Forecast For the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature

Written by  Lawrence Olsen

A majority of the Texas Legislature will return for the 84th session when it convenes in January 2015. This may sound like a bold assertion (written a few weeks before the first early vote is cast in the party primaries), but it’s not, really. This became an almost certain fact with the December 9 filing deadline.

When the smoke cleared, some 74 (out of 150 seats) will be uncontested, or at least very lightly contested—meaning opposition from the Libertarian or Green parties. These high-minded individuals who have embarked upon the somewhat arduous path to become a state legislator have similar odds to being chosen as an astronaut on the Mars launch.

In the 150-member House, which is led by Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio, 13 members will not return from the 83rd session by choice. Most are seeking other offices, and a few have simply hung up their law-making garb. It is likely that an incumbent or three might be rejected by the voters in 2014, but, overall the House turnover rate appears to be in the low range for next year. Last session had 40 new members and three who came back after very brief detours.

On the other side of the Capitol, the more staid 31-member senate will have at least four new senators in the next session. Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams resigned his seat (in the middle of a four-year term); Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis is running for governor and Houston Republican Dan Patrick (Lt. Governor) and Collin County freshman Republican Ken Paxton (attorney general) are seeking statewide office. Davis, Patrick and Paxton are done in the Senate.  

On the other hand, two sitting Senators are taking shots at statewide office, but if fortune does not smile on them at the ballot box, they will remain members of the small Senate family.  Those are San Antonio Democrat Leticia Van de Putte (Lt. Governor) and Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican, who is in a crowded Republican field in the battle to succeed State Comptroller Susan Combs. The rumor mill also has Lubbock Republican Senator Robert Duncan, a veteran who is a perennial on the budget bill conference committee, on the short list to fill the vacancy which will come later this year with the resignation of Texas Tech chancellor Kent Hance, who occupied the same Senate seat now held by Duncan. Should Duncan accept that post, he would resign his Senate seat and the sprawling West Texas district (51 counties) would hold a special election to choose his replacement. Obviously the same thing would occur if Van de Putte and/or Hegar were to be victorious in their contests. So, the Senate could possibly have as many as seven new faces in 2015.  Not likely, but possible.

This count of incumbent senators does not factor in that there are primary contests (all decided by the time you read this) to six incumbent senators.  Despite all that hullabaloo, the fact remains that 13 other senators’ next election contests will be in 2016 and four senators this year face only token opposition. There is little question, however, that the Senate would certainly have an adjustment or two to make if Lt. Governor David Dewhurst fails in his bid for reelection to his fourth term as the “President” of the Senate.

As has been described here previously, the four-way fight for the Lt. Governor’s gavel is the most rambunctious thing on the GOP primary bill. Dewhurst has held the mantle since he defeated Democrat John Sharp in 2002. He was reelected twice after that in a breeze, but a funny thing happened to the tall Houstonian on his way to the U.S. Senate: that political phenomenon, since shared with the nation, was upstart Ted Cruz. Only his most die-hard supporters gave the former top lawyer in the Texas attorney general’s office any shot in knocking off the deep-pocketed Dewhurst. But with the primary calendar thrown for a loop by a protracted redistricting battle (the regular March primary occurred at the end of May and the runoff at the end of July), Cruz erased the 11 points that Dewhurst had in round one and beat him handily in the runoff. Obviously, Dewhurst’s three foes in the primary are hoping for (as Yogi Berra) would say, “déjà vu all over again.” Most sages (whom previous prediction proved quite unsage) have Dewhurst leading this time in the first round and crapshoot for the No. 2 slot. You already know the answer that, though at the time of this writing your writer will not know for another month or so.

Though the Dewhurst, et al battle takes top billing on the fight card, there will be at least three interesting matches in the Tuesday night fight prelims. The contest to fill in the state’s top lawyer job (Attorney General Greg Abbott will be the GOP’s standard-bearer in the governor’s race) pits two North Texas legislators, Representative Dan Branch of Dallas and Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney. The non-legislator in the fracas is Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman of Houston, whom Governor Rick Perry appointed to that post before he was affirmed by the voters in 2012.

Another three-way battle (there are more candidates but three seem to get the most notice) is ongoing in the job of the state’s top number person (officially the Comptroller of Public Accounts). After two terms, Susan Combs surprised many with her announcement last summer that she was stepping down from elective office; many had thought she would run for Lt. Governor or another step up in the political food chain. Again, two legislators (and one civilian) are drawing the most attention. Senator Glenn Hegar of Katy touts his role as a key subcommittee Chairman on the Senate Finance while his opponent, Representative Harvey Hilderban of Kerrville stresses his experience as Chairman of the important House Ways & Means Committee. The spoiler may well be Tea Party favorite Deborah Medina of Wharton, who ran against Governor Perry in 2010 and garnered 19 percent of the vote.

And lastly, the most crowded field (no pun intended) will be for the Agriculture Commissioners’ post vacated by Lt. Governor candidate Todd Staples. To make the calls in this one, a program is definitely needed. But for that distinct minority, the Democrats’ ol’ cigar chomper, Richard “Kinky” Friedman is running a pro-pot campaign. Here’s betting that Kinky, an independent candidate for Governor in 2010, will not be Staples’ replacement. But as for who will be, your guess is as good as mine.

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