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Agenda Texas: Legislative Development

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: It's the final weekend of the 83rd legislative session. Lawmakers still need to finish up the budget, and we answer more listener questions.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, watches from the sidelines as debate continues on SB 1 on April 4, 2013.

It’s the final countdown; it’s almost here — new episodes of Arrested Development.

Oh, and the end of the Texas legislative session, too.

Lawmakers still have to finish their most important job: passing the state budget. We’ve had an agreement, in theory, between House and Senate budget negotiators for about a week. But depending on the time of day, the agreement has shifted from tenuous to even more tenuous.

Enough about lawmakers. Let’s get back to your questions about the legislative session.

John Lyon emailed us for a window into the sausage-making that is redistricting: "For example, why is Hyde Park split in half? Why five districts in Austin? Why does CD-10 stretch from Michael McCaul's house to Houston?"

According to Drew Spencer from FairVote, a nonpartisan voting reform group, districts take on funny shapes for one of two reasons.

“There’s sort of a benign reason and then a possible malicious reason," Spencer said. "The benign reason would be compliance with the Voting Rights Act. So if you have a substantial racial minority population, you have to make sure that there’s an opportunity for them to be able to elect a candidate of choice."

The malicious reason: partisan gerrymandering. That’s when a party draws district maps to boost its voter support by drawing the maximum number of districts with a majority of voters who support the party. One way to do that, said Spencer, is to pack as many voters from the other party as you can into a single district.

"So if you manage to make a district 90 percent Democratic, for example, that means that all the Democrats that live there won’t be able to elect representative in other districts," Spencer said. "So they’ll get one district rather than being able to elect maybe two."

That helps explain Travis County’s congressional representation a bit. A majority of the county votes for Democrats. But of the five congressional districts that start in Travis and stretch to Tarrant County or Houston or San Antonio, only one has a majority of Democrats.

Shifting gears from politics to policy, sort of, Valerie Kessner wrote us asking: "The Texas Reference Library lists 23 bills regarding Medicaid expansion that were proposed in the 83rd regular session of the Texas Legislature. Please tell me if any of these proposals were adopted."

Before we answer, let’s give some background. Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act is projected to bring Texas about $100 billion in health care spending. But Gov. Rick Perry and the state’s Republican leadership don’t want to join in the expansion or have anything to do with President Obama’s signature legislation.

"The first answer is none of those bills has made it out the first chamber, even out of the first committee that it was referred to. So all 23 of those bills are dead as a doornail," said Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a faith-based political advocacy group that’s been focused this session on trying to expand Medicaid in Texas.

So nothing happened to aid any negotiations between Texas and the federal government. In fact, the only thing we do have is an amendment on a health care bill that blocks expansion.

"There's specific direction telling the governor's office and HHSC they may not go forward with covering people who would be eligible under the expansion, under any circumstances," Moorhead said.

There may be a bit of good news for anyone hoping for Medicaid expansion in Texas: That amendment to block expansion could get pulled off the bill before it heads to the governor’s desk.

Agenda Texas is a co-production of KUT News and The Texas Tribune.
Executive Producer: Matt Largey; Interns: Luke Quinton and Marisa Barnett

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