Subdued Start for Legislators at Head of Table

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (left), House Speaker Joe Straus and Gov. Rick Perry met with reporters on Jan. 9, 2013, the second day of the 83rd legislative session.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (left), House Speaker Joe Straus and Gov. Rick Perry met with reporters on Jan. 9, 2013, the second day of the 83rd legislative session.

Some legislative sessions start with grand plans, reforming this body of law, planting the seeds of that program, marking the culmination or end of a big political uprising. But the start of this session has been marked by constraint, with two of the three principal actors in the political repair shop.

There’s a shortage of the “vision thing” former President George H. W. Bush used to talk about.

No. 1: Gov. Rick Perry has been in three expensive political races in the last three years. He won the first two — a 2010 Republican primary in the governor’s race against Kay Bailey Hutchison, then a U.S. senator, and the ensuing general election. In the third, Perry showed he wasn’t ready for the presidency.

Whatever else you might say about those contests, they were not cheap. The governor has been back to his sponsors several times, and they might be realizing theirs is an expensive habit when he passes the plate for potential future runs for governor and even president.

And Perry is not the only alternative for those conservatives, who have got a replacement in the garage. Attorney General Greg Abbott would like to run, has widespread support inside the Republican Party, and has reported that he has $18 million in his campaign account. That’s enough to run a contested Republican primary campaign in 2014 even if he doesn’t raise another penny.

Perry, by comparison, reached the end of 2012 with just more than $6 million on hand. He has always been able to raise money and has plenty of time to do so if he runs again. But it is interesting that an incumbent leader of a state party holds only a third as much money as his possible successor and/or challenger.

The governor’s policy initiatives are also anemic. The only measures that can be considered during the first 60 days of a legislative session are those that have been declared “emergencies” by the governor, but he has been telling lawmakers he might not declare any this year. Last session, Perry had a handful of hot-button bills he wanted to spotlight.

And look at No. 2: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst hoped to be in Hutchison’s chair in Washington but lost to Ted Cruz in a runoff for last year’s election. As Dewhurst was coming to terms with that, he found out a longtime associate had allegedly been pilfering his campaign accounts — a financial fiasco now in the hands of accountants, lawyers and prosecutors, and serving as a major distraction right when the Legislature is starting its busy season.

No. 3 might have the grandest plans: Joe Straus, the third-term House speaker, was the first to focus on big stuff this time, saying that this session ought to be about water, transportation, jobs and education in a way that elevated those subjects and devalued some of the noisier, shinier stuff so distracting to politicians and headline writers.

All three are on board, sort of. After the first of the Wednesday breakfasts Perry, Dewhurst and Straus have during the legislative session, they talked about roads, water and education. But two days earlier, the comptroller had predicted an upturn in the state’s financial prospects, catching some of the number-crunchers in the Capitol off-guard and giving others — Perry, for instance — an opportunity to sweep some coins off the table for tax relief.

While some want to restore budget cuts made two years ago, or hope to put some money into the water, transportation and education infrastructure they’ve talked about, Perry is considering cuts in business taxes and increases in the size of homestead exemptions from property taxes. Dewhurst wants a water plan, but it looks like it will be written in the House. Those are important matters, but they aren’t exactly commanding the public’s attention and admiration.

George P. Bush, the first member of his famous family’s fourth generation to make a political splash in Texas, pointed out a few days ago that the current crop of statewide officeholders is aging out. He was polite about it, but he noted their actual ages and their time in office when he was talking about his own entry into politics: “Republican or Democrat, I think it’s time for folks in my generation to step up and get involved in public service.”

Maybe they’ll have some big ideas.

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