You can make a case that the legislative session starting this week will be unremarkable, that the new people at the top will get along well and that those who are wringing their hands about change are manufacturing fake drama.
You can also make the case that the mix of new personalities, the split in the Republican Party and a Legislature easily stampeded by noisy outside partisans will provide the sort of drama that’s keeping the hand-wringers busy.
Which argument is right? The evidence will start to pile up Tuesday, when the gavels drop in the House and the Senate.
All but two of the new statewide officeholders — the governor and the lieutenant governor — have already taken their oaths of office. Most of the incoming legislators will be sworn into office on Tuesday. (The exceptions are the state senators who are halfway through four-year terms.)
The House will elect one of its own to be speaker after months of conversation about the merits of incumbent Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and his only declared challenger, Scott Turner, R-Frisco. Relying on the publicly announced loyalties of most House members, Straus should easily win a fourth term.
One week later, the Capitol’s activities will revolve around the inaugurations of Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick. The House and Senate will vote on their new rules. The big news on that front will come from the Senate, which could change a rule that requires two-thirds of senators to consent before a bill can be debated. That allows a minority to block legislation, and Republicans want to require a bigger minority — one that has both Democrats and Republicans in it — to be able to block debate.
Committees will be appointed, establishing the pecking orders in both the House and the Senate. The new governor will say whether he considers anything an emergency — allowing the issue to be considered during the session’s first 60 days — and then they will finally be really and truly started with the 84th legislative session.
The schedule is clear, but how will things go?
We’re starting a legislative session with dozens of new House and Senate members and a slate of new statewide executive officeholders who were elected in November. Most are replacing members of their own political parties, and most did not reach office by promising to upend what their predecessors had done.
The Rick Perry-led state government that was exceptionally predictable for years is being replaced. While it’s almost certain that there will be differences between Abbott and his predecessor — stylistic, substantive or both — those differences are not yet obvious.
The tone of the session isn’t even set. Some of these biennial events are scripted by events, by crashing or surging economies, by lawsuits, by the kinds of easily interpreted elections that force politicians to change direction.
The Texas economy is fine. Oil prices have dropped, enough to inspire some caution on the part of budget writers, but not enough, apparently, to force lawmakers to talk about cutting current services.
The state’s mechanism for paying for public schools is unconstitutional, according to a state district judge, but that lawsuit has not been heard by the Texas Supreme Court. There is no final ruling and no need for the people who write budgets and education laws to lose sleep — yet. A few other lawsuits are pending: over abortion laws written in 2013, a challenge to the state’s same-sex marriage ban, and challenges to voter photo ID laws and to the political redistricting maps drawn by Republican lawmakers. Those could deliver partisan and divisive issues on this Legislature.
And 2014, when compared with the Tea Party wave of 2010 and the 2012 ticket headed by a presidential race, was a snoozer. Some of the Republican primaries were competitive, but not enough so to attract rank-and-file citizens. The people may have spoken, but low turnout reduced it to a whisper.
With unusually large freshman and sophomore classes, the House and Senate are loaded with fresh talent that’s shorter than normal on experience. Maybe that means nothing. Maybe it means there is a train wreck around the next bend. Or, perhaps, a renaissance in a government that needs new blood.
Texas Republicans are divided, and the three Republicans at the legislative helm — Abbott, Patrick and Straus — have a political obstacle course ahead. Texas Democrats are weak in both numbers and message, but could play an outsize role if they can exploit those differences in the GOP.
What’s really new about this is the level of uncertainty, and suspense. It’s a new game.