The Austin Chronicle

What's the Damage?

Fallout from the 84th Texas legislative session

By Richard Whittaker, June 5, 2015, News

Stick a fork in them, they're done.

The 84th Legislature formally ended on June 1, but had sine die been called a month ago, there would have been few tears. It started in a calmer fashion. Gov. Greg Abbott sagely played his cards close to his chest: A first-term governor with zero legislative experience, he set his agenda of emergency items, then withdrew to the mansion. By contrast, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took the Sen­ate gavel like a conquering victor, promising a "new day" under the dome. Over in the House, Joe Straus – measured, calculating, affable, and the nemesis of the Tea Party for all those reasons – quickly re-established his position as a speaker who reflects, rather than shepherds, his 150 members.

It looked like there was quiet rapprochement – or at least public solidarity – between the three. That imploded after someone's staff leaked word of a massive meltdown by Patrick at a mid-session breakfast featuring all three officials. That was when the true nature of the session was laid bare. The Tea Party, personified by Patrick, seemed frustrated that its radical agenda was stillborn.

The great fight was not between Dem­o­crats and Republicans, but House and Senate. That always happens, but this time, the normally serene upper chamber became a boiling pot of crazy Tea Party proposals, which is supposed to be the House's job. That left the traditionally chaotic lower chamber looking like the adults in this situation. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said, "I know. Shocking, but true." She credited the House's high proportion of "mainstream, reasonable Repub­licans" for cutting the Senate's crazier plans to scale. She said, "Many of them were willing to take stands. They're willing to step up and say, 'This is not OK.'"

Across the dome, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, described the mood in the Senate as "one of tension." He placed the blame on the demise of the two-thirds rule, designed to keep contentious bills off the floor if they don't have two-thirds support. The Dems were sold out by one of their own, as Brownsville's Eddie Lucio Jr. helped Republicans replace it with the easier-to-circumvent three-fifths rule. Under the old rule, Watson said, "Everyone was talking to everyone. If you had a bill come up, you had to talk to everybody." Those discussions made even bad bills better, as opponents and allies could point out flaws in the drafting process. Instead, the GOP majority was bringing up "badly drafted legislation that didn't even do what they intended." This led to awkward floor debates, as ineptly written laws were dissected in public but passed anyway. Watson said, "I felt my job in many instances was to bear witness to how bad it was."

Luckily, the mainstream GOP quietly derailed much of the Tea Party's agenda. But the mainstream GOP is still capable of causing havoc by itself, with tax giveaways, abortion restrictions, and, of course, guns, guns, guns. So it was tough times for Senate Democrats, but Watson still saw victories on issues like in-state tuition and sanctuary city legislation. "A lot of bad stuff failed to pass," he said, "even though the rules were designed to make them pass."

With about a third of the seats in the lower chamber, the House opposition was seen as largely ineffectual (as Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, gloomily explained, "If Republicans wanted to celebrate Christmas in April, they have the votes."). Howard was slightly more cheerful, arguing that "by and large, the Democrats did what we could with our disadvantaged positioning, due to being such a minority."

Is there any imminent threat of a special session? "Not so much," said Howard. Abbott's emergency items have all been tackled to some degree or other, and it would be a show of weakness to admit that he needed extra time to wrangle the legislature. So a June return for unfinished business seems unlikely. But will there be another session before the 2017 session? That's a different question. With lawsuits still pending over the 2011 decimation of public school funding, and a variety pack of litigation over the 2013 electoral maps, Howard said she's pretty sure the 84th Legislature will be back "either for redistricting or school finance, or both."

While Watson said there were no rumblings in the Senate about redistricting, with the Texas Supreme Court now mulling over school finance, his advice was simple: Don't make holiday plans for Summer 2016 quite yet.

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