AUSTIN — All that was missing were the lunchboxes and new backpacks.
Like the first day of school, the 35 freshman legislators of the Texas House and Senate took their seats today on this, the largely ceremonial first day of the 86th Texas Legislature. That means no heady discussion over much-anticipated school finance or property tax reform, but a whole lot of Texas-size greetings and requisite showboating.
The mood was more cheerful than previous years: both parties included in that. For Democrats, a majority of those freshmen — 21 of the new class — are members of their own party, with only 14 frosh being Republicans. Three seats in heavy Democratic districts are still open, and may raise the total to 24 Democrat freshmen.
Of the 181 total seats, both chambers are still strongly Republican: 19 Republicans to 12 Democrats in the Texas Senate and 83 Republicans to 67 Democrats in the Texas House. That’s down significantly from a high water mark of 20 GOP Senators and 95 Republican Reps during the last legislative session (2017, as Texas meets biennially).
Though down in number, the Republicans are enjoying a brief honeymoon period for the new Speaker of the House. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) took the gavel this afternoon, replacing the much-embattled Joe Straus who opted not to seek another term in the House. So far, the more moderate and more conservative wings of the Texas GOP seem optimistic at Bonnen’s ability to build new coalitions and drive a new legislative agenda. Even though Bonnen was a Straus lieutenant, he tracks to the right of the former Speaker giving conservatives some cautious hope of a more rightward slant to the House.
The Dems are hopeful, too, but perhaps this is only momentarily until reality sets in. Republican Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced the state will have $120 billion to use for the 2020-21 budget, which is beyond previous expectations and is already making bureaucrats salivate over what could be done with it. Meanwhile, the state’s “Rainy Day Fund” has topped $15 billion and the piranhas are already nipping.
Both parties want something to change with public school finance, but arriving at a joint solution is easier said than done. Expect this to be a major focus of the next 140 days, inasmuch as a $1,000 teacher pay bump was part of Gov. Greg Abbott‘s special session priorities.
As another priority, Speaker Bonnen, Gov. Abbott, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have all hinted at property tax reform being a big focus this session. Texas relies on a matrix of state/federal funding and local property taxation to pay for education, so any reform to school finance will be inextricably tied to tax reform (maybe even relief).
Many Democrats, including Austin’s Sen. Kirk Watson, are already giddy about a return of last session’s so-called “bathroom bill” not being an early focus this session, calling social issues a “distraction.” Even though it was President Barack Obama‘s Title IX reforms that opened the door to boys in girls’ showers, locker rooms, and school restrooms (one which President Donald Trump shut in 2017, by the way), we can expect them to claim this shift of focus as a victory. Meanwhile, we can also expect them to offer several “distractions” of their own such as a bill to remove an obscure Confederate plaque in the Capitol which is sure to gobble up some oxygen.
There’s also the matter of border security. Interestingly, the Lieutenant Governor took an excused absence on the first-day festivities to attend a border security meeting with White House officials. How much the state kicks in for additional manpower and programs on the Rio Grande has yet to be determined as the U.S. Congress haggles over what to do with border security in the federal budget. Keep a finger on that page for now.
Speaking of the “LiteGuv,” it may be harder for Lt. Gov. Patrick to lead this year now that the Republicans need a solid bloc to bring conservative legislation to the floor. Thanks to the surprise special election victory of Pete Flores (R-San Antonio), the Republicans have just enough votes to carry through a conservative legislative agenda if they remain in lockstep. In other words, the Senate is back to a position where Republican leaders must bring friendly Democrats (of which there are a couple) to their side to reduce the size and scope of state government.
Now that the festivities are over, all eyes waiting for an announcement from Patrick and Bonnen on who the new committee chairmen and members will be — this will give us a clearer picture of which alliances will be made and what we can expect in terms of legislative priorities. In a typical session, these appointments are made in late January, though Straus liked to wait until February.
With an Inauguration scheduled for next Tuesday featuring the King of Country himself, George Strait, and a barbecue dinner outside the Capitol to feed thousands, the honeymoon continues.