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Analysis: When watching lawmakers, think of the high school cafeteria

Not everything is stuck in silos, but following particular groups is a way to cut through the sheer volume of good and bad ideas that steam up the Texas government’s windows every two years.

With less than a week before lawmakers convene, preparations are underway to welcome members of the state House of Representatives for the 85th session of the Texas Legislature.

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Here’s a bit of industry-specific folk wisdom about legislatures: They operate just like high school — but with money. It sounds glib, but the longer you hang around the Texas Legislature, the more you see the sense of it.

The state’s lawmakers started their 85th session last week. They will file more than 6,000 bills and resolutions — not an exaggeration — and by the end of April, they’ll have so many balls in the air that no single person will have a good handle on everything that’s going on.

Here’s a trick for observers who want to keep up with at least some of what’s going on: Figure out which group you want to follow, and then watch what they're watching. Think of your high school cafeteria: cool kids, nerds, band kids, tough kids, jocks, cheerleaders.

The lawmaking conversations turn on politics, geography, race, gender, class and, sometimes, on policy. But function is the important high school-like taxonomy that’s important for watchers to know.

Once you’ve got the groups set in your mind — business lobbyists, do-gooders, media, citizens and lawmakers themselves — you’ve got a general idea of what to watch and what to ignore.

Follow your own interests by following theirs. If it’s business you’re interested in, note the things that preoccupy business lobbyists: business-to-business debates like those pending in title insurance and hail damage insurance, state contracting and the billions of dollars attached to that, and scope-of-practice battles between professionals trying to protect their livelihoods from disruption.

Do-gooders are lobbyists battling for their causes and not for the money and often find themselves fighting economic interests over the environment, health care, welfare, animal rights and so on.

Chasing headlines? Follow reporters around and you’ll be seeing the shiny things that preoccupy them, like hot tempers and other conflicts, bathroom regulations, ethics, secret meetings and documents.

Regular humans — citizens, if you prefer — are there, too, with their worries over standardized testing, property taxes, immigration, immunization, utility bills and everyday items like water, roads and air.

There are other groups, some permanent, some that appear for a session or two and disappear — like the motorcyclists who lobbied in force for a couple of sessions to get the state’s helmet laws changed.

Lawmakers — the group the other groups are here to see — are interested in whatever the people around them are interested in, whether that’s lobbyists, reporters, political consultants or the public. But they also have serious work that gets more day-to-day attention from lawmakers themselves than from others, like whether to cut spending or tap the Rainy Day Fund to balance the budget; new ethics and election laws; and how to fix child protective services, foster care and other flailing and failing state programs.

Not everything is stuck in silos, but following particular groups is a way to cut through the sheer volume of good and bad ideas that steam up the state government’s windows every two years.

Some subjects interest everyone, especially when stated in general terms: public education, transportation, health and human services, crime and punishment. But legislatures are more about specific items than general ones. It’s not just public education in general they’re working on, it’s how much money to spend, how many students per teacher, whether special-needs kids are going to get educated, whether to expand pre-kindergarten programs.

Everything breaks down that way, and so do the various groups. Businesses follow money, contracts and regulation. Journalists chase conflict, controversy and other sources of friction that suggest things are out of whack. Lawmakers are focused on the things that can get them elected, promoted and thrown out of office: not messing up what’s expected of them and bringing in new issues that will rev up their constituents.

Regular Texans aren’t usually walking the halls of the Capitol because they get paid to; they seem to want everything to work the way it is supposed to work, and they are much more likely to appear at the Capitol when they think things are screwed up and need fixing.

Their table is the most interesting one in the cafeteria.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • In the midst of all the week’s gloomy state budget news, this stuck out like a gold nugget in a cow patty: Rising property values in the state’s school districts translate into higher local tax revenue, cutting the state's obligation to education. 
  • House Speaker Joe Straus won a fifth term in that post on the first day of the legislative session. And unlike his predecessors, he's more secure politically now than when he started in 2009. 
  • The so-called "bathroom bill" unveiled by Republican leaders last week is the latest piece of legislation that would overwrite local laws with state regulations cooked up in Austin. 

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