On January 8 politicians from across the state will descend upon Austin to open the Texas Legislature’s 86th Biennial Session, and by all accounts, it’s going to get interesting. Here are some things to know as one of the best political reality shows this side of the Mississippi kicks off its season:
A new House speaker is coming.
After a challenging 2017 session that saw him clashing with hardline conservative lawmakers, longtime House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican, opted not to run for re-election, leading to a lot of jostling for the top spot. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton who’s served in the House for more than two decades, had the gig sewn up by mid-November. He’ll be the first House speaker from the Houston area in living memory.
What kind of leader will Bonnen be? He has a reputation as someone who doesn’t shy away from a fight, whether against Democrats or Republicans, and that includes Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Of note: During the last session he co-authored a “bathroom bill” that would have limited transgendered people’s access to bathrooms, in addition to voting in favor of a bill that allows police to ask for the immigration status of anyone arrested or detained. How all of this will translate once he’s running the show is anybody’s guess.
The power shift. No, really.
Republican lawmakers are going to have to be a little friendlier with their opponents across the aisle this year. Why? Even though the GOP still holds the majority in both chambers, the midterms ushered in a bunch of Dems who rode Beto O’Rourke’s coattails to victory. So the Republicans’ grip isn’t as tight as usual.
In the upper chamber, two GOP senators were ousted in November. It’s not a huge shift, since the conservatives are still in the majority. Now, though, if even one Republican senator opts to vote with the Dems, Patrick will lose his super-majority of three-fifths of the Senate—and with it, his ability to bring any bill to the floor, with or without Democrats’ support.
Meanwhile, the House Dems picked up 12 seats during the elections, so they now hold 67 of 150 seats. In other words, if just nine conservatives defect, the Democrats can thwart any party-line vote in the lower chamber. So, while the Republicans still have plenty of power, the Democratic legislators could make things difficult over the course of the 140-day session.
So what are the lawmakers actually going to do?
Honestly, even a Magic 8-Ball couldn’t tell us at this point. The first priority will be formally electing Bonnen, of course, but once that’s done, the Lege could take on myriad issues.
There have been rumblings about tax reform and, for better or worse, another attempt to pass a bathroom bill, which is likely, considering that last summer the Republican Party of Texas included the issue as a legislative priority without a smidge of debate. Meanwhile, there’s a chance for marijuana reform, as even the state GOP now supports decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot. More than a dozen marijuana-related bills have been submitted since pre-filing opened in November.
We also can expect legislation related to what’s been going on in the state since the crew last got together. Lawmakers most likely will be diving into everything from problems with school financing (HISD is projecting a $76 million shortfall this year), to concerns raised by Hurricane Harvey, to questions on gun violence raised after the shootings at Santa Fe High School and Sutherland Springs. How will this all play out in the hallowed halls of the Texas Capitol? We don’t know yet, but you can bet we’ll be paying attention.