Texas State Seal
Texas State Seal

The 83rd session of the Texas Legislature convenes Tuesday, Jan. 8. Let us now pray it bears no resemblance to the 2011 session.

It’s far too soon to forget: The last time lawmakers met for 140 days in Austin, they did so amid a stagnant economy and a rising wave of anti-government tea party sentiment that produced a Republican super-majority. History will not be kind in judging its work.

Gov. Rick Perry
Gov. Rick Perry

Coloring it all were the political ambitions of the state’s top two officeholders. Gov. Rick Perry was gearing up to run for the Republican presidential nomination and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was seeking the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Both men were confident, even cocky.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, faced a $27 billion shortfall and a Republican leadership that forbid any real discussion of new revenues.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst

Schools, teachers, colleges and universities, health care for women and children, the poor and elderly, everyone and everything fell like dominoes. The state’s Rainy Day Fund was left largely untouched, even as tens of thousands of educators faced the loss of their jobs. It was government at its worst. The aftershocks are still being felt, especially in Texas public schools and among the working poor and elderly.

The Class of 2013 has a real opportunity to improve the lives of all Texans. Thanks to a growing economy, the previous shortfall is now an anticipated $8 billion surplus. That and a Rainy Day Fund topping $9 billion (thank you, Eagle Ford Shale Play) offer elected officials the chance to undo some of the damage inflicted during the last session.

House Speaker Joe Straus

Will legislators show enough courage in high enough numbers to challenge the Perry-Dewhurst agenda of holding down spending at all costs? That depends in no small part on the third figure in the state’s Republican-dominated leadership. House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio is a more traditional conservative, meaning he is no fan of tea party governance, and he supports greater investment in education and water management. He will have to find his opportunities where he can.

How these three men fare this session could say much about our state’ s health and welfare and the course of Texas politics for the next few years.

Perry is damaged goods after an expensive and embarrassing run at the Republican presidential nomination, but he isn’t changing his modus operandi. His prime-time gaffes and inability to debate intelligently on national television took him from early front-runner to single digit disaster. He’s held office as governor for 12 years now, a record, and many more Republicans seem to dislike him than like him, at least in private conversations. Word that he would like to run again for governor in 2014 and even take a run at the 2016 Republican presidential primaries seems borderline delusional, but Perry is not acting like a politician in the twilight of his career.

Senator Ted Cruz
Senator Ted Cruz

Dewhurst fell victim to his own hubris, learning that his great wealth and willingness to spend it, his establishment credentials and powerful political office were not enough to defend his frontrunner status against tea party usurper and now U.S. Senator-elect Ted Cruz. It was a stunning and emphatic defeat at the hands of a political neophyte.

With his own political ambitions to succeed Perry and survive his own next primary run, Dewhurst seems ready and willing to swing hard to the right alongside a more conservative Senate and thus make bedfellows of the very forces that crushed his national ambitions. It’s a risky strategy. Zealots seem wary of converts, and often never accept them as true believers.

Still, Dewhurst appeared alongside state Sen. Dan Patrick at an Austin press conference on Dec. 19 to unveil a vague education funding proposal that would let businesses divert up to 25% of their state taxes to a new education choice fund. The plan would divert revenues from the general fund and allow parents to pull their children out of public schools and enroll them in private schools with tuition paid via the education choice fund. Dewhurst and Patrick denied the proposal is a scheme to create a state-funded voucher program, but the denial had the feel of fairy tale, the fox saying it wasn’t hungry while creeping straight towards the henhouse.

Straus is charting his own course, saying on several occasions in advance of the session that lawmakers should use economic recovery to address education spending and to fund the long-neglected state water management plan, which now faces $53 billion in unfunded programs over the next decade.

Straus has to walk a fine line between principle and pragmatism, but he should be able to muster enough votes to make himself heard on these issues. Perry’s only option in the end might be to wield the veto pen, a risky proposition if he faces one or more challengers in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary.

Imagine, San Antonians, regardless of your party affiliation, what a different political climate it would be right now if Straus were governor. He surely would end Perry’s theatrical and embarrassing war on Washington and the Obama administration and just about any federal funding that doesn’t square with Perry’s stand on women’s issues or health care reform.

Texas State Capitol
Texas State Capitol. Photo by Daniel Mayer.

Straus isn’t governor, unfortunately, so back to reality: What legislators should not do is give in to Perry’s obsessions with Washington, with building the Rainy Day Fund into some untouchable golden calf, or his desire to pre-ordain the legislative agenda to fit the political exigencies of his next run for office.

No one pretends there is unlimited money to address all the state’s ills. There isn’t. Even a surplus and a growing Rainy Day Fund are insufficient to restore the 2011 cuts and to address the accounting trickery used in previous sessions to push costs into future years. Name your issue and the challenges faced by the state are sorely underfunded.

Anyone who has driven through South Texas lately knows the Eagle Ford boom has greatly stressed the region’s highway and roads network, and the state budget now ignores investment in mass transit, sustainability and the environment. The legislative practice of diverting dedicated funds to cover other expenditures has left the state unable to meet the most basic needs in other areas, too. The state park system is an especially visible example.

Texas State Seal

A more ambitious, bipartisan Legislature ought to focus on a lasting public school funding formula that offers greater equity for all students. The $5.4 billion in school funding cuts enacted in the last session have set back districts in ways that will be felt for years to come. A state that touts its business-friendly environment — which is certainly true — and has spent more than $200 million in incentives through the Texas Emerging Technology Fund would be better served by investing directly in the education attainment levels of its future work force.  The highest-performing charter schools accomplish amazing things and should be encouraged, but the only systematic solution is high-performing public schools.

Perhaps the smartest step that legislators can take is to support expansion of Medicaid in order for Texas to receive its fair share of federal funds that it otherwise will lose, as much as $96 billion over the next decade, according to a recent article in the Austin Chronicle.

For progressive citizens, the odds are always long when the Texas legislature meets, but that doesn’t mean people should give up without a fight.  In that spirit, we will try to shed light on the best and worst bills that emerge as the sessions takes shape. That includes my next article on proposals to permit hidden handguns on college and university campuses.

Why not have your say, too? You can write us at hello@rivardreport.com to submit an article for publication or open a conversation. We especially want to hear from members of the Bexar County and South Texas legislative delegations.

New to Texas? Below are some useful online resources that will help you better understand and follow the Texas Legislature:

  • Click here for the official Texas Legislature site to set up your own account to follow bills, your local elected officials and how the process actually works. Teachers: lots of good civics here to share with students, including how a bill becomes law. Come to think of it, let’s ask parents to read alongside their children.
  • Texas BillHOP is a non-profit, non-partisan bill watch site that rates bills as liberal or conservative.
  • What citizens of all political persuasions should know is how low our state ranks in many important measures. The 2011 report, Texas on the Brink, issued by the progressive Legislative Study Group, is a must read.
  • Click here to read the Texas Tribune, the non-profit, Austin-based online news and information website, that focuses on all aspects of state government and politics.
  • There are many interest groups you can find on the Web devoted to various public policy issues. The Rivard Report respects the work done at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Readers, of course, are welcome to post their own recommended links in our Comments section below.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.