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A House Less Susceptible to Political Stampedes

In 2011, state lawmakers fresh from a Tea Party election surge were hypersensitive to the opinions of and instructions from conservative activists. But as Thursday's House budget debate showed, this session isn't quite the same.

State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, explains an education funding amendment to SB 1 the budget bill during debate on April 4, 2013.

The professional conservatives in Austin are learning something in politics they could have learned in their late pre-teen years: It’s easy to startle animals once or twice, but they eventually learn to ignore you.

More than 40 years ago in El Paso, the members of Boy Scout Troop 59 worked as a group to get bicycling merit badges. One requirement was adding safety equipment to the bikes — things like bells and reflectors that dressed up their Schwinn Sting-Rays. Bike hikes — 10- to 15-mile camping trips out in the boonies — were among the requirements. And the city kids on those trips quickly found out that if everyone hit his bell at the same time, the sound of two-dozen clanging pre-teens on wheels could spook a herd of horses into stampeding across the fields. It was a hoot for everybody but the horses, but it didn’t work very well after the first few times. Pretty quickly, the horses were paying them no attention at all.

Think of the professional conservative activist class in Austin as a bunch of kids on bikes. They tricked out their rides with Twitter and Facebook and other social media equipment, and found they could stampede the Texas Legislature with a chorus of virtual catcalls that seemed pervasive, loud, negative and meaningful.

It worked for a while, and it might still work once in a while. But it hasn’t worked in a decisive way this session. The horses have figured out that nothing really happens if they ignore the noise.

Empower Texans — which wasn’t alone in this but offers a ready example — posted a list of House amendments through its affiliate, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, with recommendations on how to vote before the budget debate began Thursday in the House. There is little evidence that many representatives paid it the slightest bit of attention. And the House, instead of coalescing into a battle of Republicans vs. Democrats, instead operated with a coalition of traditional or institutional Republicans and Democrats, with the populist and Tea Party Republicans in the minority.

Their main event in the debate was a proposed defunding of the state’s economic development subsidies for movies and games that would have sent the money to a health insurance program for retired teachers. The House rejected that proposal 108-37. Friday morning, the group posted the results with the names of who voted and how in an effort to gin up grassroots calls for their “Hollywood vs. teachers” matchup. While their recommendations didn’t cause a stampede on the House floor Thursday night, they were still trying to raise the noise to a level the horses would hear the next day.

And while the members most closely aligned with that and other groups were trying to make headlines and score political points about the state’s priorities, the majority of the House stomped an issue dear to the governor and the lieutenant governor, voting 103-43 to block the Texas Education Agency from spending any public money on private school vouchers or on “scholarships” for students to take public money to private schools themselves.

The budget debate prompted some crowing from the establishment types, who were happy to find they could beat the outsiders on votes geared to position candidates for next year’s Republican primaries. They had their moments, however, particularly on a provision that set up a way for Medicaid expansion to take place if and when the state and federal governments can negotiate a truce on expanding that program to get health care to Texans who don’t have it. The House voted the provision into the budget. Emails and tweets and texts and headlines flew. The pressure came from inside, too: The governor, the state’s two U.S. senators, the lieutenant governor and others have emphatically stated their opposition to taking federal money to increase the size of Medicaid. A few hours after that vote, the House voted along party lines to undo it. Medicaid expansion, to be charitable, appears to be on life support in Texas.

It is still possible to flip a vote in the Legislature, but it looks like the power of conservative groups to turn the House almost at will was temporary. They still have some juice, but the members have found ways to ignore them — as they did on the budget votes that were designed to show the power of the populists.   

Maybe they need new bikes.

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Economy Politics State government Republican Party Of Texas Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature