In a few days (Tuesday, Jan. 8, to be exact), the caverns of the Capitol will once again host a celebratory gathering of legislators, families, and supporters with the formal opening of the 86th Texas Legislature. It's a notoriously slow-starting circus, and the donkeys and elephants (and their attendant lobbyists) will spend a couple of months jockeying for position before the serious legislating reaches exit speed. But preparations have certainly begun, and elsewhere in this issue ("Central Texas Lawmakers Speak Out About the 86th Legislative Session," Jan. 4), you can read a brace of interviews with members of the Central Texas delegation – all of them now Democrats – reflecting a common anticipation of a session more productive (or at least less disastrous) for actual political progress.
The dean of the delegation, Sen. Kirk Watson, struck the hopeful tone carefully: "So there is some good reason to have at least a level of optimism – this session just has a different feel about it." Nevertheless, after running through the work-in-progress on public school funding, on health care, and on transportation, he cautioned, "I have been disappointed before."
Throughout our conversations with lawmakers, we heard variations on this theme, with several wondering how much of the session could be devoted to Democratic offense (promoting good legislation) rather than defense (opposing bad bills). The now-stronger Democratic delegation hopes that both the party's gains in the midterms (12 seats in the Texas House, two in the Senate) and the shifting political winds across the state and nation will make the Republican majority somewhat less eager to resort to polarizing cultural issues – e.g., anti-immigrant or anti-LGBTQ posturing – to succor and energize GOP primary voters while avoiding decisions of substance.
The longest-serving Austinite in the House, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, still expects that "we'll be playing a lot of defense" but sees reason to hope for better: "Republicans have seen a loss in their seats in the midterms. I think that's scared them a little, and is forcing them to pump the brakes on this more extreme stuff."
All we talked to express hope for progress on public school financing. Historically, the Legislature hasn't acted upon its constitutional responsibility to "make suitable provision" for "an efficient system of public free schools" unless ordered to do so by the courts, and then grudgingly. This year, there's a bipartisan rhetorical push for school finance reform, with about-to-be Speaker Dennis Bonnen prominently declaring it his first priority (and, according to our interviews, reiterating that commitment in one-on-one meetings). What shape any solution might take remains very unclear – substantive "reform" would mean "much more funding," and the Republican leadership is universally opposed to any explicit support of more spending.
That's why, as Watson points out, there are as yet no tangible solutions in circulation, especially in light of Gov. Greg Abbott's insistence that his first priority is to cap local property tax rates. State support for public schools has dropped from 50% to 34% of their total spending, leaving districts with no choice but to raise their property tax rates, often needing to go to their voters to do so – even if they're required (as is Austin ISD) to remit the bulk of those collections to the state for redistribution. Pretending to fund schools while capping local tax rates is thus a flat contradiction – which is why Watson fears this argument may become the "wedge issue" of 2019.
At a minimum, suspects Rep. Celia Israel, the school funding question will likely require a special session. "Everyone who got elected on a platform supporting education will be working toward that goal," she warns, "so they'll have to put their money where their mouths are."
What might "moderate" this session – reducing pandering, increasing productivity – is a realization that the midterms were indeed a harbinger of 2020. "The most significant help I got as a legislator," says Israel, "was having historic turnout on Nov. 6 ... [making] a world of difference this session." More bluntly, rookie Rep. John Bucy declares, "If the Republicans want to hold their seats, they need to join the Democrats for our public schools."
All electeds need to remain cautiously optimistic just to do their jobs. Beyond schools, they talk about health care (even expanding Medicaid), criminal justice reform, mass transit funding, reducing incarceration, decriminalizing marijuana, and even an independent redistricting commission. Amidst these heady expectations, nobody ever goes broke betting the under on the progressive prospects of any given Texas Legislature. And whatever the optimism of the Democrats, they will continue to face the unholy alliance (and rival ambitions) of Gov. Abbott and the baleful Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
The Legislature remains a structurally reactionary institution in a state gerrymandered to remain conservative. Whatever progress it achieves will be the result only of constant and broad public pressure of every imaginable variety, from marching to muckraking and, of course, to voting.
We've only just begun.
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