Welcome to the funhouse 

State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) talks about the Texas Legislature much the way you would a carnival funhouse — filled with smoke, mirrors, and deliberate distortion.

The 82nd Lege will always be remembered for what lawmakers slashed: billions of dollars chopped from public education, higher education, and women's health care. But some GOP lawmakers tried to distance themselves from those painful cuts even as they dealt them. House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Myra Crownover (R-Denton) wrote to supporters early this year, claiming the Lege actually "increase[d] state spending on Education by $1.6 Billion even in the face of the worst recession in decades" — a rosy conclusion drawn only by cherry-picking a single slice of the public education system, and an assertion PolitiFact later deemed a "pants on fire" lie.

On a recent morning over coffee, Villarreal spoke of his frustration during an interim House Appropriations Committee hearing held last February. Video of the hearing shows Villarreal verbally pinning down officials with the Legislative Budget Board, forcing them to quantify the damage done with certainty (Yes, the Lege cut a whopping $5.4 billion out of education.) Only if you live in a "fictional world" did spending for education in Texas increase, Villarreal told colleagues. Look to our larger class sizes, scaled-back pre-K programs, and laid-off teachers for more evidence.

Expect more tricks, denial, and funny mirrors when lawmakers go back this week. Among the troubling metrics that should be nagging at our elected officials when they start the 83rd session Tuesday, Jan. 8: one in five Texans live in poverty; one in four has no regular access to health care; one in five children in the state live with hunger. (For more, see "Texas on the Brink.") Instead, what's bound to dominate the discussion are legislative priorities emerging from Gov. Rick Perry's corner: drug testing welfare recipients, more restrictions on abortion, cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities.

Many worry the Senate will no longer be the more deliberative, cautious body that helps quell caustic fights brewing in the House. The partisan make-up of the Senate will largely stay the same as last session, but most of the outgoing senators were replaced by successors that lean even further to the right, like Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Tea Partier who bumped Jeff Wentworth from his seat.

Others, like former Senate Finance Committee chair Steve Ogden, chose not to come back — Ogden, while still conservative, wasn't a radical, and tried as much (as his party would let him) to temper the deep cuts to education last session.

"The Senate took a hard right," said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio). "Well-meaning conservative Republicans said, 'I'm out of here.' And for the most part, the people that replaced them are even more conservative."

When the Current spoke to Van de Putte this week (fresh off a foot surgery after a spill in Washington D.C. last month), she was grappling with whether she should approach the Lege as usual.

"What I did last session, really the last couple of sessions … every single bill that came through a committee, I mitigated, I tried to find a way so that people I represent don't get hurt as much," she said.

"And now I'm questioning, 'Why do I keep doing that?' Maybe I should just let [the GOP], like a drunk, just totally hit bottom, just do all these nasty, bad, terrible things for Texas families, and maybe people will start electing better representatives and our turnaround will be quicker."

She sighed. "It's just something I've been wondering."

In the forthcoming sections, we preview the fights anticipated for this upcoming session and the stakes. By all accounts, the 83rd looks to be as bumpy as the 82nd. Welcome to the funhouse. Enjoy the show, if you can.

Punting on public ed

Pending lawsuits, pitting school districts against the state over how Texas finances education may give lawmakers an out when it comes to really tackling school finance this session, says Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

"Every time you ask someone about what they'll do about the school finance stuff, immediately you hear all these timelines about the state court hearings, then State Supreme Court." It's likely lawmakers won't seriously talk school funding until a special session, possibly even punting serious work on the issue until 2015, DeLuna Castro worries.

"There's no sense of urgency on this, the single most important thing in the state budget," she said. With state revenue forecasts turning out to be better than expected, DeLuna Castro says lawmakers could reasonably, in the short-term, start to undo the $5.4 billion in education cuts and ease the burden on districts.

"If they had the money to do something better for schools, which we think they will, but they just don't want to until they're told what to do by the courts, that's a serious missed opportunity," she said. "Maybe by restoring funding for schools, some of those lawsuits would be moot."

Rep. Villarreal, for his part, plans to champion the money matters argument on the education front this session. As part of his ongoing research toward a PhD in public policy at the University of Texas, Villarreal has been crunching data from Texas public high schools from over the past decade, looking at what makes school accountability ratings fluctuate.

"In the end, the most powerful policy lever you control is money," he said. Villarreal's research shows that if you give a district $200 more per pupil, the odds multiply by five that a district will jump to a higher accountability rating. The argument's particularly poignant when you consider the cuts last session left schools with an average $500 less per student.

Meanwhile, new Senate Education Committee chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, an aggressive advocate for school vouchers, last month outlined an education package that's a dream for conservative school reform pushers, and bound to define the fight over how we educate in Texas. While the details are still emerging, the plan includes a business tax scholarship that would let companies divert part of what they pay in taxes to a nonprofit that distributes needs-based scholarships to private schools. While it seems public schools could, technically, market themselves to get in on the action, opponents worry the program essentially pushes vouchers by another name, drawing public money into private schools.

Patrick still says some full-blown voucher proposal could end up in a forthcoming bill or proposal.

Budget Blues

While recession and the Tea Party revolution dealt us an austerity bomb last session, there's some reason to look at 2013 with tempered optimism, says DeLuna Castro with CPPP. State revenue forecasts are likely to surpass early projections by as much as $8 billion for the current biennium.

"If you assume they would be willing to spend the Rainy Day Fund … there just might be enough to undo most of the cuts we saw last session," she says. "But then they'd have to understand that in 2015, to keep everything going, you'll have to talk about new sources of tax revenue … And it seems like anything that postpones that day of reckoning, that's probably the route they'll take."

Apart from education, DeLuna says there are critical problems that need to be addressed and can't forever be put off. The state's transportation financing system is wholly inadequate for the state's needs, and advocates say continuing to shortchange road funding will lead to more congestion and expensive fixes later on.

Lawmakers got a serious wakeup-call this year when the Texas Water Development Board dropped a series of sobering figures in its 2012 State Water Plan. Failing to meet water supply needs could cost the state as much as $11.9 billion in lost income annually if current drought conditions persist. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, in a break from Gov. Rick Perry, has suggested drawing $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to help local governments develop reservoirs, desalination plants, and other projects recommended by the TWDB.

Rep. Villarreal tried last session to pinpoint where, exactly, lawmakers could scrub to find more revenue in lieu of shortchanging education and safety-net services. He broke out data on inefficiencies, flagrant corporate giveaways, and loopholes in the state tax code costing the state billions. This session, he's proposing the Lege create a citizen panel to review tax code, much like a Sunset review for tax wonks.

"This is a study bill, this is suggesting we regularly study every piece of the tax code to make sure it's up to date," he said. "This is about government transparency, this is about government effectiveness.

I'm not saying you have to cut this or cut that. I'm just saying set up a citizens' panel that will review the tax code and offer recommendations."

Villarreal's not yet laying out any specific loopholes or giveaways he'd like to target, as he did last session. "Look, I tried that approach, and I slammed in the wall hard. It didn't go anywhere."

A likely second route for state budget planners will be to consider current basement-level funding for essential state services, like public education, the "new normal," and the baseline for budget discussions from here on out. Gov. Perry and the Legislative Budget Board this summer already sent state agencies a draconian memo telling them to prepare two budgets — one based on numbers from the current biennium, and another with a 10 percent cut in general revenue. Meanwhile constitutional amendments filed by Sen. Patrick (SJR 10) and Rep. Bill Callegari (HJR 23), both endorsed by Perry, would tie future appropriations to our current, pared-down budget, writing recession-based austerity directly into the state's constitution.

Anti-abortion

Gov. Rick Perry announced his unwavering support for a bill that would outlaw abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Appearing alongside staunch pro-life supporters like state Sen.-elect Donna Campbell at the Source for Women, a crisis pregnancy center in Houston, Perry lauded conservative leaders for making major steps in ensuring women seeking abortion make "the most informed, responsible" decision possible — like a probing, trans-vaginal ultrasound for any woman seeking abortion, which passed last session. But with "80,000 lives lost to abortion each year in our state, we know our work is far from over," Perry said, calling on the Lege to "strengthen our ban on the procedure, prohibiting abortion at the point a baby can feel the pain of being killed."

While right-to-lifers claim the fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks of gestation, that's anything but settled science. The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005 consolidated and reviewed evidence surrounding fetal pain, and found that while a fetus may exhibit base reflexes after 20 weeks, nerves aren't developed enough to actually register pain until well into the third-trimester.

Similar laws in other states have sparked lawsuits. Arizona criminalizes abortions after 20 weeks except for "immediate" emergency situations. Critics say that law forces doctors caring for women in high-risk pregnancies to wait until the situation has become dangerous before considering an abortion. The ACLU of Arizona sued on behalf of a doctor arguing the measure hampers his ability to care for patients. While a state court upheld the law this summer, parties are now waiting on a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a brief supporting the ACLU's suit, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the ban on abortions after 20 weeks won't protect maternal health, but will rather "jeopardize women's health by severely curtailing physician's ability to treat patients who face serious health conditions later in pregnancy and will force women to carry pregnancies to term when their fetuses suffer from serious impairments."

NARAL Pro-Choice Texas points out that abortions after 20 weeks are already extremely rare, comprising just 420 out of the 77,592 abortions performed in Texas in 2010. Such abortions are almost always the result of a serious medical situation, said director Heather Busby in a prepared statement.

"It is especially outrageous to take options away from women who could be in tragic situations."

Perry said his "goal and the goal of many of those joining me here today is to make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past." While Roe v Wade prevents that, Perry insists states can curtail abortion if they can demonstrate a compelling state interest in doing so. "I don't think there is any issue that better fits the definition of a 'compelling state interest' than preventing the suffering of our state's unborn," he said.

Drug testing welfare recipients

In late November, Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst begansounding off approval for SB 11, a pre-filed legislation by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), that would mandate drug testing for families receiving public assistance through TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), along with plans by Senate Finance Committee Chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) that would require drug testing for those applying for unemployment insurance. Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) has filed his own bill, requiring drug testing for anyone applying for state "financial assistance benefits," except for those applying solely on behalf of a child. The Houston Chronicle recently pointed out that TANF recipients number about 114,000 people, just .4 percent of Texans, and that 85 percent of those recipients are children.

The State of Florida provides a case study for how this fight could play out should the Lege approve drug testing for welfare recipients. There, lawmakers discovered that welfare applicants actually have significantly lower incidence of illicit drug use than the general public (no surprise, since drugs cost money). Moreover, the tests cost more than the benefits withheld under the program, nullifying the argument the testing would save the state money. Florida's program was ultimately suspended pending lawsuits questioning its constitutionality under the Fourth Amendment.

Immigration

"People say that Texas Republicans have learned not to mess with minorities," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. "They certainly haven't."

But compared to the flood of anti-immigrant bills that hit the Lege last session (GOP state Rep. Debbie "Terror Babies" Riddle camped out on the Capitol steps before last session to ensure her immigration crackdowns would be the first filed), legislators have largely been mum on the issue in the lead up to this session.

Martinez Fischer fears immigration crackdowns will still be debated later in the session. Gov. Perry has again come out in support for anti-sanctuary cities measures, which he made an "emergency" item in 2011. And San Antonio's Lyle Larson is one of the few reps who has filed immigration-related bills before the 83rd session, including a measure to repeal the state DREAM Act giving in-state tuition to undocumented students, and a bill that would require institutions that get state funds, like hospitals and schools, track the immigration status of anyone receiving services. Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) has filed a measure that would ban local governments from spending any money on day labor centers undocumented immigrants use to find work.

"There are people who still have this insatiable appetite to polarize Hispanics and immigrants," Martinez Fischer says. While President Obama's stellar numbers with Hispanic voters may be taken as a national referendum on anti-immigrant rhetoric, Martinez Fischer doesn't think that translates to the Texas GOP. "I still believe there are many people here who believe the future of the Republican Party lies in being more extreme and polarizing on that front," he said.

"When you have somebody like Lyle Larson, who considers himself a moderate Republican … who files a bill to eliminate the state DREAM act for immigrant children, if that's the definition of a moderate Republican, then I think the Republican Party's moving further and further off the right-wing cliff."

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