Many of the great rivalries of the past—think North v. South, Aggies v. Longhorns, Yankees v. Dodgers, Ali v. Frazier, and the longtime champ Tastes Great v. Less Filling—have gone by the wayside in recent years. But the Texas Legislature, 84th edition, is honoring the tradition of more than an occasional dispute with leaders/ colleagues on the west (House) and east (Senate) side of the Capitol.
There is an often-told tale of the new freshman member who comes to the House as a member of the majority party (nowadays a Republican). After a tough floor debate, the eager rookie visits with one of his senior colleagues on his side of the aisle. After hearing the tenderfoot fume on for several minutes about the minority party in the House (the Democrats) as the “enemy,” he surprised the young member by telling him, “Son, you don’t understand, the House Democrats are the opposition, the enemy is the Senate.”
Perhaps this is not a true story but, in practice it’s certainly highly accurate.
For several election cycles, the Rs had the governor’s mansion (1979, 1987 and 1995). They added to that by having their first majority in the Texas Senate in 1997, and in 1999, Rick Perry, the first Republican lieutenant governor. In the 2002 GOP sweep, when Republicans increased their numbers from 72 to 102, Tom Craddick became the first Texas House Speaker to be a Republican since 1873. In 2003, the Republicans finally got the longsought missing piece: the Speakership of the Texas House.
At that juncture, a well-known political science professor at SMU, Cal Jillson, told the press that he anticipated that the GOP would achieve all of its goals, since it held all the Big Three leadership spots. It didn’t take too long for the Professor’s rosy scenario to fade, as the familiar feuds among the Big Three and the House and the Senate. The Rs were simply maintaining the same intra-party battles, which Democratic leadership trios had carried on for the vast majority of the 20th century.
The beauty of the Texas governmental model is that the politics of the legislature is not, thank goodness, driven by party blocs or caucuses but that both majority and minority parties have a say in the outcome. This is significantly different from the Congressional “model” we have witnessed in recent years.
Of the Big Three state leaders, the veteran is House Speaker Joe Straus. Joe Straus may have only served in the Texas House since 2005, but no one could deny his party credentials. His family was among a handful of Republicans throughout the 20th century, and in some eras, that GOP contingent could easily have been designated as an endangered species. But Joe was a hard worker and a student of the Legislature, and in four years, he became the second Republican Speaker in 132 years.
His political mettle was proven as he became the first to oust a sitting Speaker. This was due in part to the fact that until Billy Clayton was elected to a third term as Speaker in 1979, House speakers (which, in the 20th Century, included Sam Rayburn and three who would later become governor) served no more than two terms.
When Straus was elected Speaker in 2009, the Republicans held a 76-74 majority. Two years later, that margin ballooned to 101-49 and in his third term, 95-55. This year, the Rs control 98 out of 150 seats. There have been some very meager attempts to oust him throughout the last three sessions, but only this year did an opponent stand for a vote rather than throwing in the towel. And sophomore Scott Turner of Frisco lost 129-17. Not that Speaker Straus needed any affirmation that he was firmly in control of the House, but if there were doubters of his strength, they were given an ample demonstration.
At the other end of the Capitol, the brand new Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was also flexing his political muscles. Running to the right of incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the state senator (first elected in 2006) easily beat the 12-year incumbent in last year’s runoff. His first test was winning a change in the Senate rules to allow bills to come to the full Senate for a vote. The so-called 2/3 rule was modified to a 3/5 rule, strongly supported by the Lt. Governor. He was supported on the measure by all but one of the 19 Republicans in the senate and one Democrat, Eddie Lucio. In short order, the Lt. Governor has seen his major campaign promises gain the support of the Senate, including property tax relief, open-carry legislation and increasing transportation funding.
Gov. Greg Abbott has been very active in promoting the major issues he enunciated in his Feb. 17 State of the State Address. Included among his big five issues: increased funding for transportation.
Abbott has moved rapidly to fill to expired terms on the Transportation Commission with his pick for the new chairman, former House member Tryon Lewis of Odessa. In addition, his second appointment went to well-regarded San Antonio businessman and civic leader, Bruce Bugg, a strong supporter of Speaker Straus.
Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, wants lawmakers to go big on highway spending this session. His bill would dedicate $3 billion per year for the state highway funding from the general sales tax revenue - plus 2 percent of the sales tax revenue.
His plan would generate more than $3.5 billion in the first year: “I want something that will be first; that we can count on; and that will grow,” he said. The 2 percent factor provides annual increases for highway funding. The Senate highway funding plan focuses on a portion of the motor vehicle sales tax revenue to help fund highways.
“If I can get get 100 (House) votes for either one, that’s going to be my goal,” Chairman Pickett said.
Any dedicated funding plan for highways must get at least 100 House votes and at least 21 Senate votes before going to voters in the form of a constitutional amendment. It’s important that lawmakers send the best proposal to voters, he said.
“I don’t think we can go to the well after this one,” Pickett said. “We should get as much as we can - as long as we can - and with a growth factor because we are not going to get a third chance at a constitutional amendment.”
Gov. Abbott was a participant in the legislative process during his service as Attorney General and has hired a number of AG staff with extensive experience in that arena. Of course, he has the task of working with nine new senators and almost 30 new house members. And having breakfast every Wednesday with Lt. Gov Patrick and Speaker Straus.
While it has been noted that the House and Senate have (at this point with about six weeks remaining before the June 1 close) differing views on many major issues, it is also apparent that the differences may be more of style than substance. The leaders have chosen well in Jane Nelson and John Otto to head the two “money” committees. Both veteran legislators have the intelligence, experience and maturity to resolve the differences between the two bodies on the only bill that has to pass, House Bill 1. The same attributes could be assigned to the each body’s point man on transportation, Robert Nichols in the Senate and Joe Pickett in the House. This duo (along with Rep. Larry Phillips and Sen. John Whitmire) was a mainstay in the campaign for the passage of Prop. 1 last November, and when all the smoke finally clears at the end of the session, 80 percent of the legislature may well say “aye” to the final transportation funding package cobbled together by the leadership, with the very able assistance of Messrs. Nichols and Pickett.