Under Construction

As the session begins, continuity and inexperience are the major questions

Under Construction
Illustration by Jason Stout

A new governor. A new lieutenant governor. Vast changes in both House and Senate, with more to come due to pending special elections and run-offs. After 12 years of entropy under Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the 84th Legislature enters uncertain territory, with new leadership and an unclear direction.

On the campaign trail, Governor-elect Greg Abbott may not have been a fully red-meat Republican candidate, but even his appeals to historically Democratic Hispanic voters came with an undeniably conservative tinge. Post-election, his tone moderated with talk about increased infrastructure, and even Medicaid expansion. The big question is how he will approach the Legislature: Unlike Perry, who started his political career as a state rep, Abbott has no legislative experience. However, thus far he seems to be taking a conciliatory stance. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said, "The people he has appointed to deal with the Legislature are real pros, and they have high respect for the legislative process."

Greg Abbott
Greg Abbott (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On raw numbers, little has changed since 2013, with the GOP holding both chambers by a two-to-one margin. However, the faces have changed: Senior figures with major experience, including Repub­licans like Tommy Williams and Robert Duncan, and Dem­o­crats Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, have left their seats, meaning a nearly unprecedented changeover in committee leadership. "In the Senate, you don't have a back bench," said Watson. With these exits, he added, "a huge amount of institutional knowledge and memory has left."

Then there's the new boss: Previously, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, was the GOP's favorite maverick. Yet, while he easily won the lieutenant governorship in the November election, he may still face opposition in his secondary post as president of the Senate. There have long been bipartisan rumblings about subtly rewriting the rules of the Senate, to give the erratic radical less influence and authority than his predecessor. However, he will maintain the key power to select committee memberships, and Democrats fear he will stuff them with extremists and ideologues.

Watson predicts there will be fewer committees, and also foresees the death of the vital "two-thirds rule" – the Senate tradition designed to prevent polarizing bills coming to the floor – in favor of something closer to a simple majority. He said, "The two-thirds rule brings about greater openness and discussion about issues, regardless of how partisan they might be."

The dominant question is experience, with dozens of new lawmakers in, and several high-ranking committee chairs either retired or primaried out. However, one incumbent is set to return: Speaker Joe Straus. Facing a seemingly suicidal challenge from Tea Party favorite Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, the San Antonio Republican seems assured of a fourth term heading up the House. Traditionally the quietest and lowest profile of the "big three" of Texas politics – governor, lieutenant, and speaker – his tenure may amplify his influence. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said, "The fact is that Joe Straus has been in his position for a couple of terms now, and he does have experience of the budgeting process, the legislative process, and a body of representatives who by and large support him."

Within this larger context, the Chronicle News staff is monitoring the early legislative filings to consider the likely preoccupations of the 84th Legislature, and what follows are our findings thus far.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

84th Legislature 2015, Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Joe Straus, Kirk Watson, Donna Howard

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