Analysis: Six weeks left for the Texas Legislature, with lots to fight over
The Texas Legislature's Easter break ends with a sprint. Only six weeks remain between now and the end of this regular legislative session — and most of the 6,000+ bills under consideration are going to die.
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The state’s top leaders say they’re getting along great, that everything is just swell as they enter what amounts to a lawmaking sprint from today through the end of the legislative session on Memorial Day.
Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a group selfie with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and House Speaker Joe Straus after their weekly breakfast last Wednesday, along with a famous paper doll sent to the four by Hegar’s nine-year-old son Jonah. Abbott’s caption: “It's Kumbaya time. Flat Stanley unites us all. #txlege”
Take his word for it, but keep your fingers crossed.
The biggest bills of this session are still pending — some moving rapidly, some stalled in dark corners of the Texas Capitol — and the size of the issues and the short time left could leave Stanley and his new friends folded, spindled and mutilated.
The Texas budget is at the top of the list. The House and the Senate disagree on the numbers, as usual. They disagree on policy choices — like how much to spend on public and higher education, and on health and human services — as usual.
They even disagree on what money to use, a relatively new twist that starts with their fear of tapping the state’s enormous savings and their willingness to try new and untested accounting tricks instead.
The House is willing to use $2.5 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. The Senate isn’t, and it has resorted to a constitutionally questionable sleight of hand. That’s not slander — Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson formally asked Attorney General Ken Paxton for his legal opinion on whether lawmakers can get away with deferring a transfer of sales taxes to the state highway fund to balance their budget.
They have plenty of time to work that out, but their differences have prompted some speculation that the budget won’t get finished before the session is over, a legislative pratfall that would force a special session before the fiscal year ends in August.
The work on the budget will proceed even as the rest of the Legislature enters a bottleneck that will kill — that is designed, in fact, to kill — most of the bills filed this year. Two years ago, for example, the House and Senate filed 6,476 proposed laws and constitutional amendments; 1,330 survived, or about 20.5 percent. The odds for success are small.
That shortening time frame and the traffic jam of proposals will cause many a bill to die. Some will die in open fights, in committees, in the full House and Senate or on the governor’s desk. The most contentious issues of the session are still unresolved. Some hinge on ideological and institutional differences between the House and Senate, which often resemble home fields for different factions of the state’s majority party.
Cultural skirmishes — like the legislative debates over the bathroom bill and whether bakers should have to sell wedding cakes for same-sex marriages — used to start in the House and slow down in the Senate. That’s been reversed recently, with the Senate firing conservative populist bills at the more moderate House.
Whether that makes the House a hindrance or a legislative bomb squad depends on your politics. But the differences between the two chambers illustrate the differences within the ranks of Texas Republicans.
The biggest bills of this session are still pending — some moving rapidly, some stalled in dark corners of the Texas Capitol — and the size of the issues and the short time left could leave Flat Stanley and his new friends folded, spindled and mutilated.
Just because you don't agree with Patrick, who presides over the Senate, doesn't make you a bona fide liberal; you might just be a mainstream Republican. Maybe the Texas House seems to be the best refuge for Texas Democrats, but that’s a relative judgment. It's a solidly Republican legislative body, the source of many federal court findings in voting and election cases that the state intentionally discriminates against minorities, the wellspring of a conservative budget that looks spendy only in comparison to the Senate proposal.
Anti-sanctuary cities legislation has a reasonably good chance in this session; Republicans from Abbott on down list it as a priority. The same goes for the semi-ceremonial resolution for a Convention of States to rewrite the U.S. Constitution, a pet issue for the governor (and semi-ceremonial because it will mean nothing unless three dozen other state legislatures do the same thing).
Many other major issues remain unsettled with six weeks to go before the gavels fall on this regular legislative session: bathrooms, child protective services, limits on property tax increases, school finance, changes to abortion and family planning laws and so on — a list of more than 6,000 pieces of legislation.
It’s going to be intense. Flat Stanley might’ve escaped from Austin in the nick of time.
More columns from Ross Ramsey:
- A state law that's supposed to keep a leash on school tax increases might be preventing temporary tax breaks in the Texas districts with the highest tax rates. But reversing it could make it easier to raise taxes.
- Another federal judge has ruled that Texas legislators intentionally discriminated on the basis of race when changing voting and election laws. But even if the laws change back, the state still got away with it.
- A state that wants to grow by freeing growing economic engines from regulations and taxes is throttling its cities and school districts with regulations and taxes.
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