The 83rd Legislature was the best session in many years, going back to at least 2003, when Republicans completed their sweep of Texas politics by securing a majority in the House of Representatives. Two things made this session different from the ones that preceded it. One was money. In particular, the bounty from oil and gas production swelled the Rainy Day Fund to dimensions that would have seemed unimaginable even five years ago. This created some angst among Republicans, who did not want to see the state’s savings account depleted. What Republicans who sought to protect the fund failed to take into account is that oil and gas are being produced in such copious amounts that the fund is in no danger of being drained. When the Legislature takes money out, it is replenished almost immediately.
The second reason why this was a successful session is that there were leaders who wanted to get things done. Senate Finance chair Tommy Williams set the tone for the session months before it began when he called for raising automobile registration fees. It was an acknowledgement that the state needed to start addressing its problems, and that it was okay to consider new revenue. Speaker Joe Straus did his part by saying, “We can’t cut our way to prosperity,” a remark that drew fire from fiscal conservatives. But Straus never wavered from his insistence on having the House address the big issues facing the state: water, transportation, education. The restoration of most of the education cuts in 2011 was a major accomplishment.
The one issue that did not get addressed was health care, specifically, Medicaid expansion. It is going to have to be dealt with at some point. If the state does nothing, the feds will levy an assessment, a fine of sorts against Texas businesses for the state’s failure to participate. Is the leadership really willing to let that happen?
If the economic outlook for the state is stable, the political outlook is not. Republicans are split between mainstream and tea party conservatives, and the momentum is with the tea party. During the session, the Straus forces were always looking over their shoulder at the tea party contingent that threatened to get in the way of the agenda. Most of this group did not want to do anything. They never found a purpose except for protecting the Rainy Day Fund. Most were only too willing to embrace Michael Quinn Sullivan as their nominal leader. The Straus team could not penetrate the tea party contingent, and they were often scrambling for the votes to pass their issues. Republican caucus chair Brandon Creighton was no ally of Straus’s. When Straus said of Medicaid expansion, “We can’t just say ‘no,’” the Republican caucus said, “Oh, yes we can,” and voted overwhelmingly against it. Still, when the numbers went up on the House scoreboard on the key issues of the session, such as the passage of SB1, the state budget, it was clear that the mainstream conservatives had the balance of power; the budget passed by the comfortable margin of 118-29.
The Straus coalition, however, is fundamentally unstable. It works so long as Democrats are willing to function as Republicans to provide the votes to pass the speaker’s agenda. The worst thing that can happen to Democrats is an unpopular (in Texas) Democratic president in the White House, and that is the situation that exists. Midterm elections are coming up next November; in the last midterm cycle, Democrats got blown out in the House. The redistricting map is more friendly to Democrats this time around, but their situation is still precarious, with only 55 members in their caucus, barely enough to break a quorum. What the Democrats lack in numbers, however, they make up for in talent. They’re just better than the Republicans at the parliamentary game.
The missing faction in Texas politics is moderate Republicans, of whom Straus is one. There have been several recent races in Texas politics that have defined the evolving nature of the Republican party today. One was Dewhurst vs. Cruz; another was Van Taylor vs. Mabrie Jackson in Plano for Brian McCall’s seat. I could add Craig Goldman vs. Susan Todd in Fort Worth to this list. Right now civic-minded Republicans cannot win races against movement conservatives. There is no place in Texas politics for establishment conservatives like Dewhurst–they either change or they go home.
There is a missing person in this report, and that is Rick Perry. No one, perhaps including the governor himself, knows what he is going to do. Perry has fashioned the modern Texas Republican party and changed Texas politics forever by driving the state GOP to the far right. The betting around the Capitol is that he won’t run for a fourth term as governor, but I didn’t think he would run again in 2010. There is also the possibility that he will run for president, but he would have no chance to win. Maybe he doesn’t care; his goal may be to show that he is still a formidable politician and one who might have been a serious contender in 2012, had it not been for the limitations imposed by his back surgery.
Perry’s immediate future, however, will include a decision of whether to call a special session of the Legislature. Greg Abbott wants a session on redistricting, but it is hard to see what advantage Republicans can gain. They are already facing a ruling that the interim maps represent intentional discrimination; at some point Abbott is going to have to come to grips with that finding. If, as David Dewhurst wants, the special session agenda will be a smorgasboard of uberconservative social issues, that could turn ugly for Republicans. They are on the wrong side of a lot of the social issues, especially gay marriage. The world is going in one direction, and the Texas Republican party is going in another. I think Rick Perry is smart enough to figure that a special session driven by social issues is a non-starter these days. On that point, we’ll know soon enough.