Lege opens with many unanswered questions
Texas Secessionists on the north lawn. Hispanic rights advocates on the south steps. Open carry ideologues going from office to office. And the traditional brief outpouring of collegial camaraderie. The 84th Legislature began on Jan. 13 as they all seem to, with a wary sense of a challenging 140 days to come. The new Lege will "represent a glorious group of Texans from the far-flung reaches of our state," Secretary of State Nandita Berry told the assembled House. But they embark on a process that Major General John F. Nichols described during his invocation as "somewhat messy."
No kidding. The discord began early in the Senate, with two no votes on Senate Resolution 1 – the pro forma measure setting Senate office budgets. Across in the House, it took only until the challenge from Frisco Republican Scott Turner to incumbent Speaker Joe Straus. Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, cited Martin Luther King Jr. in saying his vote for Turner was "neither safe nor politic nor popular." Neither was it effective, since Turner had more support in the peanut gallery than on the floor. Straus walked into the room with 74 Republicans and 46 Democrats pledged, and won a 127-19 victory in the first contested speaker race in 40 years. Yet Turner left with added Tea Party support outside the chamber, and rumblings of congressional ambitions.
So what now for the Legislature? In the previous week, the agendas of the big three – Straus, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, and Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick – had come into sharper focus. As attorney general, Abbott's energies had been directed toward beating up on those rascally feds as the enemies of Texas freedom. Increasingly, he has portrayed local regulations as turning the Lone Star State into California. Condemning such actions as the recent ban on fracking in Republican-dominated Denton as "a form of collectivism," he promised to confront such city ordinances as bag bans (i.e., Austin's). Contrasting that position with Abbott's inaction after the devastating fertilizer explosion in West in 2013, Progress Texas Executive Director Ed Espinoza wrote in a release, "It's laughable that he won't regulate dangerous chemical plants but he's willing to crack down on bag bans – where are his priorities?"
In the Senate, Patrick spent last week saying that he would let the members lead the direction of the session. However, he seemingly has a very clear idea what they will want, and it fits with his hard-right agenda: border concerns, school vouchers and charters, tax cuts. As a senator, he has targeted the two-thirds rule – designed to prevent disruptive bills coming to the floor without a bipartisan majority – since 2007, and now he seems set to dismantle it. He's also promised to reduce the number of committees, and has a longstanding commitment to deny Senate Democrats any chairs.
As for Straus, beyond the reflexive Republican commitment to tax reduction, his policy proposals seem workmanlike rather than dogmatic: a commitment to better scrutinize state contracts (no doubt triggered by the ongoing scandal over overpriced Medicaid fraud detection software) and further school reforms built on the back of House Bill 5, the 2013 omnibus education bill.
There are still many details to be determined. Four seats are still in special election run-offs; the House and Senate still have to convene to adapt their rules of operation for the 2015 session; and lawmakers still have to work out the scale of the next state budget. On Jan. 12, new Comptroller Glenn Hegar made a surprisingly bullish economic forecast, predicting in his first biennial revenue estimate that the state will have $113 billion in state tax revenue to spend in the next two years. That's up from the $101 billion for the current 2014-15 biennium, but most of the increase will just cover inflation and population growth, and it's still unclear how much wiggle room the Lege really has.
School finance remains the elephant in the room, and it was broadly expected there would be multiple special sessions to tackle the issue. However, with the Texas Supreme Court now unlikely to make a ruling on the ongoing public ed lawsuit before 2016 (see "Fate of School Finance Delayed," below), there's no pressure to make immediate changes. Tedrah Robertson of the Equity Center said she was not surprised by the delay, but remained optimistic that there would be serious education debate, and potentially even a special session. She pointed to House Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock's omnibus HB 654, filled with radical solutions such as creating new school tax districts to even out the burden of the Robin Hood property tax recapture system. Robertson said, "He at least wants to start the debate."