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Analysis: Election Year is Over for Most Legislators

The election year doesn't end until the first Tuesday in November, but in the Texas Legislature, most of the competition is over, and lawmakers can dig into issues otherwise too dangerous for political season.

January 8th, 2013: Gavel on desk of Lt. Gov. Dewhurst

Elections get in the way of governing. For lawmakers, there’s the temptation to please the crowd for a short-lived rise in political rankings, the fear of making mistakes that could prompt attack ads, and the concern that a difficult issue cannot be addressed in the face of a populist wave.

At the federal level, the November election has become one excuse for the lack of progress on immigration legislation. The underlying idea is that with an election on the line, members of Congress will not vote the same way they would vote without voters — and political opponents — breathing down their necks.

The long-term politics of immigration seem pretty clear in Texas, where immigrants are a critical part of the labor force and of the current “Texas Miracle” the governor likes to brag about. National Republican leaders regularly say the issue could separate the party from the rapidly growing Hispanic population, giving Democrats a critical advantage in future elections. But in the short term, it is risky to talk about specific immigration proposals without sparking political brush fires.

So, the argument goes, hold issues like that one until after the voters have done their thing.

The lawmakers in Washington might be waiting until November for the all-clear signal. In Texas, the clouds are already breaking, and it is safe for officeholders to get to work. Most legislative districts here were created to favor one party or the other, and the true contests to represent them take place in the party primaries, not the general elections. A few legislative contests will be decided in November. A handful will be decided this month in primary runoffs. With so few officeholders in harm’s way, it is safe to work on sensitive issues.

A House committee is talking about impeaching a pesky University of Texas System regent who has been digging into the operations of UT’s flagship university in Austin.

The speaker of the Texas House unfurled his plans for a state budget that uses all of the money in the highway fund for transportation. That sounds innocuous, but Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, says it would mean adding $1.3 billion to what the state spends on roads and such. It also means, because this involves plain arithmetic, that $1.3 billion would come out of the budgets for state police and for administrative hearings. If lawmakers want to keep those operations, they will have to scrounge for money from other sources.

That is, of course, their job. But making hard budget decisions while voters are making their decisions is risky.

It is not the middle of the election year for Texas Republicans — it is, for most of them, the end. That’s why it is already safe for elected officials to work on the Hall impeachment, to talk about the use of untraceable “dark money” donations in politics and whether they should be disclosed, about whether teacher evaluations should hinge on student test performance, about which government programs should be left to fight for money that is now on its way to transportation.

Statewide candidates can venture forth, too, if they do not have — or do not think they have — formidable opponents. The four Republicans who ran for lieutenant governor, a group now pared to two for the runoff, appeared at more than a dozen debates and forums and made it clear that they were worried about competition from each other and not from state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the Democratic nominee for that position. On issues like immigration, public education and abortion, each took positions in line with their conservative political audience without leaving themselves room to appeal later to moderates and independents.

Agree or not, it reflects their assessment of where the voters are, and of the safety of undiluted partisan appeals in Texas in this particular election year.

Most legislators can get to work quickly, because most of them already hold the offices they hope to hold a year from now. The statewide offices are turning over this year, and most candidates will have to wait until January before taking the reins. After the runoff returns are counted, a few in each party will still be thinking about voters. For the rest, November is just a formality.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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