Austin Representative Previews 87th Texas Legislature
By Madi Donham
Lawmakers will wrestle with the budget, health care and once-in-a-decade political redistricting — all in the middle of a global pandemic — when the 87th Texas Legislative session convenes in January.
Political pundits are fond of calling Texas a battleground state, but Democrats failed to gain the nine seats needed to win a majority in the House during the Nov. 3 election. Republicans have held the majority since 2002.
The Texas Legislature operates on a biennial system, convening every two years. This session will see a new House speaker, as incumbent Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, did not run for re-election. Rep. Dade Phelan, R- Beaumont, tweeted on Nov. 4 that he has secured sufficient pledges of support for his candidacy.
Bill pre-filing has already begun for the 87th session, which runs from Jan.12 to May 31.
Reporting Texas spoke with Rep. Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat representing House District 49 — the heart of Travis County — about the upcoming legislative session. Herewith excerpts, edited for clarity.
On what’s different about the upcoming session:
It’s a redistricting session, so that means the stakes are very high. We will draw district lines based on Census information, which define statewide House, Senate and congressional districts for the next 10 years. Texas has the second largest amount of congressional districts of any state after California, so there are enormous national implications for this session.
We have unprecedented stresses and strains on Texas because of the pandemic, especially in the oil and gas sector, which provides a substantial portion of our state budget. We also know we have the highest uninsured rate in the nation, and people are hurting.
There’s a lot that Texans need right now, and we have less money to meet those needs.
On expanding Medicaid, government-financed health care for low-income Americans, during the pandemic:
I am absolutely for that. We previously voted on that issue on the House floor, and it failed with a strict partisan divide.
There’s a better chance it’ll get leverage this session because of the pandemic. It’s hard to know because I just don’t know whether Republicans will be willing to break partisan lines to deliver what Texans need.
On moderates and progressives getting things done in a GOP-run congress:
Most of what we do is nonpartisan, which is important to remember. Take public education — that’s an area where some of my strongest allies are Republicans because they support their public schools.
I think we all live in our kind of political bubbles, right? But when 150 people are plucked out of different parts of Texas and are forced into a room, relationships of understandings form. You find commonalities with people who are of the opposing party, which is an ideal situation that I wish more of us could be exposed to.
We need a lot more understanding and less demonization of one another than we have right now.
On the impending struggle to approve a budget:
Healthcare and education eat up the bulk of our budget in Texas.
Education is an area of the budget we need to make sure is not cut. Public schools are having to reinvent the way they’re delivering public education. They need money more than last session because they’re arguably dealing with not just education, but public health as well.
The other budget area is health care. If we expand Medicaid, we could get billions more in federal dollars for health care. It’s not just a good policy to cover more Texans, it makes fiscal sense.
On changing a gerrymandered Texas:
Republicans were in charge 10 years ago, and they’re in charge this time. They try to draw lines to minimize Democrat influence and power. It’s harder now to gerrymander Texas because suburbs are becoming increasingly Democratic.
Demographics are also related to the way people vote today in terms of both ethnicity and race. The vast majority of Latinos vote Democrat, and its population is growing. Same with Asian Americans.
It’s not impossible to change. Texas will be either less gerrymandered or worse if lines are even more forced and unrelated to the communities they capture.
On an issue Hinojosa thinks is not getting enough attention:
I made a decision that we would work on a Texas climate plan before the pandemic hit.
Texas is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases by far of any state, so any national plan to address global warming needs to have a substantial Texas component to it.
We heard these doomsday stories about global warming daily, and it felt so big, while I felt hopeless. I started doing the work and asking the right people what we needed to do since I have the privilege of occupying this office. We came up with a Texas emissions report that’s being finalized.
This kind of legislation takes several sessions to make progress, so we’re filing the bill but also hoping to engage more young people through a future Texas Youth Climate Corps. I don’t have high hopes that we’ll get things passed, but I do have high hopes that it will push out a narrative that there are solutions we can do as a state. We’re not powerless.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, this would be the big issue on the news right now.
On the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on the legislative session:
We don’t quite know yet. We are hearing hints that we probably won’t be able to move as much legislation this session because our time in the Capitol is going to be somewhat limited and focused on priorities.
It depends on what the incoming speaker decides. It really is all in his hands, and my guess is that he’s in dialogue with the lieutenant governor who controls the Senate’s agenda.
On upcoming bills from her office:
We have a bill that I’m looking forward to that would require employers to tell their employees when there’s a COVID-19 case at their workplace. Right now it’s not required. I believe that it’s a basic employment right to know.