Lawmakers' new roles could increase influence

Published on Saturday, 26 July 2014 22:45 - Written by Adam Russell

Two local senators were appointed to influential panels earlier this month for a 2015 session where a mix of new members, new leadership teams and a budget surplus could make things interesting.

Sens. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, were appointed to key legislative positions by outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Eltife drew the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which steers business-related legislation that could improve or limit opportunity for industry and entrepreneurs and eventually consumers.

Nichols was appointed to the Senate Finance Committee, one of the most powerful positions within the upper chamber because of its power over state appropriations. Eltife also has been a member of the Finance Committee.

Eltife said the Business and Commerce Committee was one of the first committee positions he requested as a senator. As a small-business owner, Eltife said he feels in tune with what entrepreneurs face to keep their doors open and what the state can do to allow growth.

“I get the issues, and it’s important to have the state that limits regulation and allows employers to create jobs and keep the economy moving in the right direction,” he said.

Eltife said he and the committee also are mindful there is a balancing act between creating a pro-business climate and maintaining consumer protections. He said committee members have been both the listener and voice regarding consumer concerns and that those roles would not diminish.

The committee handles a gamut of business-related policy issues, and Eltife said he is honored by the chairman appointment.

Eltife said his overall focus would be on the budget as always, and that tougher decisions might lie ahead because more money would be in the mix.

Nichols said it’s harder to say “no” to agencies when money is tighter than when going into a session with a surplus, as is expected for 2015. The state comptroller reported a $2.6 billion surplus at the end of the 2013 biennium and another $2 billion from oil and gas taxes to pad the Economic Stabilization Fund (Rainy Day Fund).

He hopes the surplus would encourage legislators to continue the trend and reduce the margins tax and increase the exemption to make it available to more small businesses.

But he also sees spending needs.

“As long as there is debt and a need to improve funding for core functions there will be credible calls to use the money but I’d like to see some of the surplus go toward reducing the burden on job creators,” he said.

The key will be making good, fiscally sound decisions with the money, Nichols said.

Eltife agreed. He noted the state has doubled its debt over the past decade and wants officials to start moving Texas toward a “pay-as-we-go” basis.

Dewhurst said committee appointments would be up to the next lieutenant governor, but he is confident both senators are in good positions to serve key roles in the Senate.

“As a former mayor of Tyler, and as a small business owner, Sen. Eltife brings firsthand experience and knowledge of the important effect a healthy business climate has on all Texans,” he said via email. “His ability to work with colleagues, find consensus, and deliver smart effective legislation will serve him well as Chair of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce and as a member of the Legislative Budget Board.”

Rice University Political Science Department Chairman Mark Jones said a new lieutenant governor could mean a new slate of appointees.

Nichols’ legislative history aligns well with Patrick, Dewhurst’s likely successor, he said, which should mean he would keep the appointment and likely keep his leadership position as Senate Transportation Committee chairman because of his expertise.

The question will be where Eltife fits in to Patrick’s leadership team because of Eltife’s support for Dewhurst and criticism of Patrick’s political style, Jones said.

Patrick might be wary of putting a possible opponent in a power position.

But Eltife has valuable experience and brokering skills that could warrant a leadership role but also has a history of marching to his own drum on policy, Jones added.

“If (Patrick) feels like Eltife could be a thorn in his side, there would likely be a change, but if they come to an accord, then Eltife would be a strong choice because he is a moderator who can get deals done,” Jones said.

Jones said the prospect of facing a credible, well-financed, Tea Party-backed primary opponent in 2016 could keep Eltife from bucking Patrick too much.

Insiders indicate Dewhurst’s appointments might have been influenced by Patrick’s preferences, specifically because newly appointed Finance Chairman Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, was Patrick’s stated choice.

Jones doesn’t expect there were internal conversations between Dewhurst and Patrick or that Patrick would worry about shuffling the committees at the beginning of a session. Switches in January are common and wouldn’t disrupt business, he said.

“Patrick’s choices are going to come down to each senator’s legislative experience, their expertise and their allegiance,” he said.

Eltife has served on Business and Commerce since 2005. He was vice chairman of the Economic Development Committee during the 81st Legislative Session and chairman of the Administration Committee for the past three sessions.

He also serves on the Economic Development, Finance and Natural Resources committees and on select/oversight committees for higher education, redistricting and transportation funding.

Nichols has served as chairman of the Transportation Committee since 2011. He also is vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee and serves on the Health and Human Services, Natural Resources and State Affairs committees.