The Emerging Agenda for the 85th Legislature: Notes from Two Panels at Trib Fest

It’s not lost on participants in the legislative process, from members to their staffs, from the lobby to the state agencies, that the maneuvering to shape the agenda of the 85th Texas Legislature is well underway. While the 2016 presidential election dominates political coverage even more than usual, outside the spotlight the pace and volume of efforts to get issues on the state legislature's agenda increase daily. The Texas Tribune’s annual festival at UT Austin weekend before last generated lots of clues about what issues might rise to the surface --  and glimpses of how the friction between the chambers, as well as within and between the parties, is  shaping the jockeying for position in Austin.

One sample of who wants what, and the context in each chamber, was delivered on Saturday’s panels on “the House Agenda” and “the Senate Agenda.” The former was populated by 6 house members, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The Senate panel was equally bipartisan, with the slightly curious twist by the organizers of including Republican candidate Dawn Buckingham, the favorite to win the Senate to be vacated by Senator Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay). I moderated both panels, and toward the end of each panel asked each member to tell the audience what item they would get on the agenda if they could. The members and their responses, best as I could recall with the helpful aid of some notes from a generous and diligent audience member, are below, followed by some more general observations. (They are listed in their seating order on stage.)

The House

State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) led off with a good joke, which you‘ll have to ask him about, then said he wanted to work on raising the legal age of prosecution as an adult in Texas, and increasing funding for child protective services in the wake of ongoing troubles at that division of the Department of Family and Protective Services.

State Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) said he would focus on overhauling school finance (a subject of much discussion earlier on the panel).

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) emphatically voiced his desire to pass so-called Constitutional Carry, but, equally emphatically, also joined Representative Wu in citing the need for CPS reform, including more spending on efforts to reduce caseloads, strengthening family rights in placement, and encouraging more involvement from faith-based groups.

State Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) cited his interest in mental health reform, and mentioned the long wait times for those who are incarcerated and in need of mental health care – often, he said, with no or substandard treatment in the interim.

State Rep. Linda Koop (R-Dallas) was also interested in school finance and CPS reform, and added attention to workforce development to her list.

State Rep. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) said she wanted to revisit past cuts to the Texas Film Commission, specifically film and television incentives, which she argued were good drivers of economic development for the state.

The Senate

Senator Van Taylor (R-Plano) said that he was planning on carrying the governor’s ethics reform package.

Senator José Rodríguez (D-San Antonio) cited the need to tackle education funding and school finance.

Senator Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) argued for focusing on “the big problems” – CPS and foster care, public and higher education – and urged avoiding social issues that are divisive and polarizing.

Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) argued for the need to expand Medicaid in response to the state’s high high uninsured rate.

Senator Konni Burton (R-Colleyvlle) said she wanted to work to stop taxpayer dollars from going to private business.

Dawn Buckingham wanted to join the fight to reduce property taxes.

Overall, there was much broader interest in tackling school finance in the House than in the Senate, at least on these panels. (State Rep. Dennis Bonnen straightforwardly declared revisiting school finance a priority in the House on another panel on taxes.) To the degree that there was an active exchange around public education among the Senators, it was mostly focused on vouchers, education savings accounts, and the like, about which there were sharp divisions. There was little evidence that there exists sufficient political bandwidth in the upper chamber to follow the Lt. Governor’s crusade on some sort of voucher or school choice program AND to take a serious stab at overhauling the much-maligned school finance system.

Fights over how involved the legislature and state government should get in self-government at the local level -- particularly city and county government -- have been percolating in the legislature for the last couple of sessions, and appear ready to come to a rolling boil in the 85th Legislature. From plastic bags to ride sharing to VRBO's to property taxes, there is a lot of talk of whether and how the state legislatures will clamp down on local government in the wake of the reversal of the Denton fracking ban in 2015. The GOP insurgents on these panels displayed a clear theory of the supremacy of state government when it comes to overruling local governments, at least as evidenced by the similarity of both Sen. Burton and Rep. Stickland’s  defenses of their positions on their respective panels.

It may have been the comparative velocity and volume of Burton and Stickland’s deliveries at TribFest, but the counterpoints to these state-centric arguments seemed to be less well articulated, at least at this point in the discussion. The argument that the states are the source of the authority of the national Constitution as well as the creator of local government is certainly debatable, to say the least. But it does provide a rationale that attempts to anticipate criticisms that the assertion of state authority over local decisions smacks of inconsistency when it comes from those who don’t miss any opportunity to complain about national government overreach.

As this debate continues, it will be interesting to see if the defenders of urban autonomy and self-rule develop a better response than to simply cry hypocrisy or invoke the familiar cry of "local control" -- a concept that increasingly seems very schematic in Texans’ political cognition. (Some of the polling we’ve done suggests that the largely Republican assertion of state supremacy over local governments finds a receptive audience among a chunk of Texas Republicans – see the graphic below.)

More familiar political patterns were very much in evidence on both panels. The House and the Senate remain at odds with each other, which is, of course, by design.  But the traditional contention between the chambers has been activated by the increasing sway of ideological conservatives in the Senate and the differences between each chamber’s leadership. Party polarization is also still very much in evidence, though the House panel was a loud example of the increasingly entrenched tripartite division between Democrats and a couple of different variations of Republicans. While less in evidence on the Senate panel, informal gatherings outside the panels and in the green rooms illustrated the connections between insurgent House Republicans and their fellow travelers in the Senate. (For example, Senator Hall sat in the front row during the House session.)

Also in the realm of the familiar, one of the most time-honored divides in Texas – between rural and urbanized districts – appears to remain a real problem for the prospects of any kind of school choice legislation. The rural members in the House still aren’t having it, and neither are most urban Democrats, who remain unmoved or, more likely, unconvinced by the Lt. Governor’s frequent assurance that he can help “declining inner-city urban areas.”  The obvious bid, at least in the abstract, could be some kind of trade between House and Senate priorities on education, but it’s hard to see what this would look like in concrete terms based on the panels. Lurking over both panels were two figures that were barely mentioned in either – the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the House. Competition for agenda control is also baked into their relationship, though by now it’s pretty clear to everyone involved that this relationship contains a multitude of complexities that go far beyond matters of constitutional design.  It’s not too surprising that talking about this wasn’t high on the agenda for legislators trying to navigate the situation.

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categoryLeaning liberalSomewhat liberalExtremely liberal
Very favorable1%0%9%
Somewhat favorable9%4%3%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable14%10%3%
Somewhat unfavorable7%2%0%
Very unfavorable65%81%65%
Don't know/No Opinion5%3%20%

RE: GOP views of state, local, and federal government, from the February 2015 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll.