The third and final special session of the 83rd Legislature is over, and the result is an opportunity for voters to approve $1.2 billion in additional funding for roads in November 2014. Taken together, the special sessions established that Rick Perry remains unchallenged as the dominant figure in Texas politics. Forget all that talk about his being a lame duck. He was completely in charge, to the very end, when he declined to add tuition revenue bonds to the call, much to the dismay of the higher education establishment. Nor did he grant Dan Patrick’s wish list of conservative issues.
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.
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.
In the end, the drama in the House resulted from a complete lack of drama. Lawmakers had been gearing up for its initial fight of the session over HB 10, a $4.8 billion supplemental appropriation that would, among other things, cover a looming Medicaid shortfall in the current budget cycle. As one lawmaker commented as he moved briskly down the aisle after the House had been called to order, “Is today the first day of real work?”
On a sunny day in late January, Rick Perry stood in a packed House chamber and delivered what may turn out to be his last State of the State address. The scene unfolded in a familiar way. Senators wriggled to find a comfortable position on the folding chairs that occupied the wide middle aisle of the House floor. Behind them sat the robed members of the Supreme Court. In the gallery, hardly a vacant seat was in sight.
One steamy afternoon in September, Michael Quinn Sullivan unfolded his lanky, six-foot-four-inch frame from a rented SUV and considered the friendly facade of the Spring Creek Barbeque in the Houston suburb of Missouri City. He bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, a smile on his face. He had been here before. About 25 members of the Greater Fort Bend County Tea Party were inside, waiting to hear him speak about the Legislature, but he held no notes in his hand.
A visitor to the Capitol in January of an odd-numbered year finds the venerable building in a state of feverish activity. More visitors are walking the halls, more lobbyists are toting briefcases, and more staffers are filling the cafeteria. These are the unmistakable signs that the Legislature is back in town—for better or worse.