is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune. Before joining the Tribune, Ross was editor and co-owner of Texas Weekly for 15 years. He did a 28-month stint in government as associate deputy comptroller for policy and director of communications with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. Before that, he reported for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as its Austin bureau chief, and worked as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, writing for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ross got his start in journalism in broadcasting, covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.
Remember the burning map that used to open the TV show Bonanza? That might as well have been the plans for new political districts in Texas. At our deadline, it was impossible to say with any hope of certitude whether legislative redistricting plans were alive or dead. They weren't moving, but they had time to move if lawmakers found a compromise, and if they hurried.
The powers of state officeholders ebb and flow with the calendar. The end of the legislative session is when the governor's powers peak, when the comptroller has one last moment of leverage, when budgeteers' prospects are in bloom and when the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House bring their full powers over the legislative agenda to bear. If you see legislative supplicants standing in line to plead for something, chances are the line will lead to one of those people.
Three weeks from the date at the top of this edition, the Legislature will gavel to a close and go home. That'll be a relief, to be sure, but the 21 days that lead up to Sine Die will be hectic and the issues that have dominated the conversations in the Pink Building since January are finally coming to a head.
The state is cut into 150 pieces for purposes of electing members of the Texas House. It's chopped into 15 chunks for purposes of electing members to the State Board of Education. The head of the House Redistricting Committee, Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, thinks those numbers should sync up. He says he'll draw the SBOE maps to exactly include ten House districts each.
Lawmakers will get ready for the Easter break by kicking the budget out of the House and lining up for copies of the redistricting "working" maps they've been promised by the two chairmen in charge of political cartography. Even without redistricting, the remaining seven weeks of the session will be kinda hairy. Still on the list of things to do: The House-Senate conference on the budget, teacher health insurance, Medicaid funding, campaign finance reform, major water and air bills, a number of Sunset bills affecting major agencies, a handful of controversial criminal justice bills, transportation bills and any number of things we've left off. There's a stack of stuff to do and not much time to do it. But the focus isn't on that stuff: It's on the maps.
For purposes of redistricting, break the House into seven pieces. Six parts would each be comprised of members from the six largest counties in the state: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, and El Paso. The seventh group includes representatives from the other 248 counties in the state.
The rural areas are in worse shape than they were expecting. The suburbs are in better shape than they were expecting. The urban areas are in both better and worse shape—maybe it's just disturbingly different than they expected. There is not a GOP primary for governor on the horizon.
When Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, went to the front microphone in the House to talk about redistricting numbers the other day, you could have heard a pin drop. The chairman of the Redistricting Committee had nothing dramatic to say; he was keeping members up to date on the U.S. Census Bureau's plan to deliver numbers any day. He said it'd take several days to load the data into the computers so that the political cartographers can get to work. He finished; everyone exhaled.
The state had a scandal cooking the last time the Legislature worked on redistricting, in 1991, and there was something brewing in 1981, and ten years or so before that. Lawmakers knew they were going to have problems with Medicaid, but had no idea that would involve anything but money.
Explain this to your daddy: The State of Texas has $5.2 billion more money to spend over the next two years than it had during the last two years. There is probably enough money available for the state to continue to do the things it already does, even when you factor in inflation and other increases.
Budget writers have known for months—since they first saw the numbers—that Medicaid and various other insurance and health care programs were going to stink up the next budget and stain the current one. And they even had a fair idea about the size of the odors and the spots. They've been hearing about drug prices and premiums and caseloads for the better part of the last year. The numbers are big and even alarming, but the problem has been on the radar for a while.