Who will be the most important legislators in Austin in 2011?
According to Barry McBee, vice chancellor and chief governmental relations officer of the University of Texas System, that distinction may belong to the 12 Democratic members of the Texas Senate. He made the observation this morning in Austin during a presentation to the UT Board of Regents on the upcoming legislative session.
The reason: the Senate Democrats, of which there are 12 to the Republicans' 19, are the only legislators capable of putting the brakes on a Republican agenda. In the House, where the Republicans will have a near-supermajority of 99 seats to the Democrats' 51, the wheels are more than sufficiently greased in Republicans' favor.
The upper chamber traditionally abides by a rule requiring the consent of two-thirds of the legislative body to bring any item up for debate. Though they aren't in the majority, if the Democrats stick together, they can use that rule to prevent Republican legislation — the only kind likely to get much traction — from moving forward. Of course, that's assuming that the tradition remains in effect. Republicans famously set the two-thirds rule aside to allow contentious voter ID legislation to ease through the Senate last session. So, to some extent, the Senate Democrats' status is in Republican hands.
Like most government agencies, the biggest issue for the UT System this session will be the state's budget. Some estimate that it's facing a shortfall as high as $25 billion. Meanwhile, enrollments at universities are soaring. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, institutions of higher education (including those in other systems) will need more than $700 million in additional funding simply to account for growth.
Another hot-button issue will be whether or not to legalize the concealed carry of firearms on college campuses. Newly elected state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, has already filed a bill to do just that. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2009 but got stuck in the House.
While regents may discuss relevant issues with legislators — in the Senate or otherwise — they are not allowed to lobby.