Posted on December 30, 2013 at 9:47 PM
Monday, Dec 30 at 11:14 PM
AUSTIN -- After the dramatic budget cuts by the cash-strapped 82nd Texas Legislature, an unexpected fiscal windfall was welcome news to lawmakers preparing for the beginning of a new legislative session in 2013.
The day before the 83rd Texas Legislature was gaveled into session, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs released a biennial revenue estimate showing the state had $8.8 billion unspent from the previous session. Along with news the rainy day fund was expected to reach $11.8 billion by the end of the 2014-2015 biennium, lawmakers arrived in Austin with plenty to smile about.
Just eight days into 2013, Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) welcomed a record 41 new members to the 150-member Texas House of Representatives, the largest class of freshmen in 40 years. Across the Capitol, six of the 31 members of the Texas Senate assumed their desks on the green carpet for the first time.
In his State of the State address, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) listed education, water, transportation and tax relief among the session's top priorities. The state's Republican commander-in-chief also vowed to continue opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
"Texas will not expand Medicaid under the ACA," Perry assured the audience, mere minutes after being interrupted by shouts from an expansion supporter in the House gallery. Despite numerous rallies and demonstrations at the Capitol throughout the regular session, no legislation expanding Medicaid would reach Perry's desk.
The relatively tranquil regular session picked up the pace in May with a bill dramatically reducing school testing and overhauling graduation requirements. Guided by a bipartisan coalition under state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), chairman of the House Public Education Committee, House Bill 5 skated through both chambers with minimal opposition.
Lawmakers approved $700 million in business tax cuts as the regular session neared its end, falling short of the $1.6 billion requested by Perry as part of a tax relief plan released in April. As the clocked counted down, tense budget negotions resulted in a last-minute deal to fund water projects and return $4 billion of the $5.4 billion cut from public education during the previous session.
"55 Democrats said, 'If you want money for water, you need to restore cuts,' and $3.93 billion went back into the budget to restore those cuts above enrollment growth," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) said as the deal was finalized. "I think that's significant."
Voters would approve the remaining part of the deal in November, approving a constitutional amendment to move $2 billion from the rainy day fund to seed a bank account for financing water projects. The usual division over issues such as abortion and guns remained relatively subdued during the regular session, with lawmakers passing a bill authored by state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) to train and arm "school marshals" with bipartisan support. Yet the final gavel would mark a dramatic turning point.
"This session, for the most part during the regular session, was kumbaya," recalled Dallas Morning News Senior Political Writer Wayne Slater. "Everybody came together, more bipartisanship than you had seen. They dealt with education, they tried to deal with the other important issues in a really bipartisan way. Then everything blew up in three special sessions that were nothing but fireworks."
Gov. Perry immediately called lawmakers back for a special session to permanently adopt interim voting maps drawn by federal judges after the original redistricting plans were ruled discriminatory. The partisan heat would reach critical mass just two weeks later, as Perry added controversial abortion legislation that had failed during the regular session to the call.
The filibuster and weeks of historically unprecedented protests that followed launched state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) into the national spotlight. As Senate Republicans ended Davis' filibuster, a roaring crowd in the Senate gallery drowned out and thwarted attempts to vote on the bill as time expired. The next day, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) faulted the leadership of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Texas) as he announced his intention to run against the Senate's presiding officer.
Quickly passed in a second special session called immediately afterward, House Bill 2 bans abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy and places strict guidelines on the administration of medical abortion drugs. The law also requires physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of where the abortions are performed and mandates abortion facilities meet the building specifications of ambulatory surgical centers.
Despite being charged with finding a way to increase funding for transportation infrastructure, lawmakers were unable to reach a deal by the end of the second special session. Members weary from two months of bitter partisan warfare were summoned back once more to try again, and within a few days passed legislation asking voters to approve diverting $1.2 billion a year in revenue from the rainy day fund to roads and highways.
By the end of the third special session, Perry would see his main objectives mostly met. Bipartisan agreements on education and water funding will likely have the most lasting effects as the state continues to grow amid persistent drought. The transportation measure has been described as a "band-aid," helpful yet falling far short of what is needed to seriously tackle the state's stressed infrastructure. As lawmakers finally departed in August, many admitted they wouldn't be surprised if transportation is the top issue for the 84th Texas Legislature.
The lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood and Whole Woman's Health over House Bill 2 could be finally decided in 2014, and the legislation's long term effect on women seeking abortions in Texas remains unclear. Regardless, the long term political consequences of the historic fight over abortion and Davis' subsequent candidacy for governor could be significant.
But that's another story.
Stay tuned this week for more of the 2013 political year in review, including more on Davis, Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz.