AUSTIN--Flush with a smashing Election Day victory, Texas
Republicans now hope to advance a legislative agenda they say has
been blocked by decades of Democratic dominance.
Even though they have held the governor's office for eight
years, controlled the Texas Senate for six of those and have
carried every statewide office for the past four years, the
Republicans' power has always been checked by a Democratic majority
in the Texas House and by its Democratic speaker.
The elections broke the Democrats' control of the House and
Democrat Pete Laney's 10-year reign as speaker.
The Republicans' consolidation of power comes as Texas faces a
looming budget shortfall and with voters demanding relief from the
spiraling cost and declining coverage of homeowners insurance
But even with their unchallenged authority over all branches and
all agencies of state government, the extent of the mandate handed
to the Republicans remains unclear.
"The only clear mandate that came out of the election was to fix
homeowners insurance and maybe say no to a tax hike," said Harvey
Kronberg, who publishes the Austin political newsletter Quorum
Report. "The Republicans are not going to want to write a tax bill
their first session when they are completely in charge."
The Republican victors, led by Gov. Rick Perry and Lt.
Gov.-elect David Dewhurst, agree that homeowners insurance will be
on the front burner Jan. 14 when lawmakers assemble for the 78th
But they adamantly insist that voters gave them clear
instructions to wage a frontal assault on the challenges they say
will face Texas in 2003.
"We will address the state budget with a tighter belt, through
budgetary reform, and with an eye toward smarter spending," Perry
said in his first post-election news conference. "With a $114
billion budget, we have the resources to keep our fiscal house in
order. We must now show the courage to set priorities.
"We will address the lawsuit abuse that jeopardizes jobs and
that drives up the cost of health care while good men and women
leave the medical profession," said Perry, who won in his own right
the job he assumed when George W. Bush became president. "And
central to providing economic security for the people of Texas is
rate relief for Texans who have been overcharged for their
homeowners insurance policies."
With Texas facing a budget shortfall of $5 billion to $12
billion during the two-year cycle that begins in September,
business interests and conservative organizations hailed Perry's
pledge to hold the line on state spending and new taxes.
That pledge was echoed by Dewhurst and state Rep. Tom Craddick
of Midland, who will be Texas' first Republican House speaker in
more than a century.
"Thank God for Tom Craddick for saying new taxes are off the
table and everything else is on the table," said Peggy Venable,
director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. "Our members want
smaller government; they want government to do less, not more. And
I think that's what the voters want, too. I think that's what they
were saying on Tuesday."
But some from the other side of the political spectrum warned
the winners not to read too much into the election returns.
Samantha Smoot, who heads the Texas Freedom Network, said voters
embraced the GOP because the candidates preached from a moderate
platform. The party's statewide candidates were careful to steer
clear of issues such as limiting reproductive choice and offering
tax-dollar vouchers to send children to private schools, Smoot
The Republicans would be wise not to raise them during the
upcoming legislative session, she said.
"These candidates went out of their way to avoid talking about
issues like school vouchers and other pet causes of the far right
wing," Smoot said. "If they now go and try to pretend that there
was some sort of mandate to put those issues forward, I think that
would be very deceptive."
Perry said lawmakers have no reason to shy away from a "limited"
voucher bill, saying the Republicans' support for such a measure is
well documented. Dewhurst, who also supports vouchers, said it was
doubtful that time will be available in the 140-day session to get
Surviving Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are assessing the
shelling that their party endured on Election Day and will probably
be on the defensive.
"There are very few silver linings on our side," said state Sen.
Mario Gallegos, D-Houston. "We took a pretty big hit, and there's
no way to sugar-coat it."
Having spent the past six years on the minority in the Senate,
Gallegos and other Democrats have grown adept at using rules and
parliamentary procedures to protect their turf. A key Senate rule
-- one that requires the agreement of 21 of the 31 senators for a
floor debate on any bill -- has traditionally kept that chamber in
the political center.
However, with Republicans now holding 19 Senate seats, a push to
change the rules and allow bills to come to the floor with a simple
majority vote is possible.
"It's still real early in the process to know whether anyone is
going to want to change the rules," Gallegos said. "I still haven't
met a lot of the new senators yet. I plan to sit down with the
lieutenant governor-elect [who presides over the Senate]. And I
guess the Democratic caucus will want to meet to see what our
agenda is going to be."
Most observers said that solving the budget will consume much of
the session. Some also said that the first programs targeted for
cuts would be those benefiting low-income Texans because several of
the lawmakers who championed such initiatives will be leaving.
Gone are state Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, chairman of the
Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and state Rep. Patricia
Gray, D-Galveston, the House Public Health Committee chairwoman.
Both declined to seek re-election because their districts were
redrawn with less friendly constituencies.
"Some of the health programs could be in jeopardy," said
Kronberg, the Quorum Report publisher. "You might see some rollback
[in the Children's Health Insurance Program] and cuts in the
discretionary Medicaid funding."
F. Scott McCown, who heads the Center for Public Policy
Priorities, said there will be a fight over those cuts.
"It will be our mission to protect the Children's Health
Insurance Program, Medicaid and Child Protective Services," McCown
Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, a Republican who chalked up
the largest majority of any statewide candidate, said the
left-leaning organization will have her as an ally in that cause.
"I am identifying ways we can deliver health care to our
uninsured and underinsured more efficiently and with less money so
that no child should have to do without," said Rylander, the
state's top budget officer.
Consultant Chuck McDonald, who was press secretary under
Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and now represents several business
organizations, predicted that the Republicans will use their
newfound clout in Austin wisely.
"I think the Texas Republicans will continue the tradition of
bipartisanship in the Legislature," McDonald said. "People who are
expecting a real one-sided agenda are going to be disappointed. I
think the Republicans are capable of governing."
Key legislative issues
* Homeowners insurance -- Observers and players agree that
voters expect action to reduce spiraling homeowners insurance
rates. Gov. Rick Perry has designated the issue a legislative
emergency, meaning that it will be tackled early and that a bill
could go into law immediately after the governor signs it.
Key players: State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, who has called
for a special session on homeowners insurance, and state Sen. Troy
Fraser, R-Marble Falls, who led a legislative committee that spent
the past year studying the issue.
* Budget shortfall -- The state budget is shaping up as an issue
that could dominate the agenda. The official estimate is that
lawmakers will face a $5 billion shortfall for 2004-05; some say it
could reach $12 billion.
Key players: Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, who is charged
with making the official revenue estimate and who must certify the
budget before it can take effect; and the chairmen of the House
Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, who have
not yet been named.
* Social programs -- Health and human-service programs are
called "budget drivers" because they eat up a giant share of the
state's revenue. Pressure will be tremendous to contain these costs
and not to slash social services.