Lone Star politics: anything but dull

The Texas press braces for the part-timers and out-of-towners of the 83rd legislature

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.

But the Morning-News looks to be giving the Trib a run for its money. Despite big layoffs in Dallas in recent years, Austin bureau chief Christie Hoppe now counts eight journalists in her bureau—a mix of full-timers, experienced part-timers, an intern, an issues reporter, and an investigator. “We’re trying to keep our eyes off our feet and onto the horizon,” she says wryly, “and on what they [the legislators] are doing to us.” After all, no state government fared well in last year’s rankings by the State Integrity Investigation. But Texas? Texas scored a D-plus.

For insiders there is Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report, which was busy Friday tracking gaming interests, $80,000 in campaign contributions to a single legislator, and energy legislation. Also nestled in the downtown landscape is the conservative blogger and unabashed activist Jim Cardle, whose Texas Insider is widely read in the staunchly Republican legislature. Over at the Burnt Orange Report, his liberal counterparts were busy counterpunching. On Friday, Burnt Orange joined with Progress Texas to pound on House Speaker Joe Straus to pull, yes, a birther bill aimed at President Obama from the agenda.

A drive down Congress Avenue and across the Colorado River, the Austin American-Statesman is using its geographic proximity to throw some eight reporters at the legislature. State editor Debra Davis has simply extended the beats of local reporters right up to the steps of the Capitol—but the key player in that crew is Newhouse veteran Jonathan Tilove, who recently covered Washington for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and has now been hired as the Statesman’s lead political writer. Down in San Antonio, Express-News state editor Nora Lopez doesn’t have the same luxury, and is sharing a Hearst correspondent with the Houston Chronicle while sending the odd reporter on a two-hour round trip drive as she searches for someone to place in Austin.

Rounding out the mix of influential journalists are long-time Texas Monthly writer Paul Burka; Ben Philpott of KUT; Brad Watson at WFAA, in Dallas-Fort Worth; and Mark Wiggins at KVUE in Austin. With the cast of characters now set, both in the Capitol and within its press corps, a rich mix of coverage is about to unfold as the legislature returns to session this week. It will likely be a mix of sharp (if wonkish) analysis, local reporters trying to make heads and tails out of issues much bigger than their markets, scoops and investigations. With any luck, there will be some scandal and spectacle. The coverage will likely have failings and successes.

But like its subject, it will be anything but dull. The Texas Legislature—“the Lege,” as it’s called down here—never makes for dull.

Hardy Gest and Holly Regan contributed reporting to this piece.

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker. Tags: ,