January 13, 2009
The day begins with all the pomp and circumstance Texas legislators can muster before dissipating into a plethora of parties, as state reps join their families (and perhaps a few journalists and lobbyists) for drinks afterward.
State Rep. Joe Moody’s office is back in the Capitol’s extension – way back.
"I packed up my gear and came up Saturday. I got the keys to the office yesterday. It’s been non-stop," said Moody, who has spent the last few weeks getting his office in order, hiring staffers and working with other members of the delegation on El Paso issues.
Moody’s office could do with a picture or two. The same could be said for state Rep. Marisa Marquez’s office, across the hall from Moody’s. Inside, there is a lone Stevie Ray Vaughn poster leaning against a chair long awaiting a wall hook. One of Marquez’ staffers declares ownership of the poster, though it remains unclear whether or not the District 77 Rep. is a fan of the late guitar legend.
Norma Chavez, serving her seventh term as an El Paso state representative, is moving offices, her seniority having entitled her to plusher digs in the basement of the main building.
"I’m in the basement but you have got to start from the ground. I’m moving on up!" said Chavez, who with her staff was unloading boxes and arranging furniture. State Rep. Joe Pickett’s office is in no such need of fine-tuning. It is a theme park unto itself, furnished with arcade games and vintage diner upholstery. State Rep. Chente Quintanilla, now a four-term legislator is, like Pickett, already settled in his office as he looks forward to the new session.
"Change is going to be the key word…I think we’ve been suppressed for three sessions since Speaker Craddick took over…They made a budget on the backs of poor people who couldn’t afford to lose the help," said Quintanilla, who is optimistic that the new speaker, state Rep. Joe Straus, R-Alamo Heights, will inaugurate a new climate in the Capitol.
The El Paso House delegation, including state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, have forged a shared agenda that they hope to achieve during the session. This includes Tier 1 status for UTEP, securing funding for the Texas Tech Medical School, making sure El Paso has the infrastructure necessary to cope with BRAC expansion and the restoration of the Tigua Indian Casino in East El Paso. As well as these particular items, statewide issues like CHIP funding, Medicaid, financial literacy education and immigration reform will impact El Paso, and will be priorities for the delegation. But Quintanilla is confident the delegation can achieve much in Austin this spring.
"It’s going to a point where we can talk to each other with more easiness," said Quintanilla, anticipating much more bi-partisanship in the Texas House.
"People will listen to our legislation. In the past, Speaker Craddick was the one who decided everything. I think Speaker Straus is going to allow each committee to do its own work and let legislation be passed on its worth," added Quintanilla. "He’s a moderate Republican and that’s good for El Paso."
Last weekend, Straus emerged from a group of Anti-Craddick Republicans (known as the ABCs) as a speaker candidate. The ABCs hoped to carry the 64 UNC Democrats (Under No Circumstances) who had signed a pledge not to vote for Craddick. Last Monday, Straus released a list of 94 legislators (out of 150) supporting his candidacy for Speaker. Later the same day, State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, Straus’ only serious opponent after Craddick’s decision to drop out, threw in the towel.
The five members of El Paso’s House delegation, who all got on the Straus bandwagon early, are optimistic the new speaker will enjoy a fruitful relationship with the Sun City’s Austin contingent. Pickett said last week that Straus would be "good for the State of Texas" because he could steer the legislature back to being a "people’s house," Quintanilla counts Straus as a personal friend, and Norma Chavez wrote boldly on her pledge card that she was voting for the San Antonio man "of my own free will."
Straus too, expects "good things" for El Paso as a result of his speakership this session.
"I’ll look to the El Paso delegation to direct me to what is important for their community. I know that we’ll have a good relationship," said Straus last week. It won’t be an easy ride though. A stalling economy and a tightening state budget could impact El Paso’s chances of securing funds for big protects like the medical school and Tier 1 status for UTEP. A shrinking pot will also hinder attempts to expand state services like CHIP.
"I don’t think anyone who's looking for more money this session should have very high hopes. This is a very strong dose of medicine that doesn’t taste very good," said Straus yesterday, commenting on Texas comptroller Susan Combs’ latest economic forecast.
Furthermore, immigration reform could be the dark horse of the session.
Several bills have been filed that would make it harder for legal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and several more aim at making "English" the official language of Texas. In 2009, there may not be the midnight fireworks of 2007, nor the quorum busting flight to Oklahoma of 2003, but there will be plenty of opportunities for the temperature to be raised.
Talk of a Craddick comeback in 2011, the prospect of the Democrats taking the House in 2010, dealing with a new set of politicians in Washington, some of whom continue to entertain the idea of a border fence, a new round of city elections, a worsening economy, crisis in Juarez, a new state speaker, two El Paso freshman in Austin and the possibility of some tasty committee assignments for the delegation's senior members will all make for a fascinating episode in Texas and El Paso politics.
Follow Ben Wright's coverage of the 81st session on Twitter at BenWrightNPT.