As legislature enters debate mode, new bipartisan tone faces test


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on March 8, 2013 at 7:14 PM

Updated Friday, Mar 8 at 8:15 PM

AUSTIN -- The first two months into the 83rd Texas Legislature have been relatively sunny. 
The session began with a bright economic forecast that included $8.8 billion of unspent revenue from last session. The biggest item so far, a supplemental budget largely intended to pay the previous legislature's $4.5 billion Medicaid IOU, passed both chambers unanimously. 
Many lawmakers who were present for the bitterly partisan beginning to the 82nd Texas Legislature in 2011 have expressed pleasant surprise that at least thus far, the 2013 session has been comparatively calm.
"The session has a completely different feel to it," said state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin). "It has a completely different feel to it for a variety of reasons, but I think this session is more directed at trying to get policy passed than what I've seen in immediate past sessions."
"It's so much better," said state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin), who announced last month this will be his last session. "I very seriously thought about not returning for this term because I was so demoralized, so dispirited after the last session. It was a terrible session in every way, both in policy and really in the way we handled ourselves politically."
"The situation, the policy direction of the legislature is better I think than it was two years ago. The politics and the relationships are better," said Strama.
While there have been contentious moments, Strama says lawmakers this year have spent more time listening.
"What's actually happening on the floor is people are talking about bills. They're talking about ideas. They're talking about issues, and they're doing it in the way that I think people would want their politicians to discuss the issues," said Strama. "[The debate] will be a little better informed and maybe it will be a little less far apart by the time it actually reaches the floor because of the work that's happening now that's fairly invisible."
Among the handful of members who regularly arrive in the House chamber well before the scheduled gavel, newly-elected state Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park) says his first week has been full of meetings with constituents and stakeholders.
"It's going well," said Dale. "It's an interesting process. It's kind of like being at college again where you get a series of mini-seminars all day long from different people that are trying to educate you on things. No one can be an expert on all issues, so having folks come into your office and talk to you about these various issues they have is very enlightening."
Dozens of House members have begun to wear purple ties on Thursdays, an initiative started by a Republican freshman meant as a visible show of bipartisan spirit. Dale says the gesture is genuine, citing as an example the swift and unanimous vote on the supplemental budget for Medicaid, the result of an agreement by Republican leaders to discuss Democrats' requests for additional school funding in a separate bill.
"If you read the papers three days before that vote, it said we're going to debate this and there's going to be a fight," Dale said. "It passed unanimously. There was no real fight, it went through. Everyone knew there was an obligation to do that. So sometimes when you hear some of these things that are getting stirred up, it's not always from inside the chamber. I think that's important to remember."
"What's important is there's a difference between Texas and Washington, D.C.," said Dale. "We know that Washington is a disaster basically and there's gridlock up there. You don't really find that here in Texas. A lot of the issues that we handle are not partisan and there's going  to be a lot that we agree upon."
The weather will inevitably change. Lawmakers are constitutionally prohibited from debating legislation during the first 60 days of session, and with the milestone's passage Friday, lawmakers can officially begin debating and voting on hundreds of bills. 
"Now that we're hitting this point, you'll feel the legislative session shift gears," said Watson. "The very few bills that have come up so far are must-pass bills. They're complex, but they have a simplicity to them about the need to pass them and what's in them."
Friday also marks the deadline for filing bills. For Strama, it's the final opportunity to leave a mark on state policy. In his tenth year as a member of the Austin delegation, Strama has introduced some 35 bills largely focused on education issues and reforming the election and redistricting processes.
"That's a huge deadline for me because this is my last chance to file legislation. So I'm taking this really seriously," said Strama. "If I've got any good ideas to make the state of Texas a better place in the future, now's my chance to do it."
With 11 bills filed as of Friday, Dale says his focus remains on local issues such as assistance for fire services in Cedar Park and helping Leander with transit-oriented development. At the same time, Dale is reviewing funding for 9-1-1 operations with the aim of restoring money for services to the local organizations charged with running them.
With 65 bills filed in the Senate, Watson announced Friday legislation aimed to prohibit the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) from ordering cities and power plants to begin drought contingency measures before ordering downstream rice farmers to do the same. On Thursday, Watson appeared at a media conference with Attorney General Greg Abbott (R-Texas) to discuss a new bill to modernize open meetings rules. 
As lawmakers in each chamber begin to decide major issues such as education and health care, the new tone will be tested.
"I hope it doesn't change," said Watson. "I'm not anticipating that you will see, except maybe on a few instances, really harsh partisan activity, but what you will see is more complexity in the debate and the discussions, and that's to be expected."
"It will shift because now you're starting to get into real substance," said Dale. "It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or a Democrat. Maybe you're urban, rural, suburban like I am, there's going to be differences of opinion regardless of party. It's intended to have conflict to some extent, but those discussions, those debates hopefully will lead to better public policy."
"I can tell you categorically it's not going to last," said Strama. "We know that there are going to be bitter and profound disagreements that are genuine, that are authentic, that are because of differences in real belief and that's okay. What I do think will be different is the level of respect that's been established among the members." 
"I think that has the potential to persevere, and that alone sets the stage for a much better policy making process," continued Strama. "Although I'm sure my side is not going to be on the winning side of a lot of these arguments, we're more likely to have some influence on the process when we're being treated with respect."