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Unfinished Business, and Then Some

Texas lawmakers are back for a special session that started the day after their 140-day regular session. That’s something like sprinting to the finish of a long race and having your coach yell, just as you break the tape, “One more lap.”

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, leaving the Senate chamber with colleagues Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, after a press conference on May 30, 2011.

Texas lawmakers are back for a special session that started the day after their 140-day regular session. That’s something like sprinting to the finish of a long race and having your coach yell, just as you break the tape, “One more lap.”

They’re exhausted and ticked off, and they’re in Austin for another 30 days unless they can finish early. Nice chemistry. It’s not like they’ve got a bunch of easy issues to settle, either. What’s left are the things they couldn’t work out, along with a few things that got caught in the deadlines: A school finance plan. An insurance fight pitting tort reformers against trial lawyers. Congressional redistricting. A bog of health issues that includes Medicaid managed care, health insurance exchanges, outcome-based care. A ban on sanctuary cities.

Gov. Rick Perry called the special session after state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered on Sunday night, running out the clock on a critical piece of budget legislation that included the school finance program. Davis is the hero or goat, depending on your choice of narrative. When Perry talks about the special session, he refers to it as the result of the “actions of one particular individual.” Democrats, short on things to cheer about since November, have rallied around Davis.

Ask a Republican and the word is that the Democrats are boneheads for forcing an immediate special session, since the rules are different and make it even easier for the Republican supermajority in the Legislature to pin the blame on the donkeys. The Democrats aren’t going to win any ground on policy, the argument goes, and now have to swallow the sanctuary cities bill, which failed during the regular session and might have remained dead. The public will see the Democrats as obstructionists and whiners, and the legislative outcomes won’t be any different than if lawmakers had finished in regulation time.

Ask a Democrat and the word is that Perry had already said there would be special sessions to deal with windstorm insurance reforms and congressional redistricting. They say the extra time will give the public all the more opportunity to catch on to what’s going on in Austin (their theory, of course, being that an informed public will agree with the Democrats). It’s not like Davis caused it, they say — all she did was put the spotlight on the school cuts the Republicans want to enact instead of on the political issues the governor wanted to highlight.

Curiously enough, some Democrats also say the return of the sanctuary cities issue could be good for them. The legislation under consideration is relatively weak — the Arizona version requires the police to check citizenship, while the Texas version would merely allow it. Their argument is that the bill won’t hurt people much, but will stampede Hispanic voters from the Republicans to the Democrats.

The budget bill that died Sunday included $3.5 billion in “non-tax revenue” — most of it resulting from delayed payments and accelerated tax collections. It also changed the state’s school finance formulas, cutting $4 billion from what the state would otherwise be obligated to send to school districts. None of that was particularly new to members in the last week of the session. What was new were the “printouts,” the computer runs showing how the $4 billion would affect each of the state’s school districts.

Lawmakers were voting on the budget bill the day after they saw those runs for the first time. In the Senate, because of Davis, there wasn’t a vote. In the House, the party lines broke down, with 84 legislators in favor and 63 against. All of the Democrats voted no, along with 16 Republicans. One question hanging over the special session is whether the numbers will hold. Will superintendents, who’ve had time to see the numbers and react, ask their local legislators to vote yes, or no, and how will that affect the outcome? Will teachers and parents, with school out, come to Austin to protest outside the Capitol? Will lawmakers, given a little more time in special session, fiddle with the formulas and pop out a new set of numbers before the vote?

All the while, they’ll be arguing over a straight-up political issue in congressional maps, an issue that splits mostly Democratic political money (trial lawyers) from mostly Republican political money (tort reformers) in the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association fight, and ethnic politics, in sanctuary cities.

One more lap.

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Health care State government 82nd Legislative Session Budget Griffin Perry Medicaid Rick Perry Special sessions Texas Legislature Wendy Davis