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ANALYSIS | The Texas Capitol had its defenses ready for the start of the legislative session after last week's riots in the U.S. Capitol. But opening day was nice and quiet.
The Texas Legislature is back, and on their opening day Tuesday, state lawmakers gave you no reason to stop what you’re doing and pay attention.
That’s almost a headline in itself.
Tuesday morning was bright and chilly in Austin. Except for the two dozen state troopers in riot garb at each of the four ground-level entrances, the Texas Capitol seemed as quiet as it was a week earlier.
The state police were there because of the uprising at the U.S. Capitol last week and because of threats and rumors of disruptive visits to state capitols between now and next week’s inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to succeed Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
But Texas government was operating outside the drama zone. Both chambers got a welcome-let’s-get-to-work speech from Gov. Greg Abbott.
State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, was elected speaker of the House with only two dissents. There were no other candidates, no debates, no scuffles — no conflict. The Senate was even quieter, electing Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, to the largely ceremonial posting of president pro tempore.
Not much to see here. What a relief.
Both chambers will vote on their operating rules this week and then disappear until Jan. 26. The first two weeks of the 20-week session will be all but over, just like that.
The opening calm started a day earlier. Comptroller Glenn Hegar, one of the first officials to say “recession” last spring as the pandemic spread across the state, made a surprisingly optimistic economic forecast on Monday. His early warnings that the current state budget could have a shortfall of $4.6 billion shrunk to slightly less than $1 billion — relative pocket change in a $250 billion state budget.
And for the two years that follow the current budget — the two years that this new Legislature will write a budget to cover — Hegar predicted state revenues will be about the same as they’ve been over the last two years. Budget folks would like to have more money to cover growth in the state population and inflation, but they’ll take it. It’s a forecast that will require some belt-tightening, but not the chainsaw budgeting that some had feared.
It’s not the sort of news that sends social media into a noticeable swirl, or stirs the kind of citizen activism you’d expect if big cuts were being made to popular state programs or services, like public education. This is just plain government — important, worth debating about, consequential — and not a spark that ignites fringe groups with violence and vandalism in mind.
Sparks might fly as the session continues. Redistricting is on the agenda — drawing new political maps that put this or that neighborhood or city or county into this or that congressional or legislative district. It’s dear to politicians. It’s as partisan as any issue. And, given the growth of urban and suburban Texas, it will mean taking political power from rural Texans who already feel ignored in Austin and Washington.
Legislation has already been filed to reform law enforcement practices and to enforce racial justice, problems that flared anew last summer with the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police and similar tragedies.
Some legislators want to leash the governor, after 10 months of executive orders addressing the economy and the pandemic — all without legislative input or consultation. That one will make news, too.
Texans from both parties want sweeping changes — not necessarily the same sweeping changes — in election law and in the ways we’re allowed to cast our votes.
Those are some of the battles ahead in the Texas Capitol — a building designed, after all, for debating and settling fierce differences in opinion. Some will get heated, like they always do. But Tuesday’s beginning, especially in light of what happened last week in Washington, D.C., was just what you’d hope for: Boring.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.
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