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Monday, February 28, 2011

Redistricting

The census numbers are in and the blood sport of politics has begun: Redistricting. There is no more personal or partisan issue that the legislature considers. An elected official's most visceral drive is generally to be reelected. To be reelected, he/she needs a district they can run in and win. Redistricting is a zero sum game. There are winners and there are losers; there is no win-win.


With that cheery backdrop, let's drill down into the redistricting process for Texas Senate and House seats. Customarily, the Senate will draw its own map for the Senate, the House will approve whatever Senate map is passed over to it, and vice versa. If the legislature fails to pass a redistricting plan in the Regular Session (by May 30), then the legislature loses jurisdiction and redistricting will be done by the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB). The LRB consists of 5 Republican elected officials: Lt. Gov. Dewhurst; Speaker Straus; Attorney General Abbott; Comptroller Combs; and Land Commissioner Patterson.


I believe that the Senate will be able to pass a Senate redistricting plan. The Republicans intend to draw a 20R - 11D map with Sen. Wendy Davis' seat becoming more Republican. Sen. Huffman's seat will be shored up. The Republican leadership will need to find 2 Democrats to vote to suspend the rules to bring up the map for Senate debate. Finding the votes to suspend appears achievable, given that if a map does not pass the all-Republican LRB will then draw it.


The real question is can the House pass a redistricting plan. In my judgment, the House has a far greater challenge than the Senate. There are currently 101 House Republicans. I believe that you can only draw 86 to 88 Republican seats if you want those seats to remain Republican for 10 years. If you draw too many Republican seats, the Republican majorities will be too thin and the Democrats will flip the seats in succeeding elections given the changing demographics in the state.


Let's say I am right and you can only draw 86 - 88 Republican seats. That means the Democrats will pick up 13 - 15 seats in the 2012 election; and you could have to pair up to 26 to 30 Republican members. Pairings will probably be less because of retirements: e.g. Rep. Warren Chisum has already indicated that he is running for the Railroad Commission.

It will be very difficult for the House Republican majority to pass a map for two reasons. One, they will have to pair numerous Republicans. Secondly, they will have to go back to their primary voters and say we had a 101 seats, and I just voted for a map that will give us 86 to 88.

Finally, we have history as a guide. In 1971, 1981, 1991, and 2001, a legislative plan did not pass in regular session and the LRB drew the seats. The odds are that it will end up at the LRB again this year.

*Note: This post does not address Department of Justice review or litigation that will be filed regarding any redistricting plan, but rather only examines what may happen in the 82nd Regular Session.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2012: Another Wave Election?

We have had three successive wave elections in the U.S.: 2006 when the Democrats captured control of Congress; 2008 when President Obama was elected and the Democrats swept Harris County; and 2010 when the Republicans recaptured the U.S. House and picked up 24 seats in the Texas House. Simplistically, a major factor in these wave elections is independents (the largest voting bloc in this country) swinging between voting for Democrats (2006 and 2008) and voting for Republicans (2010).

Combine this independent pendulum swing with what I consider to be the fundamental public policy maxim in this country today: Voters want services; voters do not want to pay for services. In 2010, the voter message was loud and clear -- do not raise my taxes and cut the size of government. But a recent UT/Texas Tribune poll asked voters what services they specifically wanted to cut, and the answer was essentially none of the above. According to pollster Daron Shaw, voters "really want to slash the budget, but not anything in it."

2010 was the election when voters stated they did not want to pay for services. I forsee 2012 as the election when voters state they want services. If I am correct, it could be yet another wave election -- but this time Republicans will be swept out to sea.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Committees

House Agriculture & Livestock is a very important committee for rural Texas. Speakers also use it as a rural penalty box for urban members who they want to put in "time out." I first observed this in 2003 when Rep. Lon Burnam was the only member to vote against Speaker Tom Craddick, and on to Agriculture & Livestock he went. In the penalty box this year: Rep. Charlie Howard (R - Sugar Land) UPDATE: I previously listed Rep. Boris Miles in the penalty box. That was incorrect: Rep. Miles requested appointment to Agriculture & Livestock.

House Urban Affairs is an important committee for urban Texas. However, it is often referred to as the "Houston" Affairs Committee because of the many intramural City of Houston fights it is asked to referee. For a rural or suburban member, it can be tedious work -- and an urban penalty box. Only 15 of the 150 members of the Texas House (10%) voted against the election of Speaker Straus. Four of the 9 members (44%) of Urban Affairs votes against the Speaker. Into the urban penalty box: Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford); Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound); Rep. Ken Paxton (R-McKinney); and Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview).

A tale of two committees.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Session Rhythm

The 82nd Regular Session is 20% complete. To a large extent, the Governor has outlined the agenda for the first 60 days of the session by declaring the following emergency issues: voter ID; eminent domain; sonograms prior to an abortion; sanctuary cities; and legislation to provide for a balanced budget amendment to the U. S. Constitution. The first 3 of these issues are already moving through the Senate.

Some have criticized these issues as not being emergencies. Unquestionably, however, they are extremely popular with Republican base voters. From the perspective of many in the Republican leadership, passing these bills along with a balanced budget will constitute a successful session.

I see each of these emergency issues passing in the first 60 - 90 days of the session. I also see other legislation passing in the next 60 days. However, beginning in late March and early April, the legislative process will become extremely random and unpredictable.

Why? The census numbers for redistricting are due April 1. Redistricting is the most personal issue that any legislature can address. You can already feel the tension building. Secondly, the House will also bring the budget to the floor late March or the first week of April. It will contain the major cuts that are currently being debated, and decried by many. As one member figuratively stated: "There is a lot of fuel on the ground. This place is liable to go up in flames."

The current rhythm of the session is that emergency items will pass in the first 60 - 90 days of the session; there will a productive period for other legislation through March; and then all bets are off once the budget and redistricting take center stage.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

House Committees

Speaker Straus stated yesterday that House committee assignments will not be released until next week. Committee appointments are customarily announced on the last legislative day of the week, and the Speaker is then generally unavailable until the next Monday. This gives members time to digest the appointments and, in many cases, cool down.

I expect the House leadership to again follow this procedure next week. In contrast to the Senate committee appointments, I forsee major changes in the composition of the House committees and in individual member assisgnments. Leadership will definitely want the weekend to allow members to settle down.

However, in order to allow the House to begin catching up with the Senate, I believe that it is possible that the House will adjourn on Wednesday next week. Committee assignments would be released; bills, including voter ID, would be immediately referred; and House committees would suspend the posting rules and begin meeting as early as Thursday. Appropriations has already announced that it will begin hearings on Thursday.

The voter ID bill is a top priority of House leadership, and I expect hearings on the bill to begin the week of February 14. However, in order to meet the legal requirements of the Voting Rights Act, it is important that the House move the legislation through the normal process, allowing ample public input, and not to unnecessarily rush it through.