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Every biennial session of the Texas Legislature has its own personality. For the session that begins Tuesday, that personality will be shaped by an extraordinary set of issues and a bizarre political environment.
COVID-19 has never been stronger. Vaccines are available, but supplies lag behind demand, and federal and state government distribution has been amateurish and ineffective. The state economy has been scrambled by a pandemic-induced recession. The political world is reeling from the riot in the U.S. Capitol and the uneasy transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.
Add the items on the agenda for this particular session: A current two-year state budget with a recession-sized shortfall and a new one to write in the face of an uncertain economic outlook; government responses to the pandemic and the recession; police violence, funding and reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s killing while in Minneapolis police custody; the redrawing of political maps; and the assortment of state issues that come up whenever lawmakers are in town.
The strangeness of what’s ahead starts with the Texas Capitol itself. It has been open for only a week, after months of being barred to the public during the pandemic. That cautious opening was interrupted for a day, when the sanctuary of state government was shuttered while the U.S. Capitol was besieged by pro-Trump protesters who wanted to overturn the results of November’s general election.
The pandemic already has planners on pins and needles, restricting access to the House and Senate chambers, to committee rooms and to hallways. They’ll test people for infection at the only doors open to the public. They’ll have the familiar array of metal detectors, though lawfully carried guns are still allowed in the building. Masks will be required in public areas.
That’s just the physical stuff.
The political forecast is harder to sort out.
Partisan furies have been raging since the pro-Trump uprising in Washington, particularly with national and high-level state figures from Texas like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Cruz was in the center ring, advancing the president’s unfounded claims of a crooked election with his challenges to congressional certification of Electoral College votes. Paxton was one of the speakers, along with the president, encouraging people at a Trump rally in Washington to keep fighting — which is just what they did a short time later when they marched to the Capitol.
Trump has plenty of strong allies in Texas government, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, and they’re the people — along with Gov. Greg Abbott — most likely to get pulled into a back-and-forth about national politics. But the Legislature here has historically been far less partisan than its federal counterpart. Republicans have been in the majority in both houses since 2003, and Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in Texas in a quarter of a century.
Congress’ winner-take-all system puts the majority party in control of every committee in the House and Senate. In Texas, Democrats chair some committees in both chambers, named to those posts by Republican lieutenant governors and speakers of the House.
The majorities are relatively small. Republicans will have an 83-67 margin in the House and an 18-13 edge in the Senate. There is plenty of spitting between members of the parties, however. One bit of evidence will take form this week, as the Senate considers whether to change a rule that effectively gives Republicans control over which legislation gets considered. The GOP lost one Senate seat in the 2020 election; without a rule change, it’ll need at least one Democrat’s approval to proceed with debate on any given bill.
The factions in the two major parties, evident in national politics, could color this legislative session in Texas. Republicans in the Legislature have been bickering internally for years over ideology and practice — a debate that mirrors national politics and its differences between Trumpers and “Never Trumpers,” between disrupters and the establishment, between moderates and conservatives.
Texas has its share of that, and you’ll see some of it during the session as lawmakers and other politicos mouth off — like they always do.
Except on the most partisan issues, however, they’ve been able to avoid the ways of lawmakers in Washington. At a time when the parallels are so strong between national issues and state issues, and between national politics and state politics, the Texas way of legislating is in for a stress test, starting Tuesday.