Amid Chaos and Crisis, the 87th Texas Legislature Gets to Work

Can we rebuild a democracy?

Illustration by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

The key dates on the January 2021 political calendar were marked down in ink, if not etched in stone, a long time ago. Next Wednesday, Jan. 20, will see the beginning of a new presidency, as was confirmed last Wednesday, Jan. 6, in a ceremony that should have been purely rote ritual but instead became a collective gasp for breath, as American democracy stared death in the face. In between these Wednesdays, the 87th Texas Legislature came into being, as happens every two years in a burst of self-importance and Texas exceptionalism – which, this year, may be just what the nation needs, if the Lege can model proper forward-looking behavior for the post MAGA red states.

Much of the Legislature, including its most important de facto member – Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – has been resolute in its support for Donald Trump as the avatar of Republican values and the acme of the party's achievement. As the House and Senate convened on Tuesday, that solidarity had, quick as a biscuit, become a toxin poisoning the 20-year-old GOP ruling regime that was already fracturing under stress. So much so that the president would actually come to Texas on Opening Day (to Alamo, but not the Alamo, though he probably doesn't know the difference) and not entice anybody in state leadership – not even Patrick, his Texas campaign chair – to come out and play, even for a minute.

It goes without saying that Trump was not invited to the Capitol. Few people were, as the Lege tries to figure out how it's going to do its business in a pandemic. Lawmakers foresee limited bandwidth this session to do much more than pass a 2021-23 biennial budget, as required; backfill the $1 billion shortfall in the current budget, adopted in 2019; and strike the hottest irons they can to provide relief from both the disease of COVID-19 and the recession it created. Other stuff may just have to wait, particularly the stuff – like anti-choice and anti-LGBTQIA bills that are already opposed by new House Speaker Dade Phelan – that tastes like MAGA and will become more rancid as we go through months of healing and reckoning.

The easiest and most robust way to set MAGAs, Resistance Republicans, and Democrats at each others' throats and drown out any new-day, let's-move-on tone-policing Phelan, Patrick, and Gov. Greg Abbott will promulgate is with the chaos of redistricting. But it's far from certain Texas will even receive the data it needs from the U.S. Census Bureau to draft new maps before the last weeks of the session, when the deadline dominoes start falling to block bills from moving between the chambers. (March 12 is the drop-dead date for new bills.) Right now, it's a much-better-than-even chance that redistricting will command its own special session this summer.

Some can-kicking is also likely for Sunset bills, with agencies given pro forma two-year extensions, although several among this session's tranche of reviews overlap with hot-button issues for many members, from police reform to cannabis regulation to occupational licensing and public-sector lobbying. That said, we're more likely to see major causes championed as essential enhancements to the budget – including cannabis, but also gambling, and more importantly Medicaid expansion and sustaining last session's investments in public schools.

On the budget front, as members drifted back to Austin for what remains of first-week rituals – some lawmakers have sent their regrets and are Zooming in just like you, avoiding superspreader events – they got the best news they've heard in months. On Monday, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar laid out his required biennial revenue estimate – the number at which the new budget must balance – and said the state's coffers ($112.5 billion in general revenue) would remain almost as full as they have been, despite the pandemic.

With population growth and the shortfall in current spending, that still means a hole must be filled, though some of that dirt has already been shoveled as agencies have tightened their belts. It's certainly not the $4.6 billion deficit Hegar had contemplated last year, easing at least a little of the pressure that's bearing down on this most unusual session.

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