Texas Legislature 2019

Analysis: Big things can happen in Texas without court orders, sometimes

It usually takes a court order to move Texas lawmakers to make big changes to major programs like school finance. But it's possible, if top leaders are united, to go big without a judicial push.

Gov. Bill Clements signs a bill into law in 1987

Texas Legislature 2019

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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The Republican era in Texas government got its real start 40 years ago this week, when Bill Clements became the first GOP governor of the state since Reconstruction.

He wasn’t the first modern Republican in statewide office — that was John Tower, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1961. But Clements was the trailblazer for the party that now dominates state government, holding all of the elected statewide offices.

It took two decades for the GOP’s candidates to gain full control of the executive branch, but they swept those elections in 1998 and never looked back. Starting with Clements, Republicans have won nine of the last 11 gubernatorial elections, Democrats only two.

And with this week’s inaugurations of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the juggernaut enters a new decade. Those events on Tuesday will be the legislative session’s last bit of start-up pomp and circumstance. After the balls, the House and Senate will “organize” — naming committees and beginning to refer legislation to those panels for consideration. Abbott will give a “State of the State” speech, currently scheduled for Feb. 5, and the biennial grind of a regular legislative session can start.

Some of the issues at the front of the agenda now were at the front of the agenda when Clements came in — and persisted when he was elected to a second term in 1986, after the four-year term of Democrat Mark White.

Texas got rid of its statewide property tax and rejiggered government appraisals of taxable property, in response to problems — and voter anger — with the old system. School finance has been a recurrent problem since the modern scheme was invented in the late 1940s to give both state and local governments partial responsibility for funding and policy.

Lawmakers have never found a persistent solution — one that works without episodic litigation and voter anguish. Instead, they have patched and repatched the existing system under pressure from state courts that have ruled, from time to time, that the state has fallen short of what the Texas Constitution requires.

This isn’t one of those times. The most recent challenge on school finance died in the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled that the system of collecting and distributing money for public education was about as messed up as it could get without crossing the line between legal and illegal. It needs fixing, they ruled, but it’s not unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, the state’s top leaders — Abbott, Patrick and newly elected House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — have put major changes to school finance and property taxes at the top of their list of priorities. One advantage of a court order is that it’s prescriptive, telling lawmakers what parts of this complicated financing machine need tweaking.

This time, the tweaks are up to the people in charge, and will depend on what they can persuade state legislators to do. Huge amounts of money are required to make even small adjustments; and there’s not much reward ahead for politicians unless the adjustments are big enough to make voters happy.

It’s possible, of course, to make significant changes against political odds without a court to twist arms and make threats. Bill Clements’ eight years in Austin were marked, in some measure, by court-ordered reforms to prisons and mental health facilities. But he also got a big win on another epic fight of the day — workers’ compensation law, believe it or not — without the leverage provided by the courts.

In 1989, Clements, with then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and then-Speaker Gib Lewis, pushed those reforms through. It’s worth noting that it took them two special sessions to get it done, even with all three leaders pushing it. And there’s a historical footnote worth noting; that same 71st Texas Legislature had four more special sessions in 1990 — three of them to work on school finance.

Worker’s comp didn’t require a court order, but school finance did.