The 86th session of the Texas Legislature was supposed to be different.
Optimism was in the air that opening day back on January 8. The Texas House had a new Speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, elected unanimously by his colleagues, and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick had left the building, rushing away to Washington to visit President Donald Trump.
After a November 2018 midterm election where Democrats picked up 12 house and two senate seats, regaining some relevance, bipartisanship suddenly seemed back in fashion under the Pink Dome. Gone was talk of bathroom bills, abortion, sanctuary cities and voter ID. In its place, public education, school finance reform and reducing property taxes. Pinch me!
“Let’s be sure when we adjourn sine die we leave this House and this state better than we found it,” Bonnen declared on opening day. The next day Bonnen, Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott sat smiling together, singing from the same hymnal. One could almost believe the Lone Star State’s long legislative nightmare might finally be over.
What a difference four months makes.
Fast forward to mid-May, less than two weeks from the session’s end, and Texans are being shown the same old horror movie at the Capitol, courtesy of the far right. What’s being debated and voted on?
- SB 9, which makes voting all the more difficult, even a crime;
- SB 1978, the “Chick-fil-A” bill, dead in the House and reanimated in the Senate, which allows discrimination against LGBTQ Texans;
- SB 1033, which disallows abortion of a non-viable pregnancy after 20 weeks;
So depressingly familiar. What happened? Well, turns out tackling hearty “meat and potatoes” issues — funding public education and reforming school finance and property taxes — is hard. Yes, both the House and Senate passed bills increasing school funding, but there are significant differences that must be worked out. No guarantees there.
Despite the fear created in Republicans by the defection of suburban voters in last year’s midterm leading to many colleagues’ losing, and subsequent lofty promises to address the issues those voters care about, the GOP leadership has so far largely failed to deliver. Texas Rs don’t have much to show moderates for their work in the 86th session, which could exacerbate their political problems in the upcoming 2020 general election.
Of more immediate concern? The March 2020 Republican primary, dominated by the children of the corn. And until a few weeks ago, Republican members had little red meat to feed their ravenous base. Hence, business as usual. Sine die can’t come fast enough.