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Analysis: Small Visions, Small Results in Session

Texas lawmakers started the legislative session without a list of big problems to solve or election mandates to fulfill. And they are ending it without the kinds of results that fill the history books.

The Texas Capitol, May 15, 2015.

What makes a legislative session epic, or at least interesting, is peril: a Legislature facing some sort of crisis.

To excel, a Legislature and the state’s leadership have to be up to the challenge. They have to solve. They can make history the other way, too — by failing.

But 2015’s installment offered no need for heroics and little risk of big mistakes. Lawmakers put some money into border security, loosened the state’s handgun restrictions, passed a budget and provided modest tax cuts. There were no real perils, no big heroes, no monumental failures. Just another day at the office.

This one is not destined for the history books.

Think of the crises legislators didn’t face. There wasn’t a shortage of money. When times are tough, lawmakers have to make hard choices, like raising taxes or cutting programs. In 2015, lawmakers had enough money to do what they wanted to do. Whether you think they did enough is another question; they clearly weren’t feeling pressure to do a lot more. 

Redistricting forces officeholders to fight over the people who elect them, with the threat that the federal courts will fix the maps if the lawmakers don’t. That’s not happening, though it could if the courts send current litigation back to the Legislature for repairs. File this one under pending business.

Texas hasn’t lost any of the sorts of lawsuits that set deadlines for legislative action, as in past battles over school finance, conditions in state mental hospitals or prisons, and litigation over health care for kids. School finance could come back, or voter ID, both of which are still in court. But that’s also pending business that needn’t be worried about now.

Some legislative sessions coincide with internal crises sprouting from scandals, incompetence or incapacity, where someone has proved to not be up to the task of governing for some reason and has to be removed or replaced. Not this time, in spite of contracting and management troubles in the state’s health and human services agencies.

Some sessions are boosted by positive ideas. Somebody gets elected to do something in particular, and the idea animates a Legislature’s 140 days of work. It can be a big idea or a groundswell of support for change, generated by a passionate leader’s ideas or by the public’s demand for a particular result. The last election cycle in Texas was clearly a call for a conservative government, but not for any particular idea. Voters signaled a direction, not a destination.

Outside political pressures can turn the direction of a session, as when a Texas governor is putting together a run for president, something that has happened twice in the last two decades. In 2015, none of the state’s top officials is building a national platform.

And in some ways, that’s what has been odd about the current legislative session. 

The leadership is settled, for the moment, with a speaker who easily fended off a challenge at the beginning of the year, a new governor and a new lieutenant governor. Greg Abbott, Joe Straus and Dan Patrick came in with some ideas, but not with grand proposals that caught public attention and created a legislative urge to get something done. 

They leave with some things to brag about, finishing on time and getting some modest tax cuts, new gun laws, a balanced budget, some money for roads. They had some flops on high-profile issues like ethics reform. Hundreds of bills passed that are of interest and genuine importance to people around the state. 

They came in with relatively small visions for the state and leave Austin this week with relatively small victories in hand.

They did what voters asked them to do. If voters want something different next time around, they can ask for it in 2016.

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State government 84th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate