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Legislature already back at work on redistricting

Posted Tuesday, May. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Less than an hour after closing the books on a 140-day regular session that produced accords on water, public schools and state spending, lawmakers were back at work on orders from Gov. Rick Perry on Monday night to take up the always volatile issue of redistricting.

“We can all be proud of the responsible steps made this session to invest in our citizens, fund water infrastructure and build an even stronger foundation for the future of our economy and Texas families,” Perry said in calling the special session. “However, there is still work to be done on behalf of the citizens of Texas.”

Although lawmakers had braced for the prospect of a special session, the governor’s speed in calling legislative overtime surprised many.

“That’s the shortest interim I’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Perry put one item in his “call” setting the agenda for the special session — redistricting — but he could broaden the agenda to other topics.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Republican conservatives in the Legislature have already presented Perry with a special session wish list that includes hot button issues such as abortion restrictions, gun rights and school vouchers.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, also asked Perry to allow consideration of her failed welfare drug-testing bill that was blocked by House Democrats before it came to a vote.

Perry’s redistricting request calls for legislation that adopts the interim redistricting plans federal judges put in place last year after ruling that GOP-legislative drawn maps could not be used. The interim maps were used in 2012 elections and the proposed legislation would make the districts permanent.

Attorney General Greg Abbott had asked for the special session to adopt the interim maps to strengthen his legal position. A federal court in San Antonio has scheduled a hearing Wednesday on the Texas redistricting case.

Redistricting is historically one of the Legislature’s most confrontational issues and could threaten deep partisan divisions after a regular session that legislative leaders and rank-and-file members described as relatively tame.

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, S-San Antonio, who was named vice chairman of the Senate redistricting committee for the special session, signaled his intention not to “merely rubber-stamp the interim maps for Congress and the Texas House.”

“Neither the districts drawn in regular session two years ago or the court-ordered plan fully reflect the explosive growth in the Hispanic population over the last 12 years,” he said.

Map fight returns

Perry’s decision to include redistricting also drew a sharp response from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who waged a successful legal challenge to defend her senatorial district against the 2011 redistricting plan that would have made it heavily Republican.

“Once again, we find ourselves with redistricting, moving outside the normal procedures that we function under here in order to accomplish a map that minority communities in the state continue to have concerns about,” she said.

Davis said there are “lingering concerns” that the interim House and Congressional maps “do not yet provide the kind of constitutional relief required for proper representation of the minority community.”

Nelson, whose district also includes part of Tarrant County, said she welcomed the opportunity to address unfinished business from the regular session.

“The people of Texas want us to deal with the legislative maps to avoid another confusing election season,” she said.

Past estimates have shown that a 30-day special session could cost the state around $1 million, paying the 150 House members and 31 Senate members each $150 a day, as well as a small travel allowance.

But many lawmakers said they expected the special session to last far less than than 30 days, potentially being wrapped up before the end of the week.

Perry’s announcement nevertheless dashed lawmakers’ hopes for a quick return home after they spent most of the past of the five months in Austin dealing with thousands of bills.

With all the heavy lifting completed over the weekend, including passage of major budget bills and a far-reaching overhaul of the public school curriculum, weary lawmakers settled into a casual, anti-climatic final day devoted primarily to ceremony and legislative minutiae.

But members of both chambers — as well as lobbyists, staff members and everyone else tied to the Legislature — held back on final goodbyes as chatter spread throughout the Capitol that Perry was moving close to calling a special session, possibly before the end of the day. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said Perry’s staff told her during a bill signing not to go far from Austin.

As the House neared adjournment just after 5 p.m., Speaker Joe Straus told members: “I have a feeling we may be serving for a few more days here shortly.”

Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, removed any doubt as senators closed the books on the session less than 10 minutes later, telling senators at 5:15 p.m. that the governor had called a special session to begin at 6 p.m.

“I think it was somewhat anticipated,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills. “But I think it will be a quick process.”

As they looked toward up to 30 more days of legislative activity, lawmakers, advocacy groups and analysts also offered their analysis on the 140-day regular session.

Common ground

Straus, a San Antonio Republican in his third term as speaker, commended lawmakers for advances in meeting the state’s long-range water needs, reforming the public school curriculum, and addressing the “core responsibilities of government.”

“You reached across the aisle and you found common ground,” he told lawmakers.

Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding office, praised passage of a measure that lowers the state’s major business tax, a move that he said would benefit more than 800,000 Texas businesses. The reduction was part of Perry’s priority request for up to $1.8 million in tax relief.

But others criticized the Legislature’s end result. Phillip Martin, political director of Progress Texas, a pro-Democratic group, called it a “celebration of mediocrity.”

A barrage of conflicting assessments centered on the $197 billion two-year budget. Legislative leaders and key budget writers hailed it as a responsible document that realistically addresses state needs, includes pay raises for state employees and restores much of the education spending that was cut two years ago.

Conservatives both in and out of the government complained that it spends far too much, while groups representing middle and low-income Texans said it spent too little.

Eva DeLuna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans, said in a briefing Monday that the $95 billion in spending from state revenue falls short of the $108 billion that she said was needed to fully restore services from cuts made by the last two legislative sessions.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin bureau chief, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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