Here's the layout for next week, in 100 words or less: Comptroller's release of her estimate of how much revenue the state will bring in by the end of August 2013; Tea Party rallies; GOP caucus vote on whether to show a preference for a speaker followed, maybe, by said vote; opening day with swearings-in of members (most statewides are already sworn in, with the exception of the top two, who get the treatment a week after the session starts), the official vote for speaker, and adoption of rules by the House and the Senate; and budgeteers' release of the proposed budget for 2012-13.
After that, it usually slows down some. Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will be sworn in on Tuesday, January 18. It'll be a bit before the House and Senate officially organize, naming new committees and getting to work on things other than the budget. The Senate is more predictable (not actually predictable, just more predictable) than the House, what with just two new members among the 31.
Two years ago, the Senate committees were named by the end of January and the House followed two weeks later. Four years ago, the Senate's lists were out by the third week of January. And House lists that year — under a different speaker — were out before the end of January.
The last detail of the startup is the governor's State of the State speech. But the thing to watch early — other than the budget, the budget, the budget — is the governor's emergency orders. Lawmakers can't consider issues during the first 60 days of the session (technically speaking) unless the governor declares them emergencies. That doesn't mean lawmakers will do anything, but it allows them to, and it's an indication of what the governor wants done. It also gives the Guv a chance to control the agenda before the volume of proposed legislation increases the competition for legislative time and headlines. Candidates for emergency status include redistricting (so they can get to work early), voter ID, supplemental appropriations, and hot potatoes to be named later.
The real test, here at the beginning, is whether the lines keep moving at the metal detectors that protect the people in the Capitol from the people who elect them. If it gets cold and they have to move the inauguration indoors, it's gonna be interesting.
A Legislative Guard Rail
If the Republicans throw out the two-thirds rule in the Senate, they'll have to stop anything coming from the House by themselves, without the Democrats to blame. If they leave it in place, they can let the Democrats kill nasty stuff from the House. It's an accountability thing: They might want it dead either way, but with the two-thirds rule, there's another party to blame.
[A quick refresher, if you're new or just in good mental health: It takes two thirds of the senators in attendance to take up legislation out of the order it comes up for consideration. They put a bill at the front of the line — a blocker they don't intend to consider — and have to get two-thirds of the senators to agree before anything else can come up for debate. The Senate has 19 Republicans and it takes 21 to get to two-thirds, if everyone is present. If you make it, say, a 60 percent rule — that's been proposed — it requires only 19.]
The notion here is that, with 101 Republicans, the House can pass almost anything. That had been the Senate's job; the House was where things went to die after zipping through the upper chamber. Now the Senate's the stopper, when it wants to be.
But the push to kill the rule would unplug the pipes. This happens to both parties in the constant tension between the wingers and the wingnuts — that is, the regular partisans and the Kool-Aid Kids: What do you do when a bill you really don't want to vote on is appealing to the loudest or most electorally powerful people in your party? You let the other party kill it so you can shrug and say you never had a chance.
Changing the Senate's two-thirds rule right now would leave all of the decisions in Republican hands, for better and for worse, and would also make things easier for the House and for the governor when they need to move things through the Senate. On the other hand, leaving it in place empowers the Democrats, for better and for worse.
The line right now is that the Republican senators want to leave the rule in place, but with exceptions — as they've taken before — for issues like voter ID. And if they come back in special session this summer, they might not set up the blocker, allowing a simple majority to bring up whatever needs bringing up.
Seen any Democrats in and around the fight over who ought to be speaker of the Texas House? There were some in attendance right after the election when Speaker Joe Straus announced to the press that he had the votes for a second term. But in the spitting and hacking over whether Straus is conservative enough for his own party, the Democrats have been fairly quiet. During the long conversation about whether the Republicans ought to retreat into caucus and pick a speaker there, it's just been assumed that Straus has those 49 votes locked up.
That's harmful to Straus, in Republican eyes, because what kind of Republican, after all, gets votes from stinky Democrats? It also positions the Democrats as a pack of weaklings whose votes don't matter in the decision over who'll lead the House.
What if they offered not to play? If the House Democrats are feeling the cold shoulder from the speaker they helped elect two years ago, they have the option of sitting out the vote on Tuesday and letting the Republicans show their splits in front of everyone.
The GOP caucus vote on Monday, if there is one, is almost certainly going to be a secret ballot, and if it's not secret to the members, it's unlikely they'll share the results with the public. But the Republicans in that room would all like to know who lines up with whom. Straus has said he's got more than enough Republican support to win in a caucus vote. Unless you think Ken Paxton or Warren Chisum is hiding a bunch of support, the whole point of the exercise is to cull the herd.
One way to do that is with the first vote the caucus will take on Monday — the vote over whether the members want to express, as a group, a preference in the race for speaker. That straw vote could serve to identify the factions in the room. Another is to have the preference vote itself. And a third comes on Tuesday, when members vote for a speaker and either do it unanimously, or do it with some opposition. Such ballots identified the Craddick D's — Democrats who voted for Republican Tom Craddick for speaker. That's how you knew who the ABCs were, the Republicans who would vote for Anybody But Craddick.
Several outside groups on the Republican side have decided this is the Vote of the Session — more important than votes on the budget, redistricting, voter ID, or you name it — and say they'll weight their end-of-session ratings to reward anyone who votes against Straus. The Democrats could flip that bit of electoral extortion to their benefit, voting against Straus and using the weighted rating to offset whatever liberal votes they hope to cast later in the session.
More seriously, withdrawing as a bloc lets the Republican tug-of-war play out and forces the combatants there to appeal to the Democrats for their votes, if they need them. It would smoke out the Republican factions and put the minority party in a position to bargain.
Our first survey of the new year found the insiders united, agreeing strongly that 1, Joe Straus will win another term as speaker; 2, that the next speaker should include the minority party — Democrats, with 49 of 150 members — in committee chairmanships and other assignments; and 3, that the House Republican Caucus is the wrong forum for picking a speaker. The charts are pretty stark:
The comment question this week was about the long-term effects of outside "grassroots" groups in the race and other legislative issues. Some selected answers follow (the full set can be downloaded here):
"The House Speaker is elected among peers. While outside groups should have the opportunity to leverage influence in the process, this is America after all, it could set a very dangerous precedent for meddling in House business."
"Will help the opposition party as independents will keep switching sides. They didn't vote for the Rs in 2010; they voted against the Ds. Same will happen, in reverse, if this continues."
"Are you asking what effect grassroots would have in legislative issues? More democracy!"
"That's the way it's supposed to work. Except ideally there would be more than one side involved."
"The effect of outside groups on the process will be minimal. In the end only those that play inside baseball really understand or care about the Speakers race. The real impact is what is going to happen to the outside groups when they dont prevail. Will groups such as Eagle Forum have enough impact to show that they can still influence things? If Straus wins then the groups that are now making the threats will have to back them up. In the next election, when these groups are unable to take down those that support Straus, they will have lost a lot of credibility. Noise and power are two different things."
"More divisive, Washington-style politics in Texas. Legislators are elected to come to Austin and use their best judgment on behalf of their districts. With this type of 'grassroots' involvement becoming more prevalent, it will turn, or has turned, into a system where whoever barks the loudest gets heard."
"Grassroots organizations have been involved for years. What's new?"
"There is no impact from the outside. This is an inside baseball game, maybe an inside the diamond game that few know about and fewer care about."
"The further 'Washingtonification' of Austin, sadly. (If I wanted to put up with that b.s., I'd work there instead of here!)"
"No long term impact. Big hat no cows as we will see next election cycle."
"More conservative government that is better responsive to the will of the voters."
"We wouldn't want to open the legislative process up to the general public now would we?"
"Every constituency has the right to be involved, including the lunatic fringe. That said, the long term effect of bowing to lunatic pressure is long term lunacy."
"Outside groups getting involved in legislative matters is not a bad thing. However, members need to understand much of the current 'grassroots' is really 'grass tops' generated hype by interest groups. ... The lobby needs to realize that social media and other communication forums are changing the way members evaluate and react to issues. Traditional relationship lobby is becoming less important and the ability to demonstrate 'public' support is becoming a vital aspect of lobby efforts."
"Some neophytes will think they have stroke and be intimidated by them, but the truth is these folks are funded by a few guys tied to few more guys, who just want to rule."
"Will hold members more accountable to the folks who elect them and make them own the positions they take and be prepared to defend them"
MALC Lawyers Up
The Mexican American Legislative Caucus says it's thinking positively, but it might also be planning for a battle. The group announced after the release of last month's U.S. census numbers that it has retained a "top-notch" legal team to ensure a fair redistricting process.
"While the United States population grew at the slowest rate since the Great Depression, Texas has once again bucked the trend, and grew by an astonishing 20.6 percent," said Christina Gomez, the MALC director of operations. "The numbers will say what the Mexican American Legislative Caucus has been saying all along — growth in Texas is Latino growth."
The group said it is optimistic the new congressional, Texas Senate and House, and State Board of Education seats will reflect that growth and "trump politics."
But just to make sure, the caucus has retained voting rights attorney Jose Garza, who will be advised by Joaquin Avila, the director of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at the Seattle University School of Law. Morgan Kousser of the California Institute of Technology is being retained as an expert witness.
"If there were no Latinos, there would be no population growth to speak of. MALC has been working for over a year to prepare for the fight ahead," said MALC Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. "We are ready to take the lead and, frankly, we are the only logical choice."
Swapping Mandates for Money
In a session in which cost will frame any new policy proposals — and, more than ever, a price tag attached to legislation will be a kiss of death — the most significant substantive changes in public education could come in what the Legislature decides to do with programs already in place.
As lawmakers come under pressure to help schools cope with the reduced funding that the budget shortfall will surely bring, they will look to relax state regulations that create costs local school districts bear on their own or with limited help from the state. They include a wide range of well-established requirements like maximum class sizes, end-of-course exams, gifted-and-talented programs, dropout prevention strategies, assistance for dyslexic students, college-credit programs and instruction on religious literature.
Education's two most prominent senators — committee chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and vice chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston — both espouse the benefits of giving superintendents more control over how they allocate resources. Patrick says his No. 1 goal for the session is to reduce the Legislature's impact on how local school districts spend their money, and part of that is ending unfunded mandates.
"As a Texas legislator, I don't like it when the federal government pushes down unfunded mandates to the states," says Patrick, who recently announced he was starting a new Tea Party caucus. "Therefore, I believe we should not pass down unfunded mandates to the school districts."
For Shapiro, the challenge will be to deal with the budget squeeze without "jeopardizing progress and reform." That means she says there are some "non-negotiables," like teacher incentive programs, end-of-course exam time lines and graduation standards like the 4x4 program, which requires that districts offer four years of English language arts, math, social studies and science for students. She says that her committee would rather "use a scalpel" and identify programs that aren't working than take big cuts "willy nilly" across the board. That will mean looking at "financial" as well as "academic" accountability.
"The budget is going to be the bellwether. I can almost promise you that there will not be a bill that we look at seriously that's going to cost money unless we can find a way to fund it," Shapiro says, adding, "But at the same time, I don't want to lose any of our momentum on the things that we've already begun in the state. So it's going to be a balancing act."
The Week in the Rearview Mirror
The speaker race — or, if you prefer, the speaker drama — dominated Texas political news over the two weeks we were out. Most of that centered around Warren Chisum's request for a caucus vote to determine House Republicans' preference in the race. Outside groups including the Texas Eagle Forum, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Americans for Prosperity, and Young Conservatives of Texas — all calling for a change in the House's top job — said they'll consider this the session's most important vote when they do their post-session scoring of members. YCT was blunt, saying " members who vote in favor of incumbent House Speaker Joe Straus will be negatively scored." Ken Paxton got an endorsement from former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who doesn't live in Texas but is apparently interested in the state legislature here. Straus picked up the endorsement of Rep. Beverly Woolley, who chaired the Calendars Committee under his predecessor Tom Craddick, and might have been expected to side with Straus' foes. There's another weekend of letters and phone calls and emails ahead. The caucus will take a crack at it on Monday, and the House votes on Tuesday.
Republican Dan Neil decided to take his narrow loss to Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, to the Texas House. State Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas (who's done this before), will handle the discovery before the election contest goes to the full House for a vote. Howard won reelection in November, and after a recount by Travis County officials, still had a 12-vote lead.
Texas grew much faster than other big states and will get four new seats in Congress as a result, bringing the total to 36 after the 2012 elections. The state's population grew 20.6 percent, to 25.1 million. The national growth rate, by comparison, was 9.7 percent over the last decade.
The panel created by the Texas Transportation Commission to find ways to improve the agency recommends changes at the top, replacing current executives with new people who can turn around "an acute erosion of public confidence" in the agency.
As many as 36 more states will be able to send waste to a site in Andrews after a ruling from the state's Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission. That dumping is currently open only to Texas and Vermont, who made a deal years ago.
Some lawmakers are responding to the looming budget shortfall with proposals for new taxes and fees. And they're getting industry help in at least one case, with big tobacco companies saying the state should increase taxes on off-brand products sold by companies that weren't involved in the state's tobacco settlement ten years ago. That's worth about $38 million a year to the state. Another proposal to raise sales taxes one penny on a temporary basis would bring in $2.5 billion annually.
Political People and Their Moves
Insurance Commissioner Mike Geeslin has one foot out the door, resigning this week after almost six years in that post, but has told the governor he'll stay through the session if asked. Gov. Rick Perry hasn't hinted at who might replace Geeslin.
The Guv will start the next term with some new faces on his staff. Rob Johnson, former chief of staff to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the manager of Perry's reelection campaign, will be on board as a senior advisor. Jeff Boyd, formerly of the attorney general's office (and more recently, the private sector), will be the new general counsel. Milton Rister, who worked for Dewhurst, former Speaker Tom Craddick, and the Texas Legislative Council, will be director of administration; he lost a GOP primary for the House last year. Brandy Marty will be the new director of budget, planning and policy for Perry; she previously worked in his state office and more recently, for his campaign. And Sarah Floerke moves up to deputy legislative director and House liaison; she's also a veteran of both his state and campaign offices. Boyd replaces Caren Burbach, who'll be an advisor on special projects. Marty is replacing Mary Katherine Stout, who is going to work for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and economist Arthur Laffer.
Perry also made the following appointments:
J. Rolando Olvera of Brownsville as presiding judge of the 5th Administrative Judicial Region. Olvera is judge of the 445th State District Court in Cameron County and a former judge of the 138th and 357th District courts of Cameron County.
John White of Houston to the Texas A&M Board of Regents. White is a partner at Murphree Venture Partners LP, managing director of The Wind Alliance and board chairman of Standard Renewable Energy Group LLC.
Jett Johnson of Goldthwaite to the Lower Colorado River Authority Board of Directors. Johnson is a rancher, self-employed licensed real estate broker and insurance agent.
William "Bill" Buchholtz of San Antonio as chairman and Mitchell Fuller of Cedar Park to the Commission on State Emergency Communications.
William "Bill" Parry of Belton to the Texas Military Preparedness Commission. Parry is executive director of the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance.
Tyran Lee of Houston to the Texas School for the Deaf Governing Board. Lee is an American Sign Language Instructor at Lone Star College at Cy-Fair.
Judy Scott of Dallas to the Assistive and Rehabilitative Services Council. Scott is director of the American Foundation for the Blind Center on Vision Loss.
Paul Bollinger joined Delisi Communications as general counsel. He previously worked as chief of staff and general counsel to House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.
Press corps moves: Chris Tomlinson, who left the Associated Press to become managing editor of the Texas Observer, is back as the AP's Austin bureau chief. He replaces Kelly Shannon, who'll be writing for The Dallas Morning News this session, as will former DMN staffer Karen Brooks, who's been running digital news for KXAN-TV in Austin for the last couple of years. And Corrie MacLaggan is leaving the Austin American-Statesman to open an Austin bureau for Reuters.
Deaths: Tom Vandergriff, the former Arlington mayor, congressman and Tarrant County Judge credited with bringing General Motors, the Texas Rangers and any number of other wonders to his home. He was 84.
Quotes of the Week
Eric Bearse, a Republican consultant and adviser to Speaker Joe Straus, quoted by the Austin American-Statesman on former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton's endorsement of Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, who's challenging Straus: "John Bolton's endorsement is about as meaningful as Michael Bolton's endorsement."
Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of the conservative group Empower Texans, to The Texas Tribune on possible Republican support for tax increases: "I think that any Republican you see pushing tax increases is probably a Republican who's signaling that they are not going to be seeking re-election."
Former House Speaker Rayford Price, a Democrat, in a letter to House members opposing deciding the vote for Speaker in a caucus: "You should be electing a Speaker of the Texas House not the Speaker of a political party as they do in Washington."
Freshman U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, on his status as a member of the new Republican majority, quoted in The Dallas Morning News: "I'm not an army of one. I'm an army of many."
Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, on grappling with public education cuts, to The Texas Tribune: "The state has always been in the supplemental role with additional money. Well, without money, we're going to have to start supplanting instead of supplementing."
Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs on talk of cutting state services in light of the budget shortfall, quoted in The Dallas Morning News: "I'm not a finesser. So I'll say things how it is. It might offend people occasionally. I just never was trained or educated on finesse."
Bill Hammond, head of the Texas Association of Business, on what he thinks of following Arizona's example on immigration enforcement: "Mexican nationals invest literally millions and millions of dollars in Texas, and we believe that one of the detrimental effects that people haven't considered is the drying up of that investment. In my view, if this legislation were to become law, perhaps someone should file a bill to change the state's motto ['Friendship'] as well."
U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, on why the diplomatic information released in the WikiLeaks cables shouldn't be public: "No one has a right to interfere with the relationship between a husband and a wife in their own home; they have an expectation of privacy. Governments have the same kind of privacy expectations."
Bill Allaway, a former Texas revenue estimator now with the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, on the educated guesswork behind the state budget: "We had one year where the overall revenue estimate was absurdly close. It was clearly an accident."
Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, David Muto and Morgan Smith
Texas Weekly: Volume 28, Issue 1, 10 January 2011. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2011 by The Texas Tribune. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 716-8600 or email email@example.com. For news, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (512) 716-8611.