As the 83rd regular session of the Texas Legislature gaveled to a close Monday, the celebrations, congratulations and constituent-pleasing resolutions were all leavened with the acceptance that members will be meeting again in special session.
Gov. Rick Perry, who controls the timing and agenda of a special session, issued the special session hours after the regular session adjourned. The special session had been the topic of Capitol speculation for weeks.
The regular session ended on a relatively high note. That high note will be a fond memory in days. Redistricting is simply another way of saying partisan brawl.
Though regular sessions seldom please everyone, there were a couple of examples of bipartisanship of which legislators can take pride.
The passage of the Michael Morton Act is one example. Named for the Williamson County man who spent 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, the act sets new standards for disclosure of evidence favorable to the accused in criminal cases.
Morton was tried and convicted in the murder of his wife, Christine.
Evidence that pointed to Morton’s innocence was kept from his defense team. As a result, Ken Anderson, who was Williamson County district attorney, has been accused by a special court of felony prosecutorial misconduct. While Morton was serving his sentence for a crime he did not commit, Anderson was elected to the state district court bench, where he remains while the misconduct and contempt charges he faces are pending.
Legislators also united behind badly needed reform efforts of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas — known commonly by its acronym, CPRIT. As its name implies, the agency was created with the highest and noblest of purposes but soon became mired in scandal.
At the beginning of the session, the agency’s future looked glum, but a determined effort by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, saved it by overhauling oversight. The reform measures now await the governor’s signature.
Democrats and Republicans also found common ground in a showdown over how higher education is to be governed. House and Senate members approved strict limits on the behavior of university and college regents — a reaction to University of Texas regents who critics say have crossed the line from oversight to micromanagement. Perry has had little public reaction to the move, but the fate of the legislation now rests with him.
A little less harmonious were final approvals of both the state’s two-year budget and the creation of a $2 billion fund for water development projects. Some legislators balked at using money from the rainy day fund to restore cuts made to public education in 2011, and others balked at using rainy day money to establish the fund. Compromises were reached on both issues, but there was an uncomfortable stretch when education and water were cast as either-or issues.
If Texas is to sustain its economic edge, legislators and policymakers will have to embrace both a healthy education system and a healthy and dependable water supply.
The required voter approval of the $2 billion water fund will not be the solution to all the state’s water problems. The state’s water politics are complicated by regional concerns and conflicting claims of ownership and management of the current and future supplies.
But the water legislation starts a discussion of Texas’ water future.
The same holds true for education. A well-prepared, well-educated workforce is vital to the continued creation and expansion of business opportunities. An unreliable supply of either good workers or good water will hobble Texas in the race for economic development.
The trouble both the water and education legislation encountered at the end of the session was not unexpected. Texans should expect this debate to continue to intensify as the state grows.
What was unexpected was the level of bipartisanship this session. Harmonic convergence isn’t expected in a session, but legislators demonstrated enough of a willingness to work across party lines to advance the state’s interests. They may have faltered on reforming ethics legislation, but the CPRIT and Morton legislation did require Democrats and Republicans to approach and resolve problems.
A special session to redraw congressional and legislative districts will give rise to partisan passions. There is no more partisan activity than redistricting, after all.
Was it a conscious decision to sidestep the volatile redistricting issue and to keep divisive social issues from advancing?
The answer is of little consequence now, but without those distractions, legislators assembled for the 83rd regular session were able to address serious issues in a serious way. It wasn’t perfect or even pretty, but Texas legislators showed Congress that compromise doesn’t result in anyone falling into the smokiest depths of hell. Disagreements in a democracy are normal, healthy and expected but can be resolved as long as those who disagree want resolution and not endless argument.