The Non-session Session
When the curtain went up on the 83rd Legislature, I thought the state was poised to have one of the best sessions ever. The treasury had oodles of money, there was a feeling that important issues needed to be addressed, and Speaker Joe Straus was in position to dominate the session because of the weakness of the lieutenant governor and the governor. Straus had made it clear that he wanted to do big things—in education, in water and transportation infrastructure, and in increasing transparency—and he had a team of veteran legislators who knew how to get it done.
Then came the vote two weeks ago on HB 11—funding the water plan—and the House leadership couldn’t get the votes, and everything fell apart. Now, here we are at the end of the session, with fifteen days to go, and the House has accomplished …nothing…and will accomplish…nothing. Instead of one of the best sessions ever, it was one of the most depressing.
A golden opportunity to move the state forward, the best chance in a decade, has been irretrievably lost. To make matters worse, as we near sine die, the inefficiency and ineptitude of the House leadership has delivered the state back into the hands of Rick Perry, who will have a special session in which he can and no doubt will ruin whatever prospects there are for accomplishing anything. All that money the Legislature put back into public education? On the endangered species list. When the House leadership couldn’t get the votes for HB 11, they were lost. They might have salvaged something by resuscitating HB 19—a bill that would have pulled in some Democratic votes—but they didn’t even do that. They also gave up on Zerwas’s Medicaid reform. They were scared to bring up big bills, like pension reform, because they were afraid of the freshmen, afraid of the tea party, afraid of the primaries, afraid of Brandon Creighton, afraid of Michael Quinn Sullivan.
The Democrats were more loyal to Straus than some of the Republicans, no thanks to speaker pro tem Dennis Bonnen, who was a consistent negative voice against giving the Democrats anything. Straus put far too much trust in Bonnen, a loose cannon, and he allowed himself to be undermined in HB 11 by GOP caucus chair Creighton, no ally of Straus (as we saw when he led the GOP caucus to reject Medicaid expansion though Straus insisted, “We can’t just say no.”) The problem with Straus is that he failed the rule of politics enunciated by Lyndon Johnson’s father in Robert Caro’s first volume of his LBJ opus: “If you can’t walk in a room and know in two minutes who is for you and who is against you, you don’t belong in this business.” Straus’s inability to finish what he started has given Michael Quinn Sullivan the opportunity the ability to gloat and claim victory. It’s awful.