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Special legislative sessions are a normal topic of conversation right now at the Texas Capitol — an indication that people are sensitive to the chilly relationships between some of that building’s big players.
Some field observations to accompany you on that rabbit trail:
Those special session rumors are normal. The reasons for them change, but this is a natural consequence of filling a big building with decision-makers on a deadline and surrounding them with highly paid and anxious advocates trying, respectively, to kill things or bring things to life.
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Money, pressure, a short timeline, careers and businesses at stake: If paranoia came in a box, these would be listed as ingredients.
We’re only halfway. If you’re going to panic, pace yourself. Texas legislative sessions last 140 days, and last week marked the halfway point. You’ve noticed the rising pulse in the Capitol if you’ve been in there: That’s the regular midpoint acceleration of a session, when committees start to hum, preliminary budgets emerge and the House and the Senate get busy enough to handle more than one or two major issues per week.
You cannot change the basic politics of a session. This is, and has been for a while, a two-party state where both of the predominant parties are Republicans. The Democrats are still important, but they can’t get much done on their own, at least inside the Legislature. The business Republicans and the movement conservatives — choose different names as you please — are well-established and also at odds on some issues. That’s not going to change before the session ends on Memorial Day. Lawmakers and lobbyists will be effective to the extent that they can operate around those political differences.
Another way to say it: It’s unlikely that anyone is going to win a legislative fight by rolling House Speaker Joe Straus or Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. They embody those two GOPs, and neither has a good political incentive to change.
Legislators will pass a budget. The state’s current two-year spending plan ends on the last day of August, when it is supposed to be replaced by a new budget being written right now.
The testy back-and-forth between the Senate and the House that you’ve read about here and elsewhere is disconcerting, but it’s also an ordinary digestive sound for the Legislature. The two chambers differ on some program particulars, on which sacks of money they want to spend and in their expectations about what will happen to the state and the state government over the next two years. Some of them really don’t like each other, although the senators and representatives themselves generally get along better than their leaders seem to.
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But they all want to finish. They have to finish by the end of August, and they don’t have any good reason not to finish before then — and no good reason to not finish during the regular session now underway. Holding the budget into overtime would make them look incompetent, and shutting down the state government if there’s no budget on Sept. 1 would be worse.
Legislatures have taken the state budget into the summer, but only when they’ve had general consensus about how to solve problems. In 1991, for instance, they wanted to wait for a cross-agency study of cost savings and a carefully assembled tax bill to balance a shredded state budget during an economic downturn.
None of that stuff is going on now. They’ll finish.
The regular battles are only beginning. This session’s big debates — known and unknown — are still ahead. You can list them in advance, even handicap their chances, but the kinds of debates that could make legislators cranky enough to go into overtime have barely started.
Maybe it’ll be the “bathroom bill.” Or the debates over “sanctuary” cities or public subsidies for private education. It could be business issues most people aren’t paying attention to — title insurance regulations, for instance, or protections for insurance companies in lawsuits over hail damage claims and settlements, or whether car manufacturers should be allowed to leapfrog dealers and sell cars directly online.
If the 85th Legislature is going to go into overtime, the signs of it won’t show for several weeks. Ignore the bickering between the legislative big dogs. Listen to the governor on this one; he is, after all, the guy who would call a special session if there was to be one.
As he was leaving a Corpus Christi event last week, someone — likely one of the political fight promoters in the media — asked Greg Abbott whether he was feeling good about the direction of the session. “I am,” he said.
More columns from Ross Ramsey:
- The Texas Senate is proposing a new accounting trick to balance its 2018-19 budget. The contrivance would work, mathematically speaking, but it raises constitutional questions and faces derision from the House.
- Gov. Greg Abbott has hit tough sledding with his call for more spending on early education in Texas. Lawmakers aren't warm to the idea, to say the least, and the governor hasn't assembled an army of supporters to back up his position.
- If Texas legislators cut the state budget this year, it won't be because they didn't have the money. It'll be because they didn't want to spend the money they have.