AUSTIN (KXAN) – The people spoke and the show begins. First up: Come and Take It Texas printing guns at the statehouse. Yes, the 2nd amendment rights group had a “Ghost Gunner”, a 3-D printer-like machine, cranking out firearms. The guns didn’t have essential parts like a trigger, but technically it’s still a firearm. There are more than a dozen bills expanding second amendment rights and Come and Take It Texas hopes for HB 195, a bill allowing “Constitutional Carry” of a handgun.
That’s only the first day. If 2015 resembles anything like years past we could see rattlesnake wranglers, mariachi bands, a contingent of Santa Clauses, and plenty of protests and rallies. Somebody will get arrested. Monday, our newly-elected, cupcake wielding Ag Commissioner, Sid Miller, already declared an amnesty on the sugary treats so kids can bring more of them to school. Many politicians, staffers, and journalists refer to session as “a circus”.
The frantic atmosphere stems from thousands of ideas lawmakers bring and the utter lack of time to do anything with them.
We want a lot of stuff:
Some bills will be no brainers. Making the cowboy hat the official hat of Texas: absolutely. Getting rid of day lights savings time might be a little more challenging. We have a huge state with a lot of different demands. Texans from Amarillo have entirely different wants and needs than Texans from McAllen. Beaumont is 830 miles – and another time zone away – from El Paso. TxDOT wants billions more in roads each year. Democrats demand Medicaid expansion and a lot more school money. Republicans want more second amendment rights and a constant supply of dollars heading south for border security.
The Big Three (Abbott, Patrick, and Straus) spoke to press last week explaining their wants. Lt. Governor-elect Patrick wants more money for residency slots, math and science teachers and “more money than ever before” for border security. Speaker Straus and Governor-elect Abbott both want to dump money and reshape our education system.
There’ll be the normal fights: Republican vs. Democrat, Urban vs. Rural, West Texas vs. the Coast. Add in a nationwide struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. The Tea Party vs. the GOP can already be seen with Frisco Rep. Scott Turner challenging Speaker Straus for not being conservative enough. Cupcakes, 3-D guns, the first record vote for Speaker in forty years. We have an exciting start already.
We have money… kind of:
Our state takes in billions from oil production taxes. Texas Comptroller Glen Hegar looked into his economic crystal ball and gave lawmakers $113 billion dollars to play with. That’s $20 billion more than last session – even with gloomy oil prices and sporadic sales tax revenue.
“Plenty to work with, including an opportunity to do some tax cuts,” said Talmadge Heflin from the right leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation.
There’s the rub. The biggest balancing act this session will be between paying for new ideas and giving back money with lower property and business taxes.
“The problem is the details on a tax cut because there are always winners and losers,” said Harvey Kronberg, who runs the Quorum Report and has reported on Texas Politics since the 1980s. “They are truly the most ferocious battles and they aren’t particularly partisan.”
Comptroller Hegar’s numbers give everyone hope. But according to our constitution we can’t spend more than we take in; there’s not enough to go around. A lot of people will walk back to their constituents with some explaining to do.
We don’t have any time.
We have to make laws for about 27 million Texans in 140 days. Texas is one of only four states that holds its session every other year – by far the largest. In the first sixty days, lawmakers can only talk about things the Governor wants to. So about half way through they get to start on their ideas. “There’s a million ways to kill a bill, only about two to pass one,” said Kronberg describing how our state is built to do little. In true conservative tradition, session is not designed to accomplish a lot or affect much of Texan’s day-to-day life.
“I joke frequently, that if you want to understand the legislature, you have to know, the bills they pass, they’ll pass in the last six weeks when they are dehydrated, sleep deprived, over-caffeinated and half of them are living on queso and vodka,” said Kronberg.
If it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done. “You set an ambitious agenda and if you get sixty percent of it, you call it a success,” said Kronberg.
Clouds on the horizon:
Something always comes around to screw up plans. Comptroller Hegar’s $113 billion could be incorrect. A few years back, then Comptroller Susan Combs forecasted wrong. That error played a big part in causing lawmakers to cut education by $5.4 billion. Feeling deceived, a lot of people remain upset about it. Comptroller Hegar predicted oil to average around $60 to $65 dollars a barrel. After five months of plummet, it’s not even close to that.
Also, at any time a court can decide the “robin hood” way we pay for schools is down-right unconstitutional. We would have to come up with another idea, most likely dipping into our $7.5 billion rainy day fund.
Then there’s the random un-predicted craziness. Hundreds of people stormed the capitol in 2013 to watch a little known Ft. Worth Senator in pink tennis shoes filibuster an anti-abortion bills. Troopers set up metal detectors. Security brought out heavy equipment to unhinge protesters who handcuffed themselves to railings, dragging them out screaming.
“People do extraordinary stupid things and extraordinary smart things. The longer you’re at this the more you see gymnastics and acrobatics, political gymnastics and acrobatics. People make fools of themselves for comic relief and then they amaze and awe with accomplishments that nobody expected. It brings out the best and worst in everybody,” said Kronberg.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen and there are too many big characters not to watch.