Reorganization Yields Early Rewards for Texas Senators

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst during the 2009 legislative session.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst during the 2009 legislative session.

Membership really does have its privileges. When Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sped up the legislative schedule — naming Senate committee chairmen now instead of waiting until after the session starts in January — he gave the new leaders a little something extra.

Dewhurst did the same for people with business before the Legislature. Those two camps can get a head start on building their relationships.

In three months, you might even be able to put a number on it.

In the normal order of things, Texas voters elect their legislators in November during even-numbered years, then those legislators convene in January of every odd-numbered year following the elections for a 20-week regular session.

Several weeks into those sessions — often, in February — the leaders of the two legislative bodies — the House speaker and the lieutenant governor — organize members into the committees that will handle various subjects, like budgets, public schools, prisons and economic development.

Dewhurst, fresh off a stinging and personally expensive loss in the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, is getting his political résumé back together — mainly by putting his nose to the grindstone and returning to state Senate business.

He will be working in front of a different Senate this time, one with at least six new members, a number of whom are more conservative than the people they are replacing. Among his moves, he put Dan Patrick, R-Houston — an advocate of taxpayer-backed vouchers for private schools — in charge of the Public Education Committee. He named Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, to fill the empty chairmanship of the budget-writing Finance Committee. He removed Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, from her post as chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, installing her on the less prestigious Government Organization Committee.

The thing to note here is the timing.

To keep up appearances and to avoid the impression of any direct pay-for-play governing, lawmakers aren’t allowed to raise money while they’re in regular session, and for the 30 days leading up to a legislative session or during the 20 days that follow one.

As a practical matter, that means lawmakers, donors, lobbyists and their various ilk don’t exactly know before the contribution blackout who will be doing what. They often have a fair idea, but without certainty. If, say, somebody has been the head of the Senate State Affairs Committee for a while, like Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, has, there is a good chance he will be in that spot or in an even better one in the future. (In fact, that happened: He will remain in that post.) Experts and reliable allies tend to stay in place.

But this is a year of heavy legislative turnover. At least half a dozen senators aren’t coming back, leaving some big positions open. Dewhurst’s shuffle put almost a dozen senators in chairmanships they did not hold before. He can always fiddle with it later, and he hasn’t announced which senators will populate those committees but the leadership appears to be set.

That blackout on campaign contributions doesn’t happen until December. And only one Senate seat is truly in play in the November elections. Even if they wait until after the elections, the lobby, the interests, the fundraising and campaign consultants, and the candidates all have time to get together, to build their relationships, to talk about the issues. And to raise money.

Not to pick on Zaffirini, but she provides an easy example of what to expect. Her new committee will oversee “sunset bills” that have to pass for various agencies to stay in business. The policy idea is that those agencies won’t survive without continued legislative approval, which is given in 12-year doses. One of the agencies on this year’s list is the Texas Railroad Commission which, in spite of its name, regulates the oil and gas business. That industry is booming right now, with hydraulic fracturing hot spots like the one in the Eagle Ford Shale, a formation that significantly overlaps Zaffirini’s Senate district.

More important, it overlaps the business of the committee she has just been named to lead. What appeared to be a slight from the lieutenant governor could be a boon instead. She’s got a bunch of new friends, and time to build relationships and raise money.

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