On November 10 Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican state representative from Southlake, appeared on a panel convened by the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party and took a lonely stand. The topic that evening was the 2015 legislative session, which would begin January 13. It had been less than a week since Republicans had once again swept the statewide elections, this time by unexpectedly large margins. And the conservative wing of the party had cause to celebrate: the tea party had scored more than a dozen victories in the Republican primaries and helped the GOP blitz the Democrats in the general election. Though Republicans had flipped only a few seats in the Legislature, their caucuses had undoubtedly become more conservative. When the Legislature convened, there would be more than thirty Republican freshmen, most of them ideologically further to the right than their predecessors.
Today there is only one moderate Republican in state leadership. Joe Straus was elected speaker of the House in 2009 by a bipartisan coalition of 76 House members: 65 Democrats and 11 Republicans. In 2011 and 2013 he was easily reelected, after disgruntled conservatives failed to coalesce around a candidate more to their liking. In January 2014, though, an alternative emerged. Scott Turner, a Republican from Frisco, declared his intention to challenge Straus for the speakership.
Turner’s credentials were skimpy. Like Capriglione, he was elected in the tea party boomlet of 2012. His motives were potentially strategic: his public pledge to take the high road lent some credence to the rumor that Turner had entered the speaker’s race to lay groundwork for a later congressional run. And Turner’s prospects were negligible. Democrats preferred Straus to a tea party speaker; so did plenty of Republicans. On the session’s first day, Turner would receive only 19 votes against 127 for Straus.
Nonetheless, in November, some conservatives were taking the speaker’s race seriously. Influential groups like the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party hoped that a strong showing for Turner would rattle the Republican establishment and also serve as a referendum on the House’s Republican incumbents, all of whom face reelection every two years. Any Republican who supported Straus might well face a primary challenge from the right in 2016. Capriglione surely knew all that. And yet, on that November night, speaking to a room of tea party activists, he refused to play along.
“The reality is there is no race for Scott Turner versus Joe Straus,” he said.
The audience grumbled, and the other legislators present disagreed. “It is a dangerous place to be if we vote based on what we think will be the outcome,” warned representative Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Bedford. But Capriglione was unrepentant. Turner, he noted, was a friend. “He’s just not qualified to be speaker of the House.”
Capriglione’s dissent seemed like an exercise in self-sabotage, and maybe it was. But as the Eighty-fourth Legislature gets going, it’s worth considering whether his stand that night was also a harbinger of things to come. Capriglione posted an impeccably conservative voting record during his first term in the House, and there’s no reason to think his views have changed. What has changed is his job experience. For some conservative activists, challenging the speaker of the House was a matter of principle, but representatives still have to work with the guy. The speaker makes committee assignments, directs legislation to its proper home, and keeps discussion moving on the floor of the House. In Capriglione’s assessment, Straus’s experience and policy knowledge were more relevant to the job of speaker than ideology. It was a pragmatic argument. And it carries an important implication as the Legislature begins its work: conservatives are not necessarily absolutists.
That should go without saying, of course. But it’s worth repeating in light of recent political trends. Texas’s 2014 general election and primaries produced a 2015 Legislature that is further to the right than the 2013 iteration. A number of relatively moderate incumbents—such as Robert Duncan and John Carona in the Senate and Bennett Ratliff and Diane Patrick in the House—are gone. The change will be most palpable in the Senate, which has historically been considered the more temperate chamber. This year, with eight Republican freshmen, it may well be the kiddie table. Adding to the uncertainty is that, for the first time in more than a decade, Texas will have a new lieutenant governor and a new governor. The former, Dan Patrick, worries that ISIS fighters will enter the United States via the southern border, presumably by taking a Sea-Doo across the Rio Grande. The latter, Greg Abbott, was Ted Cruz’s mentor.
For these reasons many people who follow Texas politics expect the 2015 session to be rocky, contentious, and possibly derailed by right-wing radicals. Given the circumstances, it’s hard to disagree. But I will: pshaw. The Eighty-fourth Lege will be just fine. It may even be better than the last one.
The 2013 regular session was smooth and productive, especially compared with the mess that happened two years earlier. In January 2011 the comptroller, Susan Combs, projected a budget shortfall of $27 billion, sentencing the Lege to four months of Pyrrhic choices and partisan division; the result was a budget that underfunded public education by about $5 billion. In 2013, by contrast, Combs projected that the state would have plenty of money, even a surplus. That set the tone for a much sunnier session. The Lege restored several billion dollars’ worth of funding to public education, provided for two new medical schools, and expanded outlays to long-languishing priorities such as mental health care. The spirit of cooperation between the parties and between the chambers spilled over into non-budget issues too. In 2011 the Lege held contentious debates over bills that required voters to show photo IDs and women seeking abortions to undergo sonograms. In 2013 lawmakers generally avoided such divisive issues. Instead, they restructured Texas’s high school curriculum, reformed teachers’ pensions, and liberalized restrictions on craft breweries.
Both Republicans and Democrats noted some missed opportunities during the 2013 session: proposals to increase Texas’s insufficient road funding failed, and efforts to discuss Medicaid expansion were scuttled. In retrospect, election politics may have constrained the session. The unusual number of open statewide offices in 2014 gave many legislators reason to posture in 2013. And as we now know, bipartisan relations were doomed to fray, over abortion, in a June special session. But at the end of the regular session, both parties were proud of what they’d accomplished, and everyone was getting along.
With no major statewide offices up for election in 2016, campaign politics will have less impact on this session. The other factor that could derail the session would be a budget crunch, but fiscal conditions appear auspicious for 2015. Falling oil prices have many Texans spooked that the state could face another budget shortfall, widespread layoffs, an economic slowdown, or worse. Such fears are understandable: they reflect the painful memories of the eighties oil bust. And such fears may not be all bad, if they encourage a serious spirit at the Lege. But in practice, a drop in oil prices is less ominous for Texas than it once was. The state has grown significantly and diversified substantially since 1981, and the oil production tax makes up a small share, about 6 percent, of the state’s overall tax revenues. If anything, the Lege may have more breathing room in 2015 than it did in 2013. Thus far, the dropoff in oil tax revenues has been offset by a corresponding surge in sales tax receipts. The day before the session began, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that the Legislature will have $113 billion to spend from the state’s general revenue fund on the 2016-2017 budget, a $12 billion incease from two years ago.
That doesn’t mean that legislators will go on a spending spree. The state’s Rainy Day Fund has about $8 billion, and in December a joint select committee agreed on a $7 billion floor for the fund, which suggests an ongoing commitment to fiscal discipline. But a healthy revenue outlook means that legislators can approach the session with confidence, as in 2013. When there’s a shortfall, the question is which core services should be cut. A surplus does the opposite; on these occasions the government of Texas has the opportunity to improve programs and services—to govern.
Recent events suggest that many Republicans see it that way and are thinking seriously about the big issues, like roads, water, education, and health care. Even the tea party legislators are showing some interest in policy areas that their critics may not have expected, such as transportation. That is likely to be a major issue of the session, given that public investments in infrastructure haven’t kept up with growth. The tea party’s interest in solutions may surprise Democrats, because solutions often involve spending money. But conservatives consider infrastructure a proper function of government, not to mention that if someone is commuting from Tarrant County to Austin, he or she is going to spend a lot of time on Interstate 35.
Meanwhile, several controversial issues have effectively been sidelined, at least for now. An overhaul of how to finance public schools will likely be left until after the Texas Supreme Court resolves litigation brought against the state by most of Texas’s school districts. Gay marriage is also being debated in the courts, as is voter ID. More abortion restrictions are fair game but unlikely. The omnibus abortion bill that passed in summer 2013 addressed several of the pro-life movement’s long-standing priorities. The likely exception will be guns: the Lege is expected to consider whether Texas should allow open carry of handguns. Democrats, frankly, should approach the issue stoically. The bill will pass: Texas is one of only three states that doesn’t already allow this, and Republicans have the votes.
It would be more strategic for Democrats to focus on issues such as attempts to repeal the Texas DREAM act, the measure granting in-state tuition to certain unauthorized immigrants. Since its passage in 2001, with nearly unanimous support, the law has made it easier for thousands of Texas’s high school graduates to pursue higher education and caused no known harm. But some conservatives revived the issue during the 2014 primaries, and a few may have boxed themselves in. As a state representative, for example, Lois Kolkhorst, of Brenham, voted for the bill. This year, while running for the Senate, she promised to sponsor its repeal.
On that issue and a few others, the political distemper of the 2014 elections may be smuggled into the 2015 session. But on many other fronts, 2015 may prove far better—or at least less rancorous—than many expect. The new lieutenant governor and governor will want to show they can govern, and they will have the money to do so. And as Capriglione showed in November, even devoted tea party legislators, especially those who have served a session or two, have the capacity for pragmatism. Election politics and campaign rhetoric, it seems, can be put aside.