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The Speaker’s Race is Over – and the Budget Fight Has Just Begun

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Well friends, I’m beat, and the Legislature just began.

Now, the exhaustion may be from spending hours running up and down packed stairways in the Capitol and climbing over other reporters to get a view. I didn’t even have coffee.

But more than likely, the weariness has a more existential root. For the two-and-a-half months since the November elections, two legislative questions have loomed large in this state. First, will Joe Straus remain House speaker and second, what the hell are we going to do about the giant budget shortfall?

Well today, we got some answers. The House, not so shockingly, tackled the Speaker question—Joe Straus will live to see another session as speaker, but not without some scars. After months of internet ads and grassroots mobilization from Tea Party and hardline conservative groups, the anti-Straus forces gathered yesterday to rally before a GOP caucus. But their protests were for naught—GOP Caucus Chair Larry Taylor announced 70 of the 100 members present stood in support of Straus. (State Rep. Sarah Davis was ill.) Press releases flew: Were Straus’ opponents staying in the race? Were they giving up? When the dust settled mid-morning, challengers Warren Chisum and Ken Paxton both had stepped aside.

It looked like it would be a disappointing day for Paxton’s Tea Party supporters, many of whom showed up en masse to the Capitol to watch proceedings from the House gallery. Some had arrived as early as 5:30 a.m. and all promised that they would be watching. But without a vote, how would they know which representatives “stayed loyal” to the Tea Party and which were supporting a so-called “RINO?” (That’s Republican in Name Only, by the way.)

Quite easily, it turns out. 

To a packed crowd in the gallery and on the chamber floor, Ken Paxton gave a “personal privilege” speech, promising that “even though we lost this race, I am encouraged to say that we have not lost the fight.” He then urged supporters to “watch what we’re doing…hold us accountable.” 

Apparently his words were not lost on state Rep. Leo Berman. Though Straus was the only candidate for speaker, Berman objected to a vote by acclamation. Instead, a roll-call vote revealed 15 hard-line conservatives who voted against Straus, as well as two “present-not-voting” and one abstention. So while Straus gets to be speaker, the Tea Partiers now have their list of supposed betrayals. With 132 names, it’s quite long, but something tells me this won’t be a forgive-and-forget style session.

The second problem—that pesky $27 billion budget shortfall—isn’t quite as open and shut. But when state Sen. Steve Ogden rose to accept his position as Speaker Pro Temp, a largely symbolic post, he launched into a budget discussion. As Dave Mann said, “he quoted numbers out the wazoo.”

Wazoo or no, it’s heartening that the Senate Finance Chairman set the ball rolling. He pointed to three major holes in the budget, all of which he wants to see reformed this session. Medicaid, he said, has a $4.5 billion gap, the school finance system has $5 billion hole and the margins tax has a $4.3 billion hole per biennium. He made his priorities clear: “Our first job is to figure out how to save Medicaid.”

But he also took a nuanced approach to the margins tax, a tax on businesses. “None of us were elected to raise taxes on anybody,” he told his colleagues. “But the margins tax is different. If we don’t fix the margins tax, local property taxes will definitely go up.” Ogden’s speech, which went into minutiae normally reserved for think tanks, came as a welcome surprise. 

I was already exhausted when Gov. Rick Perry came in with his speech at the end of the day. His discussion of the budget was reduced to applause lines promising not to raise taxes. Instead he gave lawmakers his two emergency priorities. Nope, not the budget. Eminent domain laws in the state and cracking down on “sanctuary cities”—a term with no concrete definition. Perry’s predictable focus on more symbolic issues and rhetorical red meat was probably good, though. After all, the Legislature can only take so much nuance—and this is only Day One.

additional reporting by Dave Mann