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Wendy Davis’ Last Hurrah?

Fort Worth senator filibusters key bill; special session likely
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If this was her last stand in the Texas Senate, Wendy Davis made it one to remember.

Davis, the Fort Worth Democrat, put on a memorable filibuster late Sunday night. She not only talked to death a key school finance and revenue bill, but in the process blew up the final night of the 82nd legislative session. Thanks to Davis, the Legislature likely will reconvene for a special session in the very near future to debate and pass a school finance plan.

The bill in question, Senate Bill 1811, provides needed financing to balance the budget. Lawmakers also pegged on to the bill a controversial school-finance reform. The changes to how the state distributes money to schools was needed to accommodate the $4 billion cut to public education contained in the budget. As Davis noted several times in her 77-minute filibuster, this is the first time in anyone’s memory that the Legislature has slashed funding for public education to such a degree.

Many Democrats despised those education cuts. There was little Democrats could do about it when the budget bill passed both the House and Senate on Saturday. But the one bill they could kill was SB 1811. The negotiations between House and Senate leaders on the school finance plan had dragged into Saturday. That meant neither chamber could hear the bill until late Sunday night, leaving it vulnerable to a filibuster that would stretch beyond the midnight deadline to pass legislation.

It was a night few Capitol watchers will forget, a night when the best-laid plans of the governor and the legislative leadership were obliterated by a first-term Democrat who may not return next session.

The conventional political wisdom is that Davis can’t win reelection. When Republicans redrew the Senate district lines this session, they did Davis no favors. The new map will likely be the subject of a court battle. But if the proposed lines are upheld, Davis will find herself in a Republican district.

So on Sunday night, she had little to lose. Rumors of a filibuster were already swirling when the House passed SB 1811 just after 9 p.m. (House Democrats tried to kill the bill too. They hurled a half-dozen points of order at it, but all were overruled.)

Davis was the last chance. When she rose to speak, everyone knew why. “I think I know why, but Sen. Davis, for what purpose do you rise?” asked Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

“To speak against the bill,” she said. And with that, the filibuster was on, and the course of the session drastically changed.

There is a slim chance the Senate could pass SB 1811 on Monday and avoid a special session. Lawmakers aren’t supposed to debate substantive bills on the session’s final day. But a 25-vote super-majority could suspend the rules and pass the bill. That would presumably require support from 19 Republicans and six Democrats. It wasn’t clear late Sunday if Senate leaders could muster the 25 votes needed. “I have no idea,” Dewhurst said when asked.

He was more concerned with criticizing Davis—calling the filibuster the act of a single senator that  “puts the budget in crisis,” he said.

Well, maybe. There was talk late Sunday that the comptroller could still certify that the budget balances, even without the billions in financing contained in SB 1811. If so, the Legislature could avoid opening the budget back up in a special session, and simply deal with school finance and other fiscal matters in the now-dead (or mostly dead) SB 1811.

For her part, Davis defended her actions when she met with reporters after the Senate adjourned. “The budget bills—HB 1 and all the smoke-and-mirror pieces of legislation that are needed to prop it up—fails to address the priorities that Texas families have,” she said. “I did my part, the small part I could play, in stopping a failed public policy.”

A special session may produce the very same school finance bill, and Democrats will have gained nothing but extra days or weeks in Austin. But they’re hoping that more time for debate and public scrutiny will lead to more money for public schools. As many Democrats have noted, the Legislature is proposing $4 billion cut to schools while the state maintains $6 billion left untapped in the Rainy Day Fund.

But there are risks. A special session on school finance offers Gov. Rick Perry the opportunity to bring back other controversial issues—primarily the anti-immigration bill that bans so-called sanctuary cities. Senate Democrats managed to kill the bill in the regular session. But without the protection of the Senate’s two-thirds rule in a special session, Democrats would have little chance to block a sanctuary cities bill again.

Asked about that possibility, Davis said “The governor could bring us back on any of those issues any time he chose. And I don’t think our voices on the failure to adequately fund public education and our objection to it should be silenced because we fear that other issues might be called.” 

But she admitted that some of these risks had crossed her mind before the filibuster. “Some of the questions you all have asked, I asked myself,” Davis said. “This is the tool that we had to make a stand. And it’s the tool that I used, and I’m proud to have used it on behalf of the people I represent.”

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.