The Austin Chronicle

Lege Opening Day: Users and Abusers

By Richard Whittaker, January 11, 2013, News

What happens when someone schedules a partisan fight – and no one throws a punch? You get opening day, Tuesday, Jan. 8, at the Texas Legislature. They came, they convened, they pontificated, and the lawmakers now move forward in a fog, with little clear direction or schedule.

As the 83rd session gaveled in at midday, legislators already had some good news. A day earlier, Comptroller Susan Combs submitted a larger-than-expected budget revenue estimate for the 2014-15 biennium. She forecast that $96.2 billion will be collected over the next two years, as well as an $8.8 billion surplus from this cycle. Much of that "surplus" (generously defined) will go straight into a supplemental appropriations bill to cover outstanding commitments to Medicaid and the Foundation School Pro­gram, but it provides some breathing room. With that in mind, it seemed no one was willing to break the good mood; affable bipartisanship was the order of the day.

In the House, the minor exception was Longview Republican David Simpson's attempt to overthrow Speaker Joe Straus, which sputtered out with a rambling withdrawal speech from the challenger. Mutter­ing against a culture of "intimidation [and] payback," Simpson called for rule changes that would mean "ceasing retribution ... from those in leadership." He made no specific allegations, leading some veterans to privately wonder how he would have functioned under the dictatorial regime of Straus' predecessor, Tom Craddick. With Simpson quickly out of the way, the nomination speeches were devoted to glowing praise of Straus. Ignoring the harsh partisan battles over redistricting and reproductive rights that roiled the 82nd session, Democrats and Republicans celebrated his evenhanded management style. In a pointed rebuttal to Simpson, Rep. Rene Oliviera, D-Brownsville, said, "I support Joe Straus, not because I agree with him on many things, but because I can disagree with him without fear of reprisal or ridicule."

Over in the Senate, there was a similar spirit of bonhomie as Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, was selected as president pro tem. That means that, on the rare occasions when both Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst are out of the state, a Democrat will become acting governor. Her appointment was a matter of practice and tradition rather than a real battle. Senators punted on the only real sticking point, quietly rejecting plans to dump the two-thirds rule, a "blocker bill" tradition that in most sessions keeps controversial proposals off the floor.

Then came the policy grandstanding. With fellow failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum an unexpected onlooker, Gov. Perry laid out his agenda, including a fetal pain bill, and more drum-beating for reduced business taxation. His ideological checklist stood in sharp contrast to Straus', which nominated water, transportation, and education as his priority items.

However, much may be on hold, as lawmakers find themselves surrounded by volatility. After an almost unprecedented round of retirements, primary defeats, and promotions to state Senate and U.S. Con­gress, the House is incorporating 43 freshmen this year. Their learning curve will be steep, especially since they're still awaiting separate court rulings on challenges to the state's public school finance system, redistricting, and the voter ID legislation. They may have a healthier than predicted budget, but they're already facing calls from inside and outside the Lege to restore the $5 billion in school finance cuts passed in 2011. It's no easier on the Senate side: Normally, after redistricting, the Senate's first job is to select which senators will serve a full four-year term and which will have to run again in 2014. Instead, they've had to defer that until further legal consultation. Straus argued that the only thing he could be certain of was that there would be 150 votes on the House floor to revise the school "accountability" system (i.e., high-stakes standardized testing) – but even he couldn't say what might replace it.

The next question is, who will run the session? Straus promoted a pragmatic agenda, but it could fall apart in the details; Perry still has the governor's bully pulpit, yet he is coming off a catastrophic presidential run and may face increasingly tough questions about how to fix (or abandon) many of his favored programs, including the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and the beleaguered Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Dewhurst probably has the weakest hand: A Senate primary drubbing, courtesy of Tea Party darling Ted Cruz, and a roster of challengers lining up for the 2014 elections leave him in a weakened position. However, he's been even more aggressive in his calls for state investment, specifically for $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to create a water infrastructure bank. That would place him at odds with Perry, who effectively ruled out accessing the Rainy Day Fund, and then went further, arguing that the budget revenue estimate was a case for greater tax cuts. Straus struck a subtler tone: He sided with Perry against "raiding" the state's surplus, but pointed out there's a big difference between using and raiding.

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