AUSTIN — The 2019 Texas Legislative Session begins Tuesday, Jan. 8. In Texas This Week, Ashley Goudeau sat down with Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune, to discuss which issues are expected to be the focus of the session.
Ashley Goudeau: We are just a few days away from the start of the legislative session. It should be interesting this time around right?
Ross Ramsey: "I think so. I think it looks a little bit like a 'meat and potatoes' session. You know, a lot of the noise you hear out of Washington, you know, state politicians are running away from that and running toward other problems like school finance and a budget and a bunch of sort of serious things. So this is going to be interesting that way."
Goudeau: So let's start at the top and work our way down. The biggest thing the House is going to have to do on the first day is elect a speaker.
Ramsey: "Right. They come in. They're all sitting there with their families, you know, they have a moment when they all get sworn in, the families all leave and they get right down to it. They vote on rules and then they vote on a speaker. It looks like Dennis Bonnen."
Goudeau: Are you surprised at all that it's going to be Bonnen? As you know, he held a press conference a few weeks ago, announcing that he in fact was going to be the speaker. I think it's the shortest press conference I've ever been to at the Capitol. Any surprise it's him?
Ramsey: "You know, there was a little bit of a surprise that it closed that fast. Bonnen did a pretty good job of sneaking up from behind on everybody. There were four or five candidates who were sort of visibly in the race. Bonnen had said he wasn't going to run and then at the last minute said, 'Well, I've been encouraged to run by people who aren't satisfied with the candidates that we have.' And within two weeks, he had it wrapped up. I thought we would go through earlier in the year, I thought we would go through the Christmas holidays trying to figure this out, but he knocked it out."
Goudeau: He served as speaker pro-tem for a few sessions so he knows the ropes here.
Ramsey: "Right. So whenever Joe Straus was in his office working on something, Dennis Bonnen was in the chair. He's not an unfamiliar sight up on the dais swinging the gavel, talking to the parliamentarian. He knows how to run the House. He's pretty efficient at it. It's sort of the 'bada bing, bada boom' speaker when he's up there. But this is going to be interesting. It's a reset in the relationships between the House and the Senate and the Senate and the House and the governor. So, you know, I think the first month of this is going to be sort of everybody sort of setting their relationships and we'll see how it goes from there."
Goudeau: And the House does have more Democrats after the election, but not enough to be able to swing a lot of things right?
Ramsey: "Well, I think there are enough to swing a lot of things. There's not enough to win a lot of things. You know, it's still 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. It was 95 and 55. So it used to be like this for the Republicans and now it's a little more like that. You can't lose very many Republicans before you have to go to the Democrats for help and on any given issue, you know, most of the things the Legislature does are not partisan. It's rural versus urban or it's this group of folks versus that group of folks. Or this group of businesses or whatever. So you've got to put together coalitions and there are enough Democrats now that the Republicans have to deal with them."
Goudeau: Let's talk a little bit about the Senate. Dan Patrick is returning as lieutenant governor. What do you see happening in that chamber?
Ramsey: "They have six new members this time. They got two more in the primary, so Republicans are replacing Republicans, and then they got four new members in the general elections. So we'll see as we go how those new members fit in and how the daily, you know, relation politics change. There are more Democrats over there by one, so the lieutenant governor has less play. You know, in the Senate, you have to have a certain number of senators to bring something up for consideration and there were always enough Republicans that the lieutenant governor could say, 'make it so.' Now he's got a couple of people he has to negotiate with and that's going to be an interesting thing to watch."
Goudeau: You know, it was also a somewhat close race for him to win this time around. Do you think that's going to have any impact on how he leads the Senate this time around?
Ramsey: "I think it probably will. You know, there's two approaches on something like that. You know, if the opposition comes close you can say, 'Well, I better amend my ways because the opposition almost caught me that time' or you can say, 'it's time to bear down because they're competing with me and it's time for, it may be the last chance for our ideas to prevail' and I would suspect if I was just making a guess that Dan Patrick is more of the second type. Let's bear down, they're out there, they're coming for us, let's get done what we came here to do."
Goudeau: You know, obviously journalists have been buzzing about a change to the Senate this time around. They have instituted their own credentialing policy for the journalists. Talk to us a little about that.
Ramsey: "Well, you know, I really don't know why they did it. We get our dog tags from the House and it used to be that was the dog tag for the House and the Senate. Back years ago, the House used to do it and then the Senate put a stamp on it. You know, there's always some kind of 'who's the boss' of credentialing. Now there's two sets of credentials, so they're just not playing well together. And this is, you know, I think, a vestige of the relationship between Patrick and Straus. Now that Straus is gone we'll see how it goes. What I'm curious about is whether the House and the Senate have different ideas about which press to admit. You know, there are always, particularly in this media age, there are always some websites or some news sites that don't quite have institution status. And so you look at them and one house may say, 'I don't think those guys should be credentialed' and the other might say, 'No, I'm going to credential them.' So we'll see what the edge cases are."
Goudeau: Let's talk a little bit about some of the issues. There were a lot of things that happened over this past year when we weren't in session we heard constantly were going to be brought up. What do you think will be the big factors at play, the big issues they'll attempt to tackle?
Ramsey: "You know, there's a lot of budget stuff. And I know it's like talking about dieting or financial planning, it's sort of boring, but it's the meat and potatoes. And there are a lot of big issues that are sort of 'if you solve this, then you have to mess with that.' So there's a bunch of money that they would like to put into mental health, for example. There's a lot of money that they would like to talk about putting into Health and Human Services and into other things. But they're also talking about school finance and easing property taxes and those are both expensive from the state's standpoint. If you're going to lower property taxes, you have to increase what the state spends, so we'll all feel good about our property taxes going down but state legislators will have to raise enough money to pay the difference. So there are a lot of big financial issues that they've got to settle and they've got to settle them in a way that doesn't alarm taxpayers and it's going to be interesting to watch that."
Goudeau: Right, because this last session we actually went into the session with a little bit of a deficit. And so it will be interesting to see what those numbers look like.
Ramsey: "They're going to be behind when they start. They shorted Medicaid spending by about $2 billion. So they knew at the end of the last legislative session that when we start the next legislative session, the one we're starting this week, the first order of business is going to be find enough money to finance Medicaid through the rest of the budget period. Probably about $2 billion. If you add up other things like that, it's probably several billion dollars. So you start with a supplemental appropriations bill to clean up the current budget and then you start writing another budget and you incorporate all of these big pieces -- health and human services, school finance, etc., etc.. And it's going to be largely, the accountants are going to be rampant."
Goudeau: There was some buzz because Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who is leaving, said his gift, if you will, to the Legislature is he's going to give them a budget on his way out.
Ramsey: "I think they'll ignore it. You know, there's an old joke about governor's budgets. That the governor doesn't write the budget, the Legislature does. Governors always present a budget and legislators always call it a doorstop. And I think, you know, an outgoing presiding officer presenting a budget is going to be behind the governor's doorstop. I think they're going to look at it and they might take a glance at it and see if there are any great ideas in there and then toss it and move on with their own budgets."
Goudeau: Another thing that we heard about and that we can expect I think to see, is some things when it comes to school safety. After that shooting at Santa Fe High School, the governor held his round tables and they talked about all these ideas. Do you think some of that will come to play?
Ramsey: "You know, I think this is one of those issues where everybody wants to do something and the problem, or the thing they have to solve, is to get everybody to want the same thing. There's 181 legislators, I think there are 181 ideas about what you should do whether it's hardening schools, whether it's mental health, whether it's restrictive gun laws -- everybody has a different approach to this thing. And finding the common ground is going to be the hard part. But I do think there is a strong impulse by everybody across the spectrum to do something."
Goudeau: We saw a lot of divisive, controversial bills in 2017. I think one at the top of the list was the bathroom bill. Do you think that'll make a comeback in 2019?
Ramsey: "You know, I think it will probably get filed. I don't think there's as much appetite for it this time as there was last time. The battles in the Legislature last time had a lot to do with waiving partisan flags and with picking particular social issues that were strong in Republican or Democratic primaries. So, in some ways, they were using the session to campaign either for statewide office or for legislative office. This time, I think largely because of the kind of partisan noise that we're getting out of Washington and have been getting out of Washington for a couple of years, state legislators in Texas are looking at this and saying, you know, 'We got a lot of work to do, voters don't need any more noise out of us, lets keep our heads down and get to work.' That's how we start. We'll see how we finish."
Lawmakers have already started filing bills.