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Analysis: Legislature Losing Some Key Players

It will be more than a year before we know everyone who is and is not coming back to the Texas Legislature, but the trickle has started, and some big players are leaving the field.

Texas House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, looks at his computer while state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, stands nearby on June 1, 2015.

A dozen of the state’s 181 legislators have said they won’t return for another session. More will follow, but 20 to 30 new House members and a handful of new senators would be pretty normal turnover.

Quantity isn’t the problem; this is hardly a stampede. It’s the quality that could leave a mark. Some top legislators are leaving.

State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is the chairman of the House Public Education Committee, the guy a lot of legislators were hoping would lead them out of the latest round of litigation over school finance.

The Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments in September on that case, which is about whether the state is meeting constitutional requirements by spending enough on public education, by fairly allocating that spending among the state’s school districts, and by leaving those districts some discretion over their own property tax rates.

It’s a mouthful, even in simplified form. Aycock, one of the few lawmakers who knows how all of those gears work, is leaving at the end of his current term. Unless the court rules soon enough for lawmakers to hold a special session in 2016, Aycock won’t be one of the legislators here to find a remedy.

They’ll look for budget expertise whether he’s in Austin or not, but there is more news there. State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, is the vice chairman and possibly the most experienced budgeteer in the state Capitol. They’re both leaving, too — Otto to return to the private life of a southeast Texas accountant, Turner to make a bid for mayor of Houston.

That means there will be a new chairman of the budget-writing committee in 2017, for the third time in three legislative sessions. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, preceded Otto, and now someone new will have to take over. It can be done, and has been. But it’s a steep hill to climb.

State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, is leaving, too. He’s the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a former chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the Energy Committee. He’s one of the few remaining members of the Polo Road Gang — a group of 11 Republicans who met at state Rep. Byron Cook’s house on Polo Road in Austin and decided to support Joe Straus for speaker of the House before the 2009 session. Only Cook of Corsicana, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Straus himself will try to remain for another session. Two of them — Cook and Geren — already have challengers in the Republican primary.

Straus is losing other stalwarts, too, though not enough so far to do serious damage to his political moorings. His Republican rivals are losing a couple of sure votes, too, including state Reps. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, who challenged Straus for speaker at the beginning of this year’s regular session; David Simpson, R-Longview, a persistent burr in Straus’ saddle; and Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, himself a onetime challenger to Straus. Turner is going home, and Simpson and Hughes both have their eyes on an open seat in the state Senate.

Which brings us to a couple of trees falling on that end of the forest. State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, joined the Senate in 1997 after serving for over four years in the House. That’s not enough years to put him in the top tier on the seniority chart, but it’s a lot of experience to lose.

Another Senate chairman, Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, is retiring, too, leaving his spot as the resident contrarian. It was Eltife who tapped the brakes early in this year’s legislative session and called attention to deferred maintenance of state buildings and other assets, to paying down debts and the like. He quietly helped block some bills dear to the Tea Party that might pass in a Senate without him, like a ban on sanctuary cities and on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools.

Eight months after the last elections, change is already in the air. It’s only a dozen lawmakers so far — 10 in the House, two in the Senate. More will leave either by their own choice or because are voters looking for something new. This is just the beginning.

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