Democrats will have a little more leverage in Dan Patrick’s far-right Senate on issues like property taxes and public school funding.
When the Texas Senate convenes in January, Democrats will have one more senator in their ranks.
But the reality is that Republicans and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick are still firmly in control of a chamber that has been pushed far to the right in recent years. Even with newcomers Beverly Powell and Nathan Johnson beating out GOP incumbents Konni Burton and Don Huffines in the midterm elections, Democrats only increased their numbers from 11 to 12 in the 31-seat Senate. That’s because Democrats flubbed a special election in September to replace convicted felon and longtime San Antonio Senator Carlos Uresti. Republican Pete Flores beat former Congressman Pete Gallego in the district that Democrats held for 139 years.
Under Texas Senate rules passed by Patrick in 2015, any legislation must have the approval of three-fifths of the lawmakers to be brought to the floor. With 19 Republicans in the upper chamber, the GOP has just enough of a majority to control legislation next session.
On the other hand, Democrats — if they vote as a bloc — now only need one Republican ally to block legislation. Harold Cook, a longtime Democratic strategist in Austin, said the new makeup means there is a much higher probability that the Senate will return to its bipartisan roots, including more cooperation from the lieutenant governor.
“[Patrick’s] got more than one trick up his sleeve that he didn’t have to utilize in past sessions because he could simply mow over the Democrats whenever he wanted to,” Cook said. “But he’s perfectly capable of negotiating with Democrats, and he’s been successful at it before.”
Johnson, an attorney who beat Huffines by 8 percentage points in North Dallas’ SD-16, said the situation could help foster a more bipartisan Senate, rather than the one-sided shellacking Republicans carried out in 2017.
“The moment we walk in the door, it’s already going to be a more cooperative atmosphere,” Johnson said. “We’re [not] going to have anywhere near the kind of contentious environment that characterized the last legislative session.”
Powell, a former Burleson ISD school board member who beat tea partier Burton by 3 points in SD-10, a Fort Worth swing seat formerly occupied by Wendy Davis, says she’s prioritizing pocketbook issues.
“I think people are really exhausted with the hyper-partisanship that they see at both the state and national level and are ready for us to be focused on the real issues that impact our lives every day,” said Powell.
Johnson and Powell say they hope to work with Republicans on addressing the tangled knot of rising property taxes and inadequate public school funding. Last year, both were a priority for state leadership, but differing approaches by the House and Senate resulted in a stalemate.
The two Democratic senators-elect have called for more school funding from the state to mitigate the increasing burden on local property taxpayers. But one of Dan Patrick’s signature policies — school vouchers — could make public education-focused reforms difficult. Johnson and Powell said they want to prioritize public money for public schools.
“I don’t think that particular issue helped Republicans seeking re-election, and while a lot of them may genuinely believe it’s a good idea, they might not have the same enthusiasm for that idea in the next session,” Johnson said of vouchers, a rare issue many Democrats and rural Republicans can agree on.
Democrats are likely to look to Senator Kel Seliger, a three-term Republican from the Panhandle, as a potential ally on property taxes, school funding and other subjects that aren’t culture war touchstones. Seliger is considered the last remaining old-school, moderate-ish Republican in the Senate. He has repeatedly butted heads with Patrick, who Seliger pointedly refused to endorse for re-election.
“Now that the supermajority turns on one single vote, it gives power to any member of the Republican majority to split from an idea that might be inconsistent with the interest of the state,” Johnson said.
But Democrats are likely to once again sorely feel their minority status on issues important to far-right Republican primary voters, such as gun rights, LGBT rights and women’s health. Last session, Patrick vigorously pushed his anti-transgender bathroom bill, which ultimately failed but caused a massive divide between lawmakers at the Capitol.
“I hope we don’t see them again,” Johnson said of anti-LGBT bills. “I think they have no place, I think they’re counterproductive economically, I think they’re damaging socially and they have no place in a state that prides itself on limited government.”
Johnson, a former composer for the Dragon Ball Z anime show, suggested lawmakers take a lesson from the Japanese TV series.
“If you follow seasons of the show, you will see people who once may have been opposed finding themselves needing to be aligned and doing great things together, and I think that’s a pretty good model for legislators,” he said.