While betting on the actions of the unpredictable Texas Legislature is a quick route to the poorhouse, the flood of bills that precedes the session can nonetheless hint at overriding themes.
Judging by the nearly 600 bills filed at press time, lawmakers are steering clear of some of the divisive social issues that bogged down last session. Even so, they look ready to grapple over questions of local sovereignty that are just as contentious.
“This session will be another where you see the continued push and pull over the limits of local control,” said Sherri Greenberg, a professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs.
For example, Republican Rep. Matt Krause’s recently filed HB 222 would bar cities from adopting ordinances such as those approved this year in San Antonio and Austin that require employers to offer employees paid sick time.
Plus, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others have said they want to rein in fast-rising property taxes. While popular with homeowners, the move is likely to stick in the craw of big cities that rely on that revenue to provide services to their growing populations.
Similar tussles could erupt around the much-anticipated debate over school funding, political watchers point out. No matter their size, municipalities are prone to balk when forced into a one-size-fits all educational solutions.
Complicating those debates is how the state’s GOP lawmakers react to the recent midterms, which gave Democrats new leverage in both houses. What’s more, Patrick — one of the state’s staunchest and most-powerful conservatives — had a close shave hanging onto his seat after winning the previous contest by double digits.
“The main story going into this session is the obvious signal that Texas may not stay red in 2020,” said David Crockett, a political science professor at Trinity University. “A lot depends on how Republicans look at those results.”
One possibility is that GOP lawmakers will moderate to win back voters, Crockett said. But there’s always the possibility that they charge forward a hard-right agenda, damn the consequences.
If it’s the former, that could be good news for measures such as El Paso Democratic Rep. Joe Moody’s House Bill 63, which would make it a civil offense — not a crime — to be busted with less than an ounce of marijuana. Or another Moody bill that would repeal the bit in the Texas penal code that calls “homosexual conduct” a crime.
It also could mean traction for a bill by State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, to make sure men and women are paid the same for doing the same job.
Financially-driven decisions on issues like taxes and school funding don’t always break along tidy partisan lines, experts point out. That means this session could involve some interesting deal-making that gives life to Democrat-sponsored legislation that would have shriveled and died in previous sessions.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that bills pushing a conservative social agenda still lurk in the wings. However, the LBJ School’s Greenberg said the low level of rhetoric from the statehouse’s most conservative lawmakers suggests otherwise.
“We’ve not been hearing about any bathroom bills from the lieutenant governor, have we?” she asked. “So, case in point.”
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