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You wouldn’t want to say this Texas Legislature doesn’t have an agenda. Maybe it’s a secret, or — more likely — it’s just that the list is too obvious to require a proclamation: write a state budget, draw new political maps, revise election and voting laws, address the problems of racial justice and police practices heightened by incidents like the killing of George Floyd last summer.
You can’t say there is nothing to work on. Lawmakers have filed more than 2,200 bills so far. But you can say that Gov. Greg Abbott has now made clear what he hopes to do over the next four months and that the Legislature has not. Those lawmakers have barely taken the field. The session started almost four weeks ago, and nothing requiring your attention — other than the formal selection of House Speaker Dade Phelan and his Thursday afternoon shake up of House committees — has taken place.
Two years ago, the state’s top three leaders made a show of their unified efforts to work on public education, school finance and property taxes. They had a plan, stated it up front, worked on it for the length of a regular session and then got together again to boast about the results.
This year, they tweeted about having breakfast together. A few days later, the governor laid out his priorities in a televised, off-campus State of the State address. He got a social media “atta-boy” from Phelan and uncustomary silence from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
The work of the 20-week session is always slow at the beginning and busy at the end, and the pandemic’s distance requirements and limits on interaction have amplified that. A Legislature that’s often straining at the leash to get to work is lumbering into its duties this year.
The 2017 session started with a partisan bang — bathroom bills! sanctuary cities! — and ended with a whimper. “Sanctuary cities” legislation, which requires local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and also allows police to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain, divided the Texas Legislature, but passed. And the “bathroom bill,” an unsuccessful attempt at preventing transgender Texans from using restrooms and other public facilities that match their gender, managed to dismay voters who thought the Legislature was wasting time it should have spent on other matters.
After those voters expressed their dismay with incumbents in the 2018 elections, Texas leaders responded. The 2019 session came in with a bang and ended with a bang.
The 2020 election was more about the presidential contest than about anything in Texas. In spite of Democratic hype, high campaign spending and ambition, Republicans’ advantage in state government was largely untouched. And with a pandemic overshadowing other issues, the 2021 session has started with a whimper.
Abbott’s list largely mirrors what lawmakers were already working on. Expanding broadband internet, in particular, has the attention of lawmakers who’ve heard from constituents who need it for education, commerce, work and telemedicine during the pandemic. The demand is loud and bipartisan.
Abbott’s other priorities — making it harder for potentially dangerous suspects to get bail, protecting companies from getting sued when customers or employees are exposed to the coronavirus, barring local governments from reducing police spending and what he called “election integrity” — will get more argument. But his chances aren’t bad, especially after bringing some public attention to those issues.
The leaders of the Legislature’s two chambers aren’t loudly proclaiming their intentions. Phelan just appointed members to committees, a move that precedes consideration of any legislation. Neither he nor Patrick, his Senate counterpart, have blessed bills or subjects of particular interest.
One of the biggest issues facing this Legislature — drawing new political maps for the state’s congressional, legislative and State Board of Education seats — has been postponed because of pandemic-related delays to the underlying census numbers. That’s off the to-do list for the regular session, though lawmakers are taking testimony from Texans who want to weigh in on those maps.
Budget writers in both chambers have proposed two-year budgets, based on a better-than-expected economic forecast from Comptroller Glenn Hegar. That forecast effectively defused what was expected to be a volatile problem for this Legislature.
Political drama for this occasion is at a low setting. Maybe this legislative gathering will turn into a civic extravaganza over the next four months, despite the quiet foreshadowing from state leaders.
From here, that doesn’t look like a good bet.