For 83rd Lege, More Civility Than Drama

Crowds of visitors, lobbyists, and lawmakers turned out to the Texas capitol for the opening day of the 83rd legislative session, Jan. 8, 2013.
Crowds of visitors, lobbyists, and lawmakers turned out to the Texas capitol for the opening day of the 83rd legislative session, Jan. 8, 2013.

With 10 days left in the session, Texas legislators have a chance to look like they know what they’re doing.

That would contrast nicely with the actions of their cousins in Washington and perhaps — just maybe — voters would notice the difference.

It’s a golden opportunity to show off. The national government appears to be a collection of smart people from all over the country who, when harnessed into a single organization, operate at about 25 percent of their average IQ’s. Texas legislators aren’t any smarter, and their accomplishments aren’t huge, but they do get better grades for deportment.

At the state level, the 2012 elections weren’t about big programs or big shifts in policy. Voters sent people to Austin to do the regular work, to fix some problems like high-stakes testing in public schools. The session that followed has reflected that. No sweeping anythings have emerged: no big reforms, new programs or personnel changes. A shortage of truly surprising headlines and news.

The alert level for drama is green, not orange or red.

Here in the last days of the 140-day session, lawmakers are working on a state budget. That’s normal. They are trying to reconcile financial differences over transportation, water, schools and taxes. Normal, more or less. They have their differences and arguments, but few of the confrontations have had that bad-marriage undertow familiar to legislative watchers.

It’s a good time to be the sort of government that doesn’t attract attention. The federal races in 2012, from the presidential contests to Texas’ U.S. Senate race that came down to Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst, were sharp, close and often bitter. Texans seem to hold their governments in what you might call minimum high regard. “Don’t be like the rest of them” seems to be the order of the day.

Gov. Rick Perry didn’t give lawmakers a list of things to do at the beginning of the session. The 2011 Legislature came in without enough money to finance continuing programs, with the treacherous issue of legislative and congressional redistricting on the block, and with a list of divisive issues set down by a governor who was a few months away from entering the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

For white-collar types, that’s real action.

This time, there is enough money, to the extent that there is ever enough money. Legislative leaders squelched the attorney general’s efforts to reopen redistricting, knowing that the political coalitions holding things together are too fragile for that debate.

The issues they decided to tackle are either nonpartisan, like water and transportation financing, or only vaguely partisan, like tax cuts and education spending. The Tea Party engine that propelled the 2011 session is still running. But without a Republican supermajority in either House, it is a less powerful force this year.

With three weeks to go, the corridors of the state Capitol were full of talk of an immediate special session that might be needed for lawmakers to settle things that seemed insoluble as time was running out. The talk is a little quieter for the moment, with budget negotiators alternately relaxed and pensive and water plans back on track.

It’s too early to say they will work it out, but it appears that they might. Voters, and the people who lead voters to choices in elections, will sort through the results for differences that matter to them. Lawmakers will have voted on gun bills, education spending, whether and how to change what is required for a high school diploma, and whether to raise the pay of state judges — and with it, their own pensions.

That is as it ought to be. Legislatures were invented to settle differences, as a polite alternative to brawls. And if they can finish without overshadowing their work with their battles, without ending in partisan snits and intramural melees, maybe the voters will notice.

Given the noise level in Washington and the voters’ evident disgust for the workings of the federal government, maybe Texans won’t notice the officeholders in Austin or, if they do, will notice the difference between the two.

Even better.

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