Come January of any other odd-numbered year, I’d use this space to rile you up about how crazy the upcoming regular session of the Texas Legislature was going to be. I would be doing so, in part, to try to get people to tune in. State government is where some of the most important decisions affecting our day-to-day lives are made—schools, hospitals, roads—but it competes for attention with, well, everything else, and there’s a lot of everything else this year. The fact that the Lege is a natural font of inanities and lunacy is helpful, in that respect, like a poisonous tree frog’s unmistakably bright colors. Here lies danger.
But this odd-numbered year, things have flipped. An unprecedented level of insanity swept Washington, D.C., the week before the Lege was set to start, and there exists the possibility, or at least a hope, that the session will be comparatively slow and quiet. Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, Texas lawmakers are dreaming about a stripped-down, focused few months in which both lobbyists and activists are kept at arm’s length.
This is downright un-Texan. Legislative sessions bring lawmakers and staffers from all over the state to the bright lights of big city Austin for five months of drinking interrupted by the drafting of new laws. They are a mosh pit where some of the state’s brightest and most capable minds engage in social intercourse, intellectual intercourse—all kinds of intercourse, as Billy Lee Brammer wrote in 1973. The Capitol is not a place that is conducive to social distancing. The closest bar to the complex is the Cloak Room, a windowless, airless underground tomb the size of a boxcar. It is a place whose most long-lived pathogens surely predate the Dolph Briscoe administration.
But the pandemic can’t be helped. Lord knows we’ve tried—well, sort of. Sure, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Fox News last year that some grannies may have to croak in order to ensure the survival of the American experiment, but as the prospect of thousands of coughing and sneezing Capitol visitors has drawn closer, he has taken a different view of the matter. Visitors will have to take a rapid test before entering, and tents to facilitate testing have been erected near the complex’s north entrance. Journalists no longer have access to the floor of the House and Senate or committee rooms, where in previous years they’ve gotten to watch the wrangling up close. Now they must watch from the galleries above the action, a pretty useless vantage point.
More than just requiring precautions, the coronavirus is at the center of this session. There will be arguments about whether to curtail Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency powers and arguments about vaccine distribution and vaccine mandates. The budget will be drafted in response to the COVID-driven recession. Lawmakers will discuss expanding Medicaid. Some 5 million Texans lacked health coverage before the pandemic, and in the course of it some 700,000 more have lost their insurance. Even so, legislative leaders think Medicaid expansion is DOA.
But the pandemic won’t be the only topic, of course. As in most sessions, there will be three overarching groups of issues. There’s the serious stuff, the loud stuff, and the stuff that stands to gain someone a lot of money.
The most serious of the serious issues this year is the budget. The economy has been very rocky, but Monday’s biennial revenue estimate was better than expected. Lawmakers will have $112.5 billion to work with in writing the 2022–2023 budget, down a little from 2021–2022. That’s better than the much greater shortfalls lawmakers were worried they’d face when the economy cratered last spring, but it’s still not great. Because of Texas’s extraordinary population growth, spending normally increases biennium to biennium, so even a flat estimate means some programs are going to get squeezed.
The other big issue is redistricting, which the Legislature has to complete this year. But delays in Census data mean the congressional and legislative maps probably won’t be redrawn until a special session—hopefully after everyone has gotten the vaccine.
Next are the loud issues—the ones that have little chance of spurring passable legislation, but which let lawmakers fight for months and months until they get tuckered out like little kids. (Think 2017’s Bathroom Wars.) Even when culture war bills are dead on arrival, they play an important role in the Lege ecosystem. They let lawmakers get soundbites for campaign ads and let Republicans play up the very marginal differences between them and other Republicans.
The good news is that there’s no burgeoning social-issue war like there was over the bathroom bill. There will surely be fights over LGBTQ rights and abortion, given the newly entrenched conservative majority on the Supreme Court, but the issues seem unlikely to dominate this session like they have before. There’s just too much going on.
There is one different kind of very loud issue this year that the governor and his allies are pushing: a measure to take state control of the Austin Police Department, or to otherwise punish cities that have reduced or diverted funding from their cops by limiting their ability to levy taxes. The state takeover initiative is the most draconian, and it seems unlikely to pass. But the fight over it will almost certainly run the length of the session.
This is great red meat: emphasizing their desire to protect police departments helped Republicans maintain control of the Texas House last year. But there’s another cynical motive behind the policing measures, and it’s to exhaust local elected officials. County judges and mayors in both parties have found themselves increasingly at odds with the Legislature, and this session will again see efforts to curtail their power and influence. (On the fabled tape that ended the political career of former Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the Republican from Lake Jackson and ally Dustin Burrows bragged about scheduling overlapping hearings in order to keep Austin mayor Steve Adler overwhelmed and unable to oppose bills effectively.) By attacking on all fronts, state government makes it harder for local elected officials to mount an effective defense.
Then there’s the money—what the majority of lawmakers spend most of their time thinking about. The way Texas government works means lawmakers, not some bureaucrat, have the ability to make changes in code—or create utility districts, say—that can make and unmake fortunes. Some are tiny, but some are huge changes that create or destroy whole industries. Title insurance kingpins and payday lenders and developers need things from lawmakers, so they make campaign donations to the politicians and put money in the pockets of lobbyists who know which senators like to go to which restaurants. The pandemic has stopped many things, but it will not stop this.
Much of this flow of money won’t even rise to the level of press coverage. But there’s one worth mentioning. Sheldon Adelson, the Nevada casino magnate, hired a veritable army of palm-greasers to try to get casino gambling legalized in Texas, after he spent millions to help Texas Republicans protect their legislative majorities during the election.
The effort seemed unlikely to succeed even before Adelson died, the day before the session commenced. But the trick, for Texas lawmakers and lobbyists alike, is to give the donors and rent-seekers and “special interests,” including Adelson’s allies, the impression that they really tried to help, in the hope that pocketbooks will open again next year. This, not the Bathroom Wars or redistricting, is the central story of the Legislature. Life, death, rebirth. Nature is healing.