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Analysis: Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., literally out of sync

Changes in federal policy during the coming Trump administration could mean big changes in state policy in Texas. But it's probably going to take some time.

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Changes are coming in the wake of last month’s general election, but there are some timing issues. Change takes its sweet time.

The new president will be taking the helm of a very slow-moving federal government, and his big policy ideas — remaking federal health care, tightening immigration laws and so on — are going to take some time. More than 20 weeks, probably.

The Texas Legislature’s regular session starts on the second Tuesday of January and lasts for 20 weeks — until Memorial Day. Donald Trump gets the keys to the Oval Office when he is sworn in on Jan. 20.

The Texas lawmakers writing the next budget are well aware of what might change, but it’s too early to write it into the state’s spending plans.

Two years ago, those budgeteers put $800 million into border security, sending state resources to clean up a mess that they believe really belongs to the federal government. They hope and expect the feds to jump in, freeing the state from those duties — and those expenses.

It’s unlikely that will happen before the 85th Legislature’s regular session ends. State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, told folks at last week’s Center for Public Policy Priorities conference in Austin that they should expect to see continued border security funding in the next budget. That wasn’t exactly music to his liberal audience, most of whom would like to see that money put to other uses, but it highlights the timing problem.

Texas lawmakers — an overwhelmingly Republican bunch — will write their budget and pass their laws without the benefit of knowing exactly what the federal government might change.

Health care funding is a big one. Trump and congressional conservatives have vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare. State lawmakers here and elsewhere are waiting to see what that means, exactly, and how it will affect existing programs. Some policymakers here want the federal government to send block grants to states for health care, allowing each state to concoct programs tailored to its own citizenry.

Texas lawmakers will have to write their budget and pass their laws in 2017 without the benefit of knowing exactly what the federal government might change.

They might get their way, but it’s going to take a while. State officials are preparing to ask for an extension of its “1115 waiver” from Medicaid managed care requirements and have discussed adding a year to what they’re requesting — the better to accommodate whatever changes are coming.

The state House and Senate meet for 140 days in every odd-numbered year. What they don’t get done either waits a couple of years or gets addressed in special sessions called by the governor.

Part of the trick in 2017 will be writing a two-year budget that will hold for two years. If legislators can’t do that, or if the federal government later makes huge changes that require the state to rewrite its budget and some of its laws, lawmakers will have to come back early.

The session will start as though nothing has changed. State programs that link to federal money — transportation, education, immigration and health and human services are examples — are shaped around federal laws and rules. They’ll stay that way unless the rules change.

Some of the incoming president’s promises are more general. Building a wall on the border could change immigration and commerce, whether that turns out to be an actual wall, a fence, a phalanx of cameras and drones or a combination of those things.

An enormous national infrastructure program of the scale that Trump talked about during the campaign — roads, bridges, waterworks, etc. — would bring physical change and also could ripple through the state budget.

First, he’s got to get his administration into place. He’s got to talk Congress into putting his programs and policies into effect. Whatever comes of that would have to be sent to the states, customized, fiddled with and implemented.

Even emergency projects like the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program signed into law by then-president George W. Bush eight years ago, in the wake of a dire financial sector crisis, take months to bring to full speed.

Trump is coming into office with some big proposals, but they’re not emergencies. This is going to take a while. The Legislature convenes in about a month and stays in Austin for five more. Whatever federal changes are coming are probably not going to be on their plates this time.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Post-election criticism of the news media is on point — journalists need to get out of their bubbles and listen to people they haven't been listening to. But that's only part of the problem: Voters need to do the same thing.
  • The differences in the House and the Senate aren't solely because of the personalities of their leaders. It's also in how those leaders are elected, and whom they answer to.
  • It makes political sense for statewide officials like the governor and the lieutenant governor to do things that attract favorable attention from voters. Speakers of the House live a little farther from the limelight. 

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