The excitement was palpable as Governor Rick Perry strode into the House chamber just over two years ago to make his State of the State speech.
Months before the four-term Republican governor declared his run for president, Capitol observers were parsing his every phrase and praising his uncanny political intuitions. This was a man who served up defeat to a sitting U.S. senator, was an ace at retail politics and had found a sweet spot with conservatives: Washington-bashing.
"The differences between Texas values and Washington's self-serving games have never been more stark than they are right now. The federal government's efforts to accumulate more power by bribing us with our own tax dollars are simply unacceptable," Perry told a chamber crowded with elected officials. "We must continue to call attention to the essential truth of the 10th Amendment and commit these 28 words to memory: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Washington-bashing, however, would not be enough to carry Perry to victory if he intended to jump into the Republican primary. So he laid out an ambitious agenda of emergency items to be addressed in the first 30 days of the session: voter ID, sanctuary cities, sonograms prior to abortions, a federal balanced-budget amendment and additional eminent domain protections.
In a weak-governor state, Perry was making a strong-governor statement with red-meat GOP voter issues served on the table. He would eventually sign legislation on all his emergency topics, minus sanctuary cities. Whether it helped much was hard to tell. Perry got a drubbing in his election bid.
Two years later, there's still interest in Perry as a presidential candidate. And as he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, he is "indeed" open to the idea of running again. So why is the governor so missing from the Capitol this session when he was so present the last session? It's just a change in strategy, with all his work behind the scenes.
With just under a month to go in this legislative session, lawmakers have passed a handful of bills, ignored the rest and generally kicked the can down the road on big-ticket items like Medicaid and transportation.
The contrast between the last session and this one is stark, and that's not all bad. Last session, otherwise known as the prelude to Perry's run for president, the focus was on partisan GOP items that would galvanize the conservative base: forcing voter ID through on accusations of voter fraud; requiring sonograms to reduce abortion rates; and getting rid of those ever-pesky sanctuary cities.
"Last session's politics were driven by Rick Perry and [Lieutenant Governor] David Dewhurst's ambitions, which were cruelly dashed by the voters," says lobbyist Deece Eckstein, who also cites Dewhurst's run for a U.S. Senate seat. "Both Perry and Dewhurst were playing to their Republican base. "This time around, I think we may actually solve some of the problems that we failed to address last session."
Most of all, last session was about squeezing money out of the budget during a revenue shortfall. Despite strong appeals from Democrats and even a few key Republicans, Perry held the line against using the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund to close a $27 billion budget shortfall. For the first time in decades, the state cut funding to the public school system.
"By balancing our budget without raising taxes, Texas once again stands in stark contrast to states that choose to burden their residents with higher taxes and onerous regulatory mandates," Perry told reporters at session's end. "We're doing it exactly the way we said we would."
Shrinking state government was a huge selling point for Perry's presidential campaign. On the campaign trail, he referred to budget cuts as a mark of courage. To that end, Republican lawmakers largely ignored a rally at the Capitol that drew more than 5,000 parents and teachers protesting cuts in education spending.
Two years later, with a slew of new lawmakers and new revenue to reverse the cuts made in the last session, the pace has been slower and the issues less polarizing. Lawmakers had no objection to putting money back into schools. They're considering methods to underwrite a long-term water plan and new revenue for transportation funding. The most contentious issue to date would probably be what to do with Medicaid and whether it can function as a block grant.
That doesn't mean there hasn't been drama at the Capitol this session. The new chair of the Senate Education Committee, Dan Patrick (R-Houston), has pledged an overhaul of the state accountability system and a commitment to school choice. He hasn't hesitated to mix it up with committee witnesses, whether it was Education Commissioner Michael Williams on the rigor of new diploma plans or representatives of test vendor Pearson on the cost of testing.
Patrick told Dave Clark, a top official with Pearson, that it appeared the company had a profit motive in seeing students fail standardized exams. Pearson not only created the state's standardized tests, it also controls the General Equivalency Diploma program, or GED. Clark was uneasy with that characterization, saying it was not Pearson's intention to see kids fail just to sell more tests.
"I'm just respectfully saying that the objective of Pearson, which is their right, is to make a profit," was Patrick's rebuttal. "And the objective of Pearson is not in the best interest of the students and teachers."
Patrick, who managed to get a scaled-back version of his charter school bill through the Senate, will likely face defeat on his school choice bills. And his charter bill went through the Senate only after major concessions to opponents, such as tossing the idea of an authorizing authority, creating a more gradual rise to the cap and requiring charters to pay market value when they purchase surplus school facilities.
"Mr. President and members, I want to introduce the new Dan Patrick," Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) joked when the bill finally made it to the floor of the Senate.
Even so, David Dunn of the Texas Charter School Association calls the bill the most ambitious strengthening of the charter law since 1995. The proposal's road will be harder in the House, where it will likely face more criticism.
Patrick pushed hard for taxpayer credit scholarships, which use donated funds to pay for private and parochial school tuition. The House, however, rejected the concept, and Patrick did not appear to have the momentum to move his bill beyond the Senate, if even there.
This session probably attracted the most money in recent memory in efforts to influence education policy. Groups such as Texans for Education Reform, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessments, Raise Your Hand Texas and the Houston-based Arnold Foundation have been major players.
Texans for Education Reform supports parent trigger laws that would allow parents to petition for new management of a school after three years of failure, online courses, charter expansion, home-rule districts and teacher effectiveness. Most of the items on the agenda are already on the books, just not used effectively, spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester said.
"I don't know if there's more interest, but what I do believe is that the business community clearly understands that if Texas is going to continue to be this economic engine for the country, we simply have to address the education issues the state is now facing," Sylvester said. "The Texas education model is founded on an industrial economy, and now we're feeling the growing pains of moving our education system to a global-information economy."
Education bills have been among the most interesting in the House this session because of a lack of bloc voting. Republican political consultant Reb Wayne divides Republican House members into ten or 15 hard-line Tea Party members, with the balance being equal parts fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. The hard-core right is having a limited effect, Wayne said.
"They just don't understand how the legislative process, how politics works. Everything is black-and-white to them," Wayne says. "Some of them don't even understand how they got elected. I know, in some parts of the state they're looking for candidates with the same views but more substantive backgrounds."
Two years ago, many members took their marching orders from powerful activist Michael Quinn Sullivan. Sullivan, who runs Empower Texans, a political advocacy group that promotes conservative and libertarian values, held on tightly to Republicans last session, threatening to dock legislative scorecards on key votes. Sullivan's control, however, appears to be waning, and he's openly grousing about results.
"Two sessions squandered — one with a supermajority, the other with a near supermajority — and not much of a substantive set of reforms to show for it," Sullivan lamented on a recent blog post. "Whether it is protecting religious liberties or defending life, reforming the budget or cutting taxes, this Texas House is doing nothing. If they could do less, they probably would."
Nor do senators fear delving into the area of taxes, also a difference from last session. The Texas Department of Transportation predicts it will need $4 billion a biennium in additional money to keep up with growth.
To that end, Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), from conservative East Texas, has not shied away from discussions about what kind of taxes the state might leverage to move the building of transportation infrastructure away from outside financing and toward pay-as-you-go sources of revenue, even if that means some sort of tax.
"I think we've spent the last ten years leveraging ourselves in the wrong direction, and yes, if it requires a tax increase to go back to pay-as-you-go, we should do that," Eltife said. "It's much more conservative to raise revenue and not have this debt."
Until that new revenue source is created, everything in the transportation arena will simply follow a Band-Aid approach. Many offer the same observations about Medicaid.
If last session was a red-meat session, then this one looks a whole lot more like meat and potatoes. And while Perry intentionally cast a long shadow last session, this time around it's just as likely our four-term governor is in Illinois or California, urging companies to move to Texas. On his most recent trip, Perry used radio ads to urge Illinois businesses to "get out while there's still time."
Democratic lobbyist Mike Kelly says Perry knows what he's doing this session.
"The way Perry exerts his power differs from session to session," Kelly says. "He really hasn't been apparent this session, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been talking quietly in the background. He's trying to stay out of the day-to-day battles."
Last session, Perry deemed several GOP-centric ideals to be emergency items that needed to be considered in the first 30 days: voter ID, sanctuary cities, eminent domain, sonograms prior to abortions and a federal balanced-budget amendment.
This time around, even in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Perry declined to declare emergency calendar items. Some consider that an intentional move on his part to rebuild his base of voters for another run at governor. Perry, who has made limited appearances over the last few months, has been mum on his plans, saying he would make his decision after the session ends.
"I think they're being very coy and very smart with what they're doing. If he was viewed as a lame-duck governor, no one would pay attention to him," says Wayne. "It would not surprise me, if Rick Perry is running again, that he speaks softly and carries a veto pen, both in terms of the budget and the laws that get passed."
Two years ago, Perry and Dewhurst were trying to prove their GOP bona fides as they moved to run in their respective races, for president and senator, Kelly said. This session belongs to House Speaker Joe Straus, who is controlling the ebb and flow of House business through the calendars process.
Hundreds of bills, many by first-time lawmakers, are locked up in the House Calendars Committee, possibly never to see the light of day.
"If I were a freshman legislator coming in, I think I'd be realizing about now that not one of my bills was going to pass. I suspect the feelings are somewhere between confused and angry," Kelly says. "The progress of the House bills has been alarmingly slow, but there hasn't been much open rebellion, maybe because it's a more businesslike session this time."
Bills live and die by dates on the legislative calendar. Next week will mark a number of deadlines for the House to vote out its bills. In the last session, the budget bill was used as a bargaining tool. This time both chambers made quick work of the $93.5 billion budget, which has now gone off to conference committee for finishing touches.
Eva DeLuna Castro, who is tracking the budget for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, notes the biggest difference between the House and Senate budgets is in education funding. The Senate is more generous with higher education, while the House has focused more on K-12 spending. The two sides also have put differing amounts into Medicaid spending in their respective budgets.
Of course, anything could happen in conference committee, which is where the final agreement on bills is hammered out between House and Senate. Wayne sees the possibility that a lot of bills will end up dying due to a combination of delays in the calendar committee and the fact that there are few bills with broader captions.
The House has been methodical in its process: First it took up the budget, education, transportation and the water plan. Now the chamber is moving through the list of sunset bills intended to reauthorize various state agencies.
What probably won't show up on the House calendar is gambling, Wayne predicts. Despite a push by the gaming lobby, the repercussions would be too great for Straus, whose family owns racetracks. Medicaid alternatives also will be limited because the Obama administration has yet to fill in the blanks in the details of its programs.
If Perry has been forceful on any issue, he's been forceful on Medicaid expansion. He's accused the Obama administration of holding states hostage.
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"It would benefit no one in our state to see their taxes skyrocket and our economy crushed as our budget crumbled under the weight of oppressive Medicaid costs," Perry said last month.
House members came close to voting down reauthorization of the Texas Lottery Commission, with conservatives calling it a tax on the poor. Perry has said little on the gambling issue this session, although he has stated his opposition in the past. If gaming expansion ever passes, it will no doubt come during a budget deficit.
Lawmakers felt forced to follow the Perry agenda last session for fear of upending his chances for president. This session, they're finding their voice, setting budget priorities on education that Perry does not support. As one lobbyist noted, each session is like a child, with its own DNA and its own personality. Lawmakers have found their own this session.
Perry's future is still up in the air. Earlier in the session, the governor said he and Attorney General Greg Abbott had an agreement about a run for governor in 2014. Perry said Abbott would step aside if he wanted to run for governor in 2014, which many observers anticipate would be his first step into the 2016 Republican primary. Abbott, for his part, has been more circumspect on the issue. A spokesman did not confirm or deny the deal.