Perhaps the most revealing moment in all of last year’s political campaigning arrived about halfway through September’s lieutenant governor debate between Dan Patrick and Leticia Van de Putte. One subject kept coming up: the $5.4 billion in cuts that the Legislature made to Texas’ public education system in 2011. Again and again, Van de Putte hounded Patrick about the cuts, which she said had decimated public schools and resulted in the firing of thousands of teachers.
Patrick parried Van de Putte at first. Then his tone changed abruptly: “This idea that I voted against education funding? Yup. She’s right,” he said. “Conservative Republicans decided not to raise your taxes.” Ultimately, the cuts generated a whole lot of fuss over nothing, he said. “The world didn’t end. And our education system moved forward.”
The world didn’t end. Could anyone formulate a bleaker vision for government, or a lower bar for measuring success?
Patrick’s glib remarks point to something important about what he represents: He and many of the new freshman and sophomore senators are not so much conservatives as radicals. Patrick is comfortable with abrupt change. He’s a risk-taker, and not the kind of small-C conservative who holds as his foremost goal the preservation of the status quo. Once, he was on the outside looking in. Now, he and his newly institutionalized fellow revolutionaries can take action on an ambitious agenda.
Patrick wants to overhaul the public education system by expanding the role played by charter and private schools. He wants to monkey with the state’s tax system by lowering property taxes and possibly raising sales taxes—a boldly regressive plan. And then there are his immigration policies—chief among them repealing the Texas DREAM Act, which allows undocumented graduates of Texas high schools to pay in-state tuition at state schools (a policy championed by Republicans just a decade ago).
The Senate is primed to at least consider Patrick’s agenda. Pragmatic GOP establishment types like Sens. John Carona, Robert Duncan and Tommy Williams, who once played crucial roles in the chamber’s machinery, have resigned or been beaten in primaries.
They’ve been replaced by a motley collection of fire-starters, including tea party activists Bob Hall and Konni Burton and hardcore conservatives coming up from the House such as Van Taylor and Charles Perry. Patrick allies of a slightly older vintage, including Donna Campbell and Brian Birdwell, will shoulder significantly more responsibility this session. Each brings eccentric ideas about state government and pet policy priorities. Some have no experience in elected office and will face a steep learning curve and many hungry lobbyists.
Of the six most moderate GOP senators who served during last session, only two remain. There are now more members of the radical faction of the GOP than there are Democrats in the Senate.
Oh, yes, there are the Democrats. The 11 Democrats have even less influence this session than in 2013, and not just because Wendy Davis’ seat fell to tea party darling Konni Burton. Since Patrick arrived in the Senate in 2007, he’s sought to blow up a long-standing Senate tradition—the two-thirds rule. In previous sessions, bringing a bill to the Senate floor has required 21 votes. Republicans now hold 20 of the Senate’s 31 seats, just shy of two-thirds.
If Patrick succeeds in lowering the bar from two-thirds to 60 percent or lower, he’ll have effectively decapitated the Senate Democratic caucus. Last session, his proposal was voted down 27-0. Now, it seems, the odds are more favorable. He’s also said he plans to strip some Democrats of their committee chairmanships, increasing the partisanship of a chamber that has long prided itself on comity.
The 84th Legislature’s tone and dynamics will likely follow the example set by Patrick’s behavior more so than that of House Speaker Joe Straus and Gov. Greg Abbott. Straus, who can handily fend off challenges to his speakership for the moment, is more of a reactive type. And Abbott, who doesn’t have much experience with the Legislature and lacks Rick Perry’s clout, seems unlikely to be a strong presence at first.
Surely Patrick won’t be as fiery as he was in the primary, when he gave furious beatdowns to his opponents for allegedly betraying GOP orthodoxy. He’s hired some steady old Austin hands to advise him, which has mollified some Lege-watchers. And he’s furiously raising money: On Dec. 2, for $50,000, would-be friends of the new lieutenant governor could “underwrite” a 90-minute meet-and-greet “honoring” Patrick at the Austin Club. Meanwhile, his top political consultant, Allen Blakemore, is setting up a lobbying firm. All that speaks more to business-as-usual than to dramatic change.
In a way, Patrick’s toxic reputation may work in his favor; expectations for his first session are so low that it would be difficult not to exceed them. If, by the end of the session, the Legislature has passed a budget and the state remains more or less intact—in other words, if the world doesn’t end—his supporters will hail him as the second coming of Pericles.
But the shift in Texas politics that has facilitated Patrick’s rise—and that of the many new senators in his chamber—may not be fully felt for a while. New policy proposals often have to come up in several consecutive legislative sessions before they’re adopted. Take Patrick’s apparent desire to substitute sales taxes for property taxes—it may not be adopted this go-round, but the mere fact that it’s being discussed helps bring the idea into the mainstream and makes it more likely to pass in a future session.
Meet the revolutionaries
That gets to the heart of how Patrick and the new Texas Senate are different. They’re further to the right than previous senates, true. But more to the point, Patrick is the state’s first leader to personify the political unrest that’s been underway in the state’s suburban communities. The tea party revolution that began afflicting the state a few years back came not from cities or ranching communities, but from the suburbs that have carried most of the weight of the state’s rapid population growth. It’s here that hatred of government rises highest.
As a senator, Patrick represented suburbs west of Houston, as does his like-minded successor, Paul Bettencourt. Many of the most conservative members of the new Legislature, from Fort Worth’s Burton to Bob Hall, who hails from the region east of Dallas, represent sprawl.
Legislators from suburbia are distinct from big-city Democrats, who often represent minority communities, and rural Republicans, many of whom share ideological precepts with their conservative Democratic forebears. Big cities and the countryside both have specific and urgent infrastructure needs: schools, roads and utilities.
But the straining, inchoate populism of the ’burbs is in no mood for a conversation about reinvestment in such things. Instead, it seethes with rage about immigrants, the imposition of minorities and the poor on “the taxpayers,” and the oppressive hand of government.
Dan Patrick’s true novelty isn’t that he is likely to be the state’s furthest-right lieutenant governor in the modern era, or the most prominent member of the Christian right to hold that position, though he will be both. The most consequential thing about Patrick is that he is set to be a suburban lieutenant governor.
That points to a potential fault line this session: For months, Houston Democrat John Whitmire and his colleagues have been waging a campaign to save the two-thirds rule by appealing to rural Republicans. If there’s a financial squeeze, Whitmire says, rural senators will need the rule’s leverage to keep money coming to their home districts.
New state Sen. Charles Perry, a stalwart conservative from Lubbock, told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal he more or less agrees with Whitmire’s line of thinking. Will that be enough to save Senate tradition? That remains to be seen, but it could foreshadow future disputes over the distribution of resources. This year or next, Patrick will have to patch together the state’s broken school-finance system, which always stokes regional resentments.
Texas has long failed to make adequate investments in education, social services and transportation. The Senate is now controlled by people particularly unlikely to fix that. There could be fireworks this session over social issues, but it’s the budget that’s the state’s biggest long-term worry.
That ties in to another concern: the precipitous and sudden decline of oil prices in November and December. If it becomes a long-term trend, it could hurt the state’s economy badly, as could a collapse in Texas’ real estate prices. It’s a reminder that the state could wake up one day and discover that the foundation of the “Texas miracle” was a lot less solid than it seemed. If that happens, we’re going to wonder what we did with the fruits of all those years of growth. But in the meantime, the world hasn’t ended. Yet. So, on with the revolution.