Analysis: A Conservative but Complicated Legislature

State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, shows off his Sine Die tie on the last day of the 84th Legislative session on June 1, 2015.
State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, shows off his Sine Die tie on the last day of the 84th Legislative session on June 1, 2015.

It was clear after the 2014 elections that Texas voters were sending a conservative political cohort to Austin. It turned out that the officeholders they elected had different ideas about what that meant, and that this group — no real surprise here — could alternately quarrel and cooperate about as well as most of its predecessors.

In the process, issues that might have seemed black and white during the elections were rendered in shades of gray during the session.

It started right out of the gate: On the first day of the legislative session, a group of advocates for legalized open carry of handguns blustered into the Capitol to talk to members. They were so obnoxious about it that their bill — one of the virtual certainties coming out of the elections — didn’t pass until the final weekend 20 weeks later.

Before the session, even Democrats like Wendy Davis were in favor of open carry. After the over-enthusiastic supporters were done, even the sure bets were shaky. It finally did pass, however, along with legislation that will allow licensed Texans to carry concealed handguns on some parts of the campuses of state colleges and universities.

The $209.4 billion state budget, often a source of deep rancor and infighting, turned out to be relatively easy to put together. It helped that the year began with $17 billion uncommitted in the comptroller’s forecast of available money. The people who write political bumper stickers hate it when the superlative is “responsible,” but that word is already popping up in the news releases coming from the state’s leaders.

 

The legislative battles took place on other fields.

Greg Abbott, the state’s new Republican governor, started the session asking for support in five policy areas. He batted .800. Lawmakers voted to spend more money on pre-kindergarten programs, on border security, on roads and on higher education research. They spoiled his wish for major ethics reforms; a late disagreement over the disclosure of donations to political nonprofits ruined that.

Dan Patrick, the state’s new lieutenant governor, came into office after winning a GOP primary that positioned him as the most conservative of a pack of four Republican contenders.

House Speaker Joe Straus maintained his balance, winning a fourth term as speaker of a House that has a Republican majority with loud populist conservatives on one side and noisy and relatively numerous Democrats on the other. His pitch this time was to take care of bread-and-butter stuff like the budget and infrastructure and tax cuts.

A proposal for school choice, a Patrick priority, fell short; lawmakers didn’t line up for this year’s favorite flavor — a tax credit for businesses contributing to a scholarship fund to help Texas schoolchildren attend private schools.

Calls for immigration reforms — amplified during the Republican primary for lieutenant governor — fell short, too. Efforts to require local police to enforce federal immigration laws failed to pass, as did attempts to repeal in-state tuition at Texas schools for undocumented immigrants who live here and graduate from the state’s high schools.

Similarly, an effort to tighten limits on growth of the state budget fell short. The House and Senate had irreconcilable differences about what spending should be included.

Tax cuts? They got those, but you might find more money under your sofa cushions than you will in the break you’re getting. Businesses that pay the state’s franchise tax will find their rates have been cut 25 percent. Most taxpayers will get no cuts at all, but the Legislature did agree to increase the size of property tax homestead exemptions by $10,000, if voters approve. For the average homeowner, that would amount to about $126 per year; other property owners and renters won’t catch a break.

State leaders wanted to rein in local laws they said were making a confusing patchwork of the state’s regulatory map. And they started what promises to be a long debate with cities, counties and school districts by effectively reversing local anti-drilling ordinances in places like Denton.

Nobody got everything they promised, and you can tell from the reactions at the end that nobody got everything they wanted.

For some, lawmakers fell short. For others, lawmakers went too far. No matter who you are, no matter what your political philosophy, you would hate it if the Texas Legislature passed every bill that gets filed.

So look at the bright side: It never does.

 

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