After the members of the House took the oath of office this afternoon, they heard from two of the state’s leaders. One was Joe Straus, who had just won a third term as speaker, this time by acclamation. The other was Rick Perry, who is presumed to be running for president in 2016.
If you didn’t know them, you would have thought Straus was the one running for higher office, not Perry. The governor spent a little bit of time reminiscing about the days when he was in the House and recycling issues he has championed in the past: a stricter constitutional limit on spending that did not get much traction when he first pushed it; requiring drug testing for people seeking welfare and unemployment benefits (which would ultimately punish the children of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, if a parent is denied benefits); a bill to prevent abortions in the first twenty weeks based on the unproven argument that a fetus can experience pain at that stage of development; and a vague proposal for “tax relief” in a state whose residents already enjoy the lowest tax burden in the country. I had the sense that he was mailing his remarks in.
Straus challenged members to address the biggest issues facing the state, starting with profound demographic change. “Our rapid growth requires a steadfast commitment to the core responsibilities of government,” he said, “such as a quality education, a reliable water supply, a healthy transportation system, and an honest state budget.” He received a loud ovation for his attack on standardized testing: “Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization. The goal of every teacher is to develop in students a lifelong love of learning, and we need to get back to that goal in the classroom. To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing — the Texas House has heard you.”
This stance will, in due course, bring Straus into conflict with Perry, who, along with various business groups, has been a strong advocate of the state’s accountability system based on standardized tests. If last session is any guide, Perry will ensure that his agenda receives action by labeling his proposals as “emergencies,” thereby bumping them up to the top of a special calendar. Yet one issue that Perry did not raise in his remarks to the House was school choice, the pet issue that has been embraced by Senator Dan Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst. Whether the omission was deliberate or by chance remains to be seen, but it was probably wise of Perry to avoid it. The House has a long history of being a burial ground for school vouchers, with members as diverse as Charlie Geren and David Simpson among the opposition.
As I watched Straus speak, I felt as if he was going from presiding over the chamber to leading it. His emergence as a leader raises the stakes for the session. For the first time in awhile, one of the state’s leaders has stepped forward to grab the state’s biggest issues by the throat.
This first day definitely hinted at conflicts to come over the next 139. The session is setting up as a battle between those who want to address the state’s biggest issues and those who want to rachet down spending even after the comptroller’s revenue estimate validated predictions that the state would have a large surplus. In other words: Straus v. Perry.