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As Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Tea party members made the rounds at the Capitol today, as they did on the day before the 2011 session started, in the hope of persuading lawmakers to oppose the reelection of Joe Straus as speaker.
Why do they oppose Straus with such intensity? It’s a mystery to me. He is a public servant of high integrity. He wants to tackle the biggest issues on the state’s agenda, while other politicians showboat about people on welfare and unemployment. The rap against Straus is that he isn’t a “true” conservative, but that argument falls apart when measured against the record of the House in the 82nd Legislature, which produced legislation near and dear to the far right.
The fact is, Straus is the rare office holder in his party who is in touch with the times and understands that the state and the country are changing, and that the state Republican party’s ideology needs to evolve beyond fealty to the social issues to embrace meaningful reforms that are essential to the state’s future. Rick Perry has driven state politics toward the extreme right for ten years, and it has cost this state dearly. Where are the highways that should have been built? Where are the water projects the state needs to avoid a drought-plagued future? Ten years in which little was done to improve the public services of this state.
The stage has been set for some early battles; some folks are calling for the business tax to be repealed. This makes little sense because the tax was created to fill the hole in the budget that existed following a one-third reduction of property taxes. The failure of the business tax to perform up to expectations has created a permanent structural deficit in the budget amounting to around $4.5 billion every biennium. It is bad enough to ignore it; it’s even worse to relieve businesses of the responsibility of paying an existing tax that they supported.
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The session that begins tomorrow will mark the 25th in which I will be a participant–one, eons ago, as a reporter for the Daily Texan, one as a House staffer, three as a Senate committee clerk, and the rest as a staff writer for TEXAS MONTHLY. No theater does a better job of putting human strengths and weaknesses on public display. Ever since, my standing assignment has been to help pick the Ten Best and the Ten Worst legislators, an annual feature of our legislative coverage, session after session.
In 1975, just three months after I joined the staff of TEXAS MONTHLY, I worked on the story for the first time. In those years Texas was a one-party state, overwhelmingly Democratic. For me, having spent much of my career as a staffer in tiny offices, encountering the Legislature in action was love at first sight. The average person who has little regard for politics has no idea of the skills required to succeed. The Best and Worst legislators story isn’t about the foibles of Republicans and Democrats, or liberals and conservatives; it’s fundamentally about the influence of personality on politics. Politics is about figuring out who does his or her homework, who plays well with others, and who you can trust and who you can’t.
This session I’m pleased to say that we have beefed up our political coverage, which has long been a hallmark of the magazine. Brian D. Sweany will oversee our four-person staff. Brian will head up all of our political coverage in the magazine and online, and he will cover the House with me (you can follow him on that thing called Twitter @brian_sweany). Erica Grieder is new to our staff but has already made a great impact. She is a former Southwest bureau chief for theEconomist, and she will cover the Senate (follow her @EricaGrieder). In addition,Sonia Smith, whom some of you know from her work on the TM Daily Post, will also be covering the Senate, in addition to other reporting and editing duties related to the session (find her @sonia_smith). (For the record, you can follow me @paulburka, and I promise to try to tweet more this year.) I will miss my colleagues whom I worked with last session, Patricia Kilday Hart (now with theHouston Chronicle) and Nate Blakeslee, who covered the Senate last session, but I’m enthusiastic about expanding our coverage with this new team–and continuing to have you as a reader on Burkablog for the 83rd legislative session.