AUSTIN, TX — Back in the mid-nineteenth century, when Texas gave up its status as an independent republic and joined the union, the state was a sparsely populated, agrarian place. The legislature was a part-time institution, and elected officials spent most of their days tending to their farms and ranches.
Today, Texas is the predominantly urban home to 26 million people, the nation’s second most populous state, and one of the largest economies in the world. But at the state capital, tradition prevails: the legislature meets for only 140 days every odd-numbered year. The arrival of 181 lawmakers from every corner of the state is much like a circus coming to town; part-time jobs sprout like wildflowers after a spring rain.
As these men and women gather this month under the giant, pink granite dome, Texas news organizations are approaching the legislature with varying tools: the sole, experienced correspondent; the local reporters thrown into the fray; the policy wonks; even the dirt-diggers. After all, Texas is home to some of the flimsiest public ethics laws in the nation, with few safeguards against conflicts of interest and little disclosure of the personal finances of its politicians. So The Dallas Morning News has brought eight people to town, not just to keep track of the issues—but to investigate, too.
On the agenda for the 83rd session are matters big—some with national portent—and small, and even downright quirkily Texan. For example: what to do with billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues; conservatives’ insistence on change (or, in their parlance, “reform”) in schools and universities; charges of Medicare fraud; and yes, calls for more concealed guns in public places like college campuses, even in the wake of last week’s shooting at Lone Star College in Houston.
There is also the question of what to do with the money. While many state budgets are still reeling from the Great Recession, Texas anticipates it will have nearly $12 billion in its rainy-day fund at the end of the next budget cycle, the result of both steep spending cuts in the last biennial budget and royalties from a fracking-driven oil and gas boom across the state. Legislators could choose to spend the money on public services like education, but some leaders, like Gov. Rick Perry—who, like Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, is both a full-time politician and a Republican—favor cutting taxes even further or using the funds for infrastructure and water conservation as the state’s population continues to grow. (Some 800,000 Californians have arrived here in the last few years alone.)
Some decisions, meanwhile, are already made: the state will not be expanding its Medicaid program. And Perry has refused to establish a state marketplace for health care, so the federal government will set one up under the Affordable Care Act.
With so many issues up for debate, the news organizations in Texas find themselves in different places, each pursuing a strategy adapted to its own fiscal circumstances. There was a time when Austin was thick with full-time bureaus, from newspapers big and small. As in nearly every state capital, that is no longer the case. Nonetheless, in an area a few blocks wide and several blocks long along Congress Avenue are a slew of journalists and activist bloggers, armed to the teeth with an arsenal of approaches.
At the Capitol on Thursday, all alone in his coverage, was David Montgomery (Davey Joe to friends and colleagues), busy buttonholing freshman lawmakers. An Austin and Washington veteran, he was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram bureau chief here until the Star-Telegram—also affectionately known as the “Startlegram”—closed the bureau. A painstaking reporter, he has an easy manner with his subjects but a nagging habit for getting scoops out of them, and so was re-hired for the session by editor John Gravois.
Just down Congress Avenue, the cramped newsroom of the Texas Tribune has set the gold standard of policy and political journalism in Texas since its founding in 2009 by Evan Smith, formerly of Texas Monthly, and venture capitalist John Thornton. Smith has spun a web of relationships with public broadcasting and The New York Times into a multi-media, albeit non-profit, empire. Kate Galbraith, formerly of the Times, has kept a steady and nearly visionary eye on water issues, which became critical during the cruel drought of 2011 and will turn even more so as the population swells and the climate changes. Her colleagues, Morgan Smith and Reeve Hamilton, have earned high marks from advocates and wonks for their work on education.