The most important thing that happened in week one was the comptroller’s revenue estimate. For the first time in several sessions, the state has enough money to address long-neglected issues. Money makes all the difference in the world. When there is money in the treasury, anything is possible. When there isn’t, as was the case in 2011, the shortfall casts a pall over the Capitol. The mood is clearly different this session; in the House and the Senate, there seems to be a recognition that Texas for too long has ignored the state’s needs.
The speaker’s race between Joe Straus and David Simpson never materialized. Simpson made a personal privilege speech in which he spoke vaguely of “reforms,” but he withdrew his candidacy and Straus was elected by acclamation. Simpson decried the manner in which the House has been run by Straus. Here is an excerpt from his remarks:
[A]s with all human institutions, from time to time reforms are needed when an institution becomes encumbered and unnecessarily burdened by practices that hinder its operations. Anytime we find ourselves at odds with the “principles of liberty and free government” espoused in the preamble of our Texas Constitution, we should pause and reflect how we have allowed our system to be handicapped. As is often the case, it is not so much the system that needs change as it is our own actions. Intimidation, payback, and uneven or outcome-based application of the rules are not demanded by our system and are at odds with free and open government.
The big loser in the speaker’s race, however, was not Simpson; it was Michael Quinn Sullivan, of Empower Texans. He has made it his goal to see Straus defeated as speaker. Though he posted a letter on his website that was sent to all House members announcing his intentions to evaluate (read: bring ruin upon) members according to their choice for speaker, all he accomplished was to expose his own irrelevancy.
Nominating and seconding speeches are not exactly fit for carving in stone, but one speech was important. It was given by Jason Isaac, who told how he had not voted for the Straus in 2011 as a freshman (he voted “present”) but was won over by Straus’s fairness as speaker. According to reports I received, Isaac was instrumental in winning over freshmen to vote for Straus by warning them not to make the mistake he had made in 2011 by throwing away his vote.
The most interesting moment of the week in the House was a pair of speeches, one by Straus, the other by Governor Perry. As I reported at the time, Perry’s comments were maudlin and meandering, while Straus got straight to the point, that it was time to address the state’s infrastructure needs concerning water and transportation.
During the interim, there was considerable speculation that Republican senators would try to control legislation through their caucus, cutting out the Democrats, rather than allowing Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst to control the flow of legislation. There was also concern that the two-thirds rule would be eliminated. But Dewhurst decided to keep the two-thirds rule, preserving the rights of the minority. The two-thirds rule is what gives senators their power. As it turned out, not only did the two-thirds rule survive, but the special order allowing Voter I.D. was eliminated, taking the most volatile issue in Texas politics off the table for the moment. Collegiality generally prevailed in the Senate, with the singular exception that Judith Zaffirini saw her Government Organization committee, which usually works on Sunset bills, eviscerated. This was a slap at Zaffirini, but it was also a successful attempt by the chairs of substantive committees to regain control of Sunset bills for themselves.
As the week drew to an end, Brad Watson, of WFAA-TV in Dallas, quoted unnamed donors for Attorney General Abbott as saying that he would run for governor. Obviously this has big implications, not only for the immediate future, but also beyond, and it raises the question of what Rick Perry will do. Perry has desperately tried to remain relevant since his failed presidential race, but with each passing day he is less so. His ambition to run for president has not changed, but the latest polls show him at the bottom of the heap, and his options are growing narrower every day.