The Return of the Lege

State’s 85th Legislature already a battle of House and Senate

Donna Howard
Donna Howard (Photos by John Anderson)

The 85th Texas Legislature is imminent, but don't expect a simple fight between Democrats and Republicans. In a re-run of 2015, the bitterest disputes look set to be between House and Senate.

“There is a feeling that the tipping point has been reached.” – Donna Howard

The two chambers look much the same as they did two years ago. The GOP runs both, with a 20-11 majority in the Senate, and a 95-55 hold on the House. That's no change in the upper chamber (Senate), but Dems did manage to pull four seats back in the lower. The House Repub­lican Hispanic Caucus was virtually obliterated, with three of its six members defeated by Democrats. Conversely, Rep. Donna How­ard of Austin is now the only white female Democrat representing either chamber. The biggest divides will not be about party affiliation or ethnicity, however, but rather across the Dome. Howard predicts a repeat of the 2015 session, with "a very ideologically-driven Senate, and a House that's more focused on kitchen table issues."

The conflict starts at the top. As Senate president, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already laid out a red meat conservative agenda – transgender bathroom legislation, school vouchers, crippling city and county finances – that he intends to force through both chambers. Speaker Joe Straus – broadly expected to hold his leadership position in the House – has routinely let his members dictate the direction of policy. If the House is more conservative, the result will look more like the hyper-partisan agenda of the 2011 session, complete with voter ID and gerrymandered redistricting. If it emerges more moderate, the House should more closely resemble the 2009 session, when bipartisanship ruled the floor.

Joe Straus
Joe Straus

At present, the House seems to be veering closer to that 2009 model. Straus has already said he expects foster care and school finance reform to be lead issues on his side; the Speaker has shown little reverence for Patrick's grandstanding. Howard concurred, saying the House is more interested in "the kind of things that are going to make a difference in the day-to-day lives of Texans. The question is whether the Senate is going to come along, or it's going to hold us hostage to red meat issues." With Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott up for re-election in 2018, both will want some of that meat to throw to their base of supporters. However, Howard noted that hardline conservatives under-performed in the 2016 elections. "There is a feeling that the tipping point has been reached," she suggested.

There will be 22 new state reps this year, but it's less about that number than who is gone that will be important. Howard noted "big holes" in institutional knowledge: The Appropriations Committee lost both its chair (John Otto, R-Dayton) and vice chair (Syl­vester Turner, D-Houston, now that city's mayor), as well as veteran members such as Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Anton­io. Similarly, the Public Education Committee lost two pro-public education Republicans in chair Jimmy Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and former State Board of Edu­ca­tion member Marsha Farney, R-George­town. Moreover, those 22 freshmen will soon be joined by a 23rd when local Dem­o­crat Dawnna Dukes retires Jan. 10, triggering a special election. Dukes exits with a substantial institutional knowledge about the Health & Human Services budget.

Elliott Naishtat
Elliott Naishtat

Another big loss locally will be Rep. Elliott Naishtat, the Democrat who has represented Austin in the Legislature since 1990 and served as a defining voice on the Health & Human Services Committee. His HD 49 replacement, former AISD board president Gina Hinojosa, hits the ground running. She told the Chronicle: "My staff doesn't officially start until the 10th, and we don't have an office yet." But she already has her agenda set up, with focuses on school finance reform and gun control. Her big concern is that the Legislature will go back to one of its favorite hobbies: Austin-bashing.

Gina Hinojosa
Gina Hinojosa

Historically, Republicans have taken great pleasure in savaging Austin or, as with AISD, using it as a cash cow. This time, she said, "Austin is going to be on the offensive about undoing local control." Two years ago, Denton voters approved a ban on fracking within city limits. Lawmakers responded by passing House Bill 40, overturning the will of Denton voters and preventing any other localities from passing similar bills. This time, Hinojosa said, "From fair chance hiring to Uber and Lyft to so-called sanctuary cities, they're going to try to tell us what to do." That's why Hinojosa hired former Aus­tin Interfaith lead organizer Doug Greco to serve as her chief of staff. Hinojosa described Greco as "the best community organizer there is around." He's expected to implement her prime strategy: leveraging the strength of Austin's community engagement, and targeting it at the Legislature.

Like Howard, Hinojosa sees hope for support from outside Austin, since many of Patrick's objectives do not match the kitchen-sink priorities of state reps. Of a recent three-day freshman orientation, she recalled: "Mostly you could not distinguish between Republicans and Democrats on issues."

Mark Your Calendar

Jan. 10: Opening day

March 10: Filing deadlinefor bills other than emergency or local measures

May 29: Sine die, final day of the session

June 18: Deadline for governor to sign or veto bills

Aug. 28: Bills take effect, unless specifically stated

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Donna Howard, Dan Patrick, Greg Abbott, Sylvester Turner, John Otto, Ruth Jones-McClendon, Jimmy Don Aycock, Dawnna Dukes, Marsha Farney, Elliott Naishtat, Gina Hinojosa, 85th Lege

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