January has come and gone and the governor has delivered his State of the State address, which marks the unofficial kickoff of the real work of the session. So how do things stand in the Legislature, and where are they likely to go from here?
The best way to answer those questions is to compare 2013 with 2011. The mood is entirely different. Two years ago the state faced a $27 billion shortfall. Today, the state has an $8 billion cash surplus and more than $10 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. Two years ago Republicans had a super-majority of 102 members in the House, while Democrats were reduced to a mere 48. This year Republicans have 95 members and Democrats have increased to 55. This is still a very conservative Legislature, but a modicum of balance has been restored.
But nothing has changed more than the leadership. When Governor Perry gave his State of the State address in 2011, he stood before the Legislature as an aspiring presidential candidate, and his language reflected that: “We most definitely do not need Washington encroaching even further on our individual liberties” or “We must be united in sending one clear and simple message to Washington: enough.”
When Perry stood before the Legislature on Tuesday of this week, his message could not have been more different. He spoke mainly about his achievements in keeping the state’s economy strong: Texas “had led the nation out of recession” and “dreams become reality in Texas” and “if you want to be a CEO, Texas is the place to start.” His delivery was subdued, and his rhetoric was mild. (He even referred to the Affordable Care Act by its formal nomenclature, rather than “Obamacare.”)
The fact is, we have come to the end of an era. The leadership that brought the Republicans out of the political wilderness—Perry, Dewhurst, and Tom Craddick—enacted an agenda of tort reform, property tax cuts, business growth, and restrictions on abortion. If it has not exactly been a golden age in Texas, neither has it been a calamity. But nothing lasts forever in politics, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the Republican coalition is breaking down just as the conservative Democratic coalition broke down in the eighties and nineties, under pressure from the left. The Republican party remains the dominant party in Texas, and for all the “Turn Texas Blue” talk, the immediate future of Texas still rests with the GOP.
Now Perry faces an uncertain future and an electorate (according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey) in which Texas voters do not want him to seek reelection by a 62 percent to 31 percent margin. Dewhurst too has seen his hopes dashed. His defeat by Ted Cruz signaled that he lacks the constituency that could carry him to another term as lite gov. He faces a fight for reelection against multiple opponents. Today, the two most important Texas politicians, Cruz and Minority Whip John Cornyn, work in a capitol 1,500 miles removed from Austin, and the politician who best understands the demands of the state’s future, is from San Antonio, which is probably the most representative city in Texas.
With the state’s leadership up for grabs, the question is who will seize the reins of government this session. In his previous sessions as speaker, Joe Straus has been content to preside rather than lead. But he has been speaking out with increasing frequency on the need to address the state’s problems in water, transportation, and public education. He senses that Texas needs someone to step forward and lead. Do we have a volunteer?