Whether you call it a wave, a rout or a tsunami, one thing is clear: Republicans in the Texas House have won a massive mandate for conservative bills — and budgeting — in the coming legislative session.
Consider the numbers: The GOP went into this fall’s election with a slim majority: 77 seats to 73 for the Democrats. By the time the last votes were counted, Republicans had picked up 22 seats from Democrats, growing their majority to 99 to 51.
“It went from a razor-thin, evenly divided House to what’s now our largest majority since Reconstruction,” says state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee.
There wasn't a single Democratic pickup. Political scientists say straight-ticket voting trickled down to the realm of state house races. "A message of, 'We want Republican government,'" says Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
The significant Republican majority could be both a blessing and a curse, as the party in power will get the credit and the blame for difficult decisions that must be made beginning in January — especially on the biennial budget shortfall, which could be as high as $25 billion. Republican members are near-unanimous in favoring deeper cuts to the state’s already lean budget to close the gap. "For the most part, all of the budget adjustment is going to come via dramatic cuts to the state budget," Jones says.
Having this majority ought to "make it easier to reduce spending in the non-priority areas,” Branch says. Just which areas meet a ”non-priority” definition could prove to be next session’s greatest point of disagreement, but Branch identifies both education and health and human services — responsible for the bulk of state spending — as the places Republicans will likely look to chop. “Those areas are going to have to do their fair share,” he says. “And I think when it comes to education [versus] health and human services in terms of the traditional role of government, education has the priority.”
Legalizing gambling has been mentioned again in recent months as a potential new revenue source, but there are now so many social conservatives in place that the likelihood of expanded gaming is probably quashed, members say.
Redistricting — the process of drawing new legislative and congressional districts — is also on the agenda for next year and will prove to have its own set of challenges. The newly elected Republicans will want to draw district lines that are sure to keep them in office. But given what we know and expect of the census numbers, creating 99 safe seats could be next to impossible.
Democrats, still stung from the shellacking they took around the state, say that while all elections have consequences, this set could be especially dire. “I fear that [Republicans] will not want to engage and will carry forward a fairly aggressive and extreme ideological agenda,” says state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.
GOP agenda items will no doubt include a host of anti-immigration bills. Some returning Republican lawmakers have already said they plan to file Arizona-style immigration bills in Texas. “What’s different next session is that this substantially larger majority of people who ran specifically on the [immigration] issue will want to satisfy their base. I think it’s coming. I think it’s coming with a vengeance,” Anchia says.
Also likely coming is legislation that’s been successfully held up by Democrats in the past, like voter ID, which requires Texans to present a photo identification in order to cast a ballot. Democrats worry this will disenfranchise those who don’t have proper forms of identification.
But the biggest concern for now significantly weakened Democrats is the budget, where the amount that must be made up leaves little choice but to cut if not completely ax education funding and social programs. “I think they’re going to make every attempt to limit the scope of health insurance for women and children,” Anchia says.
In an interview Tuesday, House Speaker Joe Straus echoed his familiar refrain of “letting the will of the members” decide the path of legislation. He vowed he wouldn’t slow any of the conservative bills as they course through the chamber. “There’s an election in two years that will validate — or not — the job that we haven’t done yet,” he said.
Of course, Senate Democrats could still be a check against some of the most controversial legislation passing out of the House. But they're sorely outnumbered in the upper chamber, 19 to 12, and the so-called two-thirds rule, to help give the minority side a means of blocking legislation, can be disabled with a simple majority vote.