Which Votes Will Haunt Lawmakers?

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst signs a stack of bills during a recess in the Senate session on May 22, 2013.
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst signs a stack of bills during a recess in the Senate session on May 22, 2013.

It will take a while for voters to figure out what the Legislature has inflicted on them, but political consultants are already seeing some wedge issues that could be used against lawmakers in upcoming political races.

First the fine print: Last-minute reversals or gubernatorial vetoes could wipe out or change the outcomes of various proposals and impact how future political messages are crafted.

Many votes, however, could be damaging no matter what ends up on the law books after the Legislature completes its work and leaves town. Take the vote on an amendment by Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, to a bill (Senate Bill 1459) shoring up the state employee retirement system. The amendment would have denied a proposed pension increase for legislators.

The amendment failed on an 84-59 vote, with some opponents complaining that members didn’t have time to digest its full impact — and pointing out, legitimately, that it might have unintended consequences. But political consultants follow an old political adage: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

It would be relatively easy to characterize those who opposed the amendment — the 84 who voted to "table" it — as being in favor of giving themselves a fat pension increase. That was, after all, the subject of the floor debate that preceded the vote. If voters take issue with that 12 percent hike in legislative pensions, the vote could cut in either major party primary or in a general election.

Most of the “no” votes came from GOP members, but a lot of Republicans joined Democrats in opposing Isaac's amendment. The list of how each member voted is in the House Journal from May 20; it's Record Vote 988.

Lawmaker pensions are based on the base salary of state district judges, currently at $125,000 but set to rise in the budget to $140,000. That increase in turn would give all current and future pensioners from the Legislature a hike.

Isaac’s amendment would have decoupled the judicial salaries from elected-class pensions, and would have instead tied lawmaker’s pensions to a percentage of the governor’s salary ($150,000) and lowered a multiplier in the retirement formula, effectively cutting pensions by 17 percent.

If the judicial salary increase remains in the state budget and is signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, of course, a vote in favor of the two-year spending plan could also be characterized as a vote in favor of an increase in lawmaker pensions. Budgets always produce plenty of political advertising fodder, so that won't be the only item used in a campaign.

Here’s another potential landmine: The unsuccessful amendment by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, to the bill aimed at forcing disclosure of so-called dark money. That would be Senate Bill 346, by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, aimed at shedding light on donations to 501 (c)(4) nonprofits that take part in political campaigns.

King’s amendment would have stripped out language exempting labor unions from provisions of the bill. Proponents of the disclosure legislation said unions were organized under a separate section of the tax code and weren’t being targeted by SB 346. Some conservatives didn’t buy that argument and fought to remove the labor exemption — via amendments by King and by Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock.

Check out Record Vote 807 — the one on King’s amendment — in the House Journal on May 13. This one is fodder for GOP primaries, with conservative challengers wielding it to associate their opponents with organized labor — not necessarily a good association in a GOP primary.

While looking in the journal, you might notice there were four conservative Republicans who reported that the votes originally displayed on the electronic board didn’t reflect their true intentions.

All four switched their initially recorded votes to "no" — siding, for the official records often scrutinized by political researchers, with King.