid eligibility for new mothers to one year and the exemption of feminine hygiene products and diapers from sales taxes, in a nod to the bipartisan tone he has set for the chamber.
Phelan, a Beaumont Republican in his second term as leader of the House, also threw his support behind bills authored by two Republicans to crack down on how companies collect and monetize private data and to protect children from what he deemed “addictive algorithms” by digital companies. Phelan said the list of four bills is a “starting point” for the House of Representatives and that more bills with his support will be announced soon.
“As I have said before, it is essential that the Texas House makes meaningful progress this year on better supporting mothers and children in the state — and that starts with extending health coverage for new moms to a full year,” Phelan said in a statement. “Additionally, I am eager to see our chamber take on Big Tech, which for too long has taken advantage of the data and privacy of Texans and especially our children, who are vulnerable to predatory and addicting algorithms and advertisements on social media platforms. Putting Texans and Texas parents back in the driver’s seat on this issue is a priority for our chamber this session.”
Phelan’s support for extending Medicaid eligibility to new mothers to a year is not a surprise. A similar bill which Phelan also backed passed the House last session but was reduced back to six months by the Senate. That extension is stuck in bureaucratic limbo, as the state’s application to extend eligibility was rejected after the Biden administration said last year it was “not approvable in its current form.” State Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, who has filed the bill for multiple sessions is once again leading the charge with House Bill 12.
This year's effort also has the support of Gov. Greg Abbott, who included extending postpartum Medicaid to 12 months in his budget proposal to the Legislature last month.
"Momentum is clearly building," said Diana Forester, director of health policy for the advocacy group Texans Care for Children, which praised the extension proposal in a press release Thursday.
In this legislative session, Phelan is also throwing his support behind an effort by Austin Democrat Donna Howard to exempt essential baby items like baby wipes and diapers, as well as feminine hygiene products, from state sales tax. That is part of a new Republican push for affordability for women and children in the state following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer to do away with the constitutional protection for abortion, allowing a ban to go into effect in Texas.
Southlake Republican Giovanni Capriglione also got a nod of confidence from Phelan on his push to crack down on how companies collect, and in many cases, monetize people’s personal data. The issue has been a pet project of Capriglione’s for years but this session the bill — House Bill 4 — received a low bill number, indicating the strong support of House leadership.
Phelan is also supporting a push by sophomore Republican Shelby Slawson of Stephenville to give parents more control over kids’ online activity by requiring companies to give those parents access to a minor’s privacy and account settings and limiting the collection of a minor’s data.
In recent interviews, Phelan has indicated a willingness to take on tech companies to protect the privacy of children and to prevent them from mental health issues that he said stem from “predatory algorithms” that are “taking advantage of our youth.”
The priorities come as Phelan has taken heat from a small number of the most right-wing members of his chamber after he appointed a few Democrats to chair House committees, in keeping with the chamber’s tradition. On Twitter, the state GOP’s chair, Matt Rinaldi, reacted to Phelan’s announcement with a question: “Is this real?”
Notably, none of the four priorities Phelan announced are on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s list of 30 priorities, which included some controversial issues, like banning certain types of transition-related medical care for transgender youth and banning certain books that his supporters deem “obscene,” supported by far-right social conservatives. The Senate, which is led by Patrick and is seen as more aligned with far-right social conservatives, has over the past decade clashed with the House, which has grown more socially conservative in recent years but is still seen as more aligned with the more business-oriented wing of the GOP.
Phelan’s list of priorities also did not include any of Abbott’s emergency items. But Phelan and Abbott are considered to be more politically aligned, and the House leader is expected to hit some of Abbott’s other priorities, like increasing school safety and boosting funding for border security, in his other priority bills.