What Will 2012 Hold for Texas Politics, Policy?

Texans will close out 2011 with more questions than answers: How will Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential bid play out? How will lawmakers’ multibillion-dollar budget cuts affect education, Medicaid and health care? Will the courts ever decide on new state House, Senate and congressional districts so Texas can hold elections?

Here’s hoping the next year brings some resolution. Texas Tribune reporters take a look at what to expect in 2012 — from the continuing Texas drought and debates over transparency in higher education to allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and a high-profile presidential election across Texas’ southern border.

RICK PERRY

Perry was riding high when he stepped off his first presidential campaign bus, the one with the phrase “Get America working again” plastered on its side. It was mid-August, during that first hopeful week of his run for the White House. The sky was the limit back then. Even some liberal critics were predicting that he would waltz to the Republican presidential nomination.

Oops. It did not work out that way.

Now a new year beckons, and plenty of uncertainty looms for Perry. 

Will he pull off one of the biggest comebacks in American political history? Or will reporters be using words like “flameout” and “flop” to sum up the presidential fortunes of Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history?

If he does come back, will people around the Texas Capitol fear him less? What kind of governor does a defeated presidential candidate make?

He may never make it to the White House. But he remains the governor of Texas, and that is still a pretty big deal.

STATE POLITICS

This most uncertain political year starts with something we know: Nearly one in five members of the Texas House will not be coming back. Whether they are running for higher office (about half) or because they have had quite enough for now (the rest), almost 30 members of the 150-member House will not seek re-election. Couple that with the high number of freshmen elected in 2010, and you can bet that the next legislative session will have an abundance of inexperience.

What amounts to huge turnover in the state Senate is small by any other standard, with four of the 31 members saying they will not be back. The rest — and perhaps the new replacements — might see the most political fallout after the November elections. If Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is elected to the U.S. Senate, the senators will elect his replacement from their own ranks in a process that is like a professional version of a race for student body president. Every candidate knows every voter, and everyone will know how everyone else voted.

In the uncertainty department, there is the primary election date. Will it be April 3, or will the federal courts take so long approving maps that the elections have to be pushed back again? Will Perry snatch victory from defeat, forcing that same state Senate to choose someone for the governor’s office? Or will he come home, vanquished, to his current job?

And what if Dewhurst doesn’t win his race? The promotions of any number of Texas politicians are built around an organization chart where one or both of those boxes is empty after November 2012. 

PUBLIC EDUCATION

The consequences of lawmakers’ roughly $5.4 billion reduction in state financing to public education in 2011 will dominate 2012. The budget slashing has already galvanized more than half of the school districts in Texas into four different lawsuits against the state, which will wind up in court next fall.

In March, official numbers of how many and what types of employees were laid off by school districts will be released, just before the primaries — the first real indicator of the budget cuts’ political ramifications. Also in the spring, the state’s approximately 350,000 ninth graders will be the first to take the end-of-course exams that are part of Texas’ new standardized testing system.

Whether districts will be adequately prepared to meet the rigorous new standards — and whether that will affect graduation and dropout rates — could become a major driver of education policy in the 2013 legislative session. 

HEALTH

The new year will determine how Texas proceeds with two contentious public health matters: family planning and the state’s huge uninsured population.

The Obama administration has rejected Republican state lawmakers’ efforts to block Planned Parenthood from participating in the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, but has extended the program into March so the state can reconsider its options. Will the state simply end the program, which does not finance or perform abortions? Will the federal government back down? It’s a game of who will blink first, with cancer screenings and birth control for some 130,000 low-income Texas women hanging in the balance.

How the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the constitutionality of which Texas and 25 other states have challenged — will largely determine how the state tackles its more than 6 million uninsured residents. But whether Texas likes it or not, the path for reform may already be set, thanks to a five-year waiver the Obama administration just authorized for the state.

Now, starting in 2012, Texas will be able to move nearly a million more Medicaid patients into managed care without threatening billions of dollars in federal matching funds. In return, Texas will have to meet a bevy of federal requirements, including a demand that hospitals promote patient outcomes and partner with primary care providers in the community.

DROUGHT

From farmers to power plant operators to homeowners, everyone in Texas is wondering when the grueling 15-month drought will end. The answer, alas, is that nobody knows.

Recent rain and snow have pushed state precipitation totals above the average for December, but this appears to be “a short-term aberration in an overall long-term dry pattern,” Victor Murphy, a southern regional official with the National Weather Service, said in an email.

La Niña, the Pacific Ocean phenomenon blamed for the drought, has returned for a second consecutive winter and is currently showing weak to moderate strength, Murphy said. So federal forecasters are projecting below-normal rainfall through May. After that, it is anybody’s guess, and Texans must hope that La Niña does not return for a third year.

The good news: As of Dec. 27, only 32 percent of the state is still in the worst drought stage, down from 88 percent in early October.

The bad: Just 0.01 percent of the state is not in any drought at all, in Northeast Texas near the Oklahoma border.

HIGHER EDUCATION

A year of upheaval in higher education raised many questions about the future of colleges and universities in Texas. Should professors at research universities readjust their priorities? Do current financing models create the wrong incentives for administrators? What is the role of regents?

The coming year will be a quest for answers.

Last spring, at the height of an intensely political debate over the productivity of Texas universities, the state Legislature established a new joint oversight committee on higher education. Three hearings have been held so far, and more are being planned for the months ahead.

Given the time and resources devoted to these high-profile discussions, expectations are high. Top-ranking university officials from around the state are asked to attend, even if they are not testifying.

The conclusions drawn by the committee, and any subsequent recommendations, will set the tone for higher education heading into the 2013 legislative session.

Do not expect the business community to sit by idly. After failing in 2011 to persuade legislators to switch the current university financing model, based entirely on the number of students enrolled, to one with more emphasis on the number of students who graduate, business leaders have already begun mounting their campaign to make it happen in 2013.

IMMIGRATION

Relations along the Texas-Mexico border depend on the outcome of two elections, one at home and one abroad.

Some posit that if President Obama is re-elected, he may finally act on his 2008 campaign promise to fix the country’s immigration system. He has called for this for years, but has simultaneously deported more illegal immigrants than any other president. Between Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent visit to Texas and the U.S. Justice Department’s crackdown on enforcement of Arizona’s controversial immigration law — which Texas lawmakers continue to toy with — his administration appears to be working to counteract this reputation.

If a Republican wins the White House, will that president embrace more extreme measures on the border, including a more extensive fence, an infusion of American troops or intervention by the United States in the sovereign nation of Mexico?

Meanwhile, officials on both sides of the border think Mexico’s fight against organized drug crime could hinge on that country’s presidential election. President Felipe Calderón, of the PAN party, cannot run again in next summer’s election, and his party has yet to determine who will vie for the seat.

The PRI, the opposition party that held power for 70 years, will most likely field the former governor of the state of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, who has said he does not believe the military is the best tool to fight organized crime — there have been more than 42,000 murders nationwide in drug-related violence since late 2006.

The leftist PRD could run Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost to Calderón in 2006 in the country’s closest presidential election in history.  

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

In the wake of its latest high-profile exoneration, the Texas criminal justice community is grappling with the issue of prosecutorial misconduct.

Murder charges against Michael Morton have been officially dismissed, and he is now out of prison after 25 years, but the ramifications of his case have just begun. His lawyers have asked a Texas court to launch an unprecedented inquiry into whether Ken Anderson, the prosecutor who secured Morton’s conviction, ought to face criminal charges and professional discipline.

They allege that Anderson, who is now a state district judge, deliberately withheld evidence that could have resulted in Morton’s acquittal in 1987. Instead, Morton was wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder and imprisoned until DNA results proved his innocence last summer.

Sid Harle, a Bexar County state district judge, has not decided whether to grant the hearing, and Anderson argues vigorously that he did nothing wrong during the Morton trial.

In addition to the courtroom action, the Innocence Project has asked lawmakers to conduct hearings to investigate whether Texas can adopt new laws to stiffen penalties for prosecutorial misconduct. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and chairman of the Innocence Project, said he is already working on recommendations for legislation that would help prevent wrongful convictions. 

POVERTY

The “Texas Miracle,” which Perry has credited with creating nearly half of the jobs in the national work force since mid-2009, may have dominated headlines in 2011, but heading into 2012 the state’s job growth should look far more routine. Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve, said Texas job growth was likely to remain at about 1.5 percent to 2 percent.

While the state gained 289,900 private-sector jobs in the last year, Texas’ news is not all good. The state’s unemployment rate hovered above 8 percent in 2011, while the rest of the nation improved, and the national unemployment rate dropped to 8.6 percent by November. According to the latest statistics from the Texas Workforce Commission, the state lost 63,900 public-sector jobs, largely as a result of lawmakers’ budget cuts, and mostly in public education. Texas is only a few months into those cuts.

Poverty and food insecurity remain a problem. Four million Texans live below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. Medicaid enrollment is on the rise, too; more than 3.3 million Texans, including 2.5 million children, are enrolled.

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