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Analysis: Texas, a legislative sideshow to the main act in D.C.

By Ross Ramsey

It's hard being in the circus when you're not in The Greatest Show on Earth, but that's where Texas politicians find themselves. With all eyes on a new government executive in Washington, the Texans are merely side dishes.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State speech is in the can, and most of the pieces are in place for the current legislative session, and it looks more like a business-as-usual affair than one of those periodic transformative episodes that land in the history books.

It’s a shame for anyone who pines for the center ring, but the attention — even among Texas legislators — is on Washington, D.C., and not on Austin, Texas.

What the Legislature does on the two-year state budget, for instance, could change dramatically if the new administration in Washington makes big changes to spending in Medicaid and other health and human services programs, to border security efforts that have been shored up with state money, to highways and other infrastructure projects.

Those kinds of federal disruptions ripple through state budgets.

Washington is the show right now, and it would be even without a reality TV star at the center of things. That’s how it is with new administrations.

Texas lawmakers started their work in 2009 in the midst of a national economic crisis. Remember the stimulus funds? That federal action saved Texas legislators from an alarming shortfall in their state budget. Conservative lawmakers may have grumbled about the federal bailout, but they took the money.

Abbott’s speech included four issues that — because he gave them “emergency” status — can be considered right away. The governor has this advantage: A couple of items on his wish list are also on the wish lists of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus.

There’s the emergency request for Child Protective Services, a complicated problem that has long eluded legislative solutions because it mixes two of the governing class’s opposing urges: taking care of the state’s children and saving money.

More than 100 kids died on the state’s watch last year; put simply, state leaders want children in the state’s care to be safe. Similar scandals have prompted legislative action in the past, but the remedies are expensive and lawmaker support has been inconsistent at best. They’ve agreed to try again.

And ethics reform might seem to be a way of taking the fun and profit out of being in the Texas Legislature, but lawmakers know if they don’t periodically hose out the legislative stables, the voters will do it for them.

The governor’s pitch for a convention of states pitch is a harder sell. It is, to be polite, kind of boring. He’s proposed asking the other states to get together to propose amending a federal Constitution that many Americans regard as almost sacred. Abbott would make the states more powerful and the federal government less so, but he’s got to bring the state Legislature along with him.

His last item, a ban on "sanctuary cities," where local officials leave enforcement of federal immigration laws entirely to the federal government, has died in previous legislative sessions. Lawmakers might read last year’s national elections as a change in voter sentiment on that issue.

Patrick has sprinkled his version of pixie dust on a couple of dozen Senate bills, saving the first numbers — Senate Bill 1 through 25 — for legislation he considers particularly important.

If you’re measuring state leaders by the size of their agendas, Patrick is probably the leader, pushing hard for issues that include limits on local property tax increases, allowing families to use public school money to offset private school costs, and regulating who uses which restrooms and locker rooms in public buildings.


If you’re measuring by who’s most likely to slow things down and take a hard look at them — a function historically handled by the Senate — the Texas House is the place to go. School vouchers, sanctuary cities and legislation favored by social conservatives often fail to cross the House’s obstacle course.

Abbott proposed a budget, throwing his two cents into a debate already joined by the House and the Senate, but his role is a relatively quiet one for the next couple of months. The power of Texas governors rise as the end of a legislative session approaches — and the threat of gubernatorial vetoes looms over last-minute negotiations.

Until then, the Legislature itself is the main event — or would be, if the big show wasn’t in Washington.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. 

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