The best and worst of the 87th Legislature, from a Democrat

Jun 14, 2021

By Nathan Johnson | Dallas News

Dallas area delegation to the Texas Senate, includes Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas in action during May, 2021 of the the 87th Texas Legislative Session. (Bob Daemmrich / Bob Daemmrich/CapitolPressPhoto)

Sen. Nathan Johnson on what Texans got from an ugly session.

“I hate these bills,” I overheard a Republican senator muttering late in the 87th Legislative session.

The senator, I noticed, voted for the bills anyway.

Now we hear boasting: “The most conservative session ever.” So why are some so glum over on the Republican side? And why were veteran members of both parties and Capitol insiders from across the ideological spectrum saying that this was “the worst session ever” (and other things less fit for print)?

Because the session was ugly. Ugly in content and ugly in process, and it caused damage. Flooding the House and Senate with messaging bills for Republican primary voters drowned much of the routine work that makes Texas run. We passed 25% fewer bills this Republican-controlled session than we did last Republican-controlled session.
 
Are we getting more efficient? Seems not. Whatever your views on abortion, is 60 bills too many? After 22,000 hours of taxpayer-funded attorney general investigations found essentially no material evidence of voter fraud last year, did we need 49 bills restricting the vote? (For what it’s worth, I offered last session to work with Republicans on paper-trail voting systems, but never received a phone call.)
 
No, the session was not about legislative efficiency in the context of COVID-19 constraints. It was politics over policy, a vain exercise in Republican base drumming. It not only marginalized good, productive efforts by Democrats, it marginalized good, productive efforts by Republicans. It pitted governor against lieutenant governor against speaker, House against Senate, Republican against Republican against Democrat against Democrat. Ugly.

The good

It wasn’t all bad. Largely through the strained goodwill among members, the legislative process did manage to eke out some wins for kids and adults and businesses in Texas. There is hope.

Some things need the full confidence of the public at large, not merely of partisan base voters; things such as COVID-19 liability and a failed power system. Unlike many other bills, the COVID-19 bill was developed with a broad range of input from competing groups with competing interests. The bill underwent significant changes from start to finish and improved with each iteration, including a final amendment I offered on the senate floor that won over complete bipartisan support. That’s how this stuff is supposed to work.

February’s winter storms destroyed any illusions about the adequacy of the Texas power system. Legislators had precious little time to figure out how to contend with the storm damage, to diagnose the failures and prescribe fixes. Not surprisingly, our progress was partial and imperfect. But work on the “grid” was serious and substantive, with key roles played by Democrats and Republicans. Although nothing in politics happens without partisan influence, work on the grid came closer than most. (Alas, the governor chose to bring only Republicans to the signing ceremony. Seems we hide bipartisanship these days.)

Despite the difficulties, relationships still mattered. With almost no time left in the session, Republican senators helped me pass legislation to create a new market for teen mental-health services, answering a profound need for Texas kids and their families. Here and in many other instances, Democrats and Republicans helped each other overcome obstacles, gain support and legitimacy, and improve legislation.

The bad

How does it make sense for the Legislature to pass legislation that is opposed by a supermajority of the voting population (permitless gun carry) and reject legislation supported by a supermajority of the voting population (Medicaid expansion)? It doesn’t. But that’s what we’ve come to.

Session after session, some character pretends to be more patriotic than others by promoting a twisted pledge of allegiance to the Second Amendment. This time around it was a vision that negates the right of all Texans to live in a state where possession of lethal firearms is subject to a process of permitting and training. There’s nothing constitutional about it. Gun owners don’t buy it. In fact, some 80% of Texans thought that we ought to leave the permitting and training process alone.

Few legislators liked the idea, and far fewer wanted it to come to the floor. But leadership insisted, and they got their way. One by one, frightened at the prospect of being branded an opponent of gun rights, Republicans collapsed under the pressure of a Republican primary.

The most astonishing failure of the session was the refusal — again — to expand health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And it was a baldly partisan failure. Achievable through straight Medicaid expansion or through a waiver that allows for a customized Texas plan (a politically conservative solution which I offered: Senate Bill 117), it would have brought to the state billions in revenue without a tax, health insurance to around a million Texans, strengthened public and private health systems, stabilized family finances, created hundreds of thousands of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in state product. For all this, not even a hearing.

And finally there’s “election integrity.” Everyone supports election integrity. But did I mention the 22,000 hours? Any shred of integrity the bill itself had was lost late in the process, when proponents insisted on making it worse, not better. That caused the nuclear-option walkout in the House with an hour left in session. It may have been the one instance in which the wasting of time on divisive culture wars prevented further wasting of time on divisive culture wars.

The direction

The radical, hollow and largely pointless session agenda left fiscal prudence and limited government — principles long and unfairly claimed by self-styled conservatives — outside in the rain. It damaged relationships in both parties, impairing our ability to forge solutions informed by broader perspective and greater wisdom, as we were (nevertheless) able to do with COVID-19 and electricity bills.

The good measures we were able to pass offer hope, some strong relationships will survive, and the failure of so many divisive bills does itself provide a bit of reassurance about the integrity of the process.

But now, how much of the unproductive showpieces will end up in a special session? Few legislators are looking forward to it.

I composed this op-ed for the Dallas Morning News. Reproduced above in very slightly edited form, the original published version appears here. —NJ