Twenty-seven House members and four senators decided not to run for re-election. Primaries settled another dozen House races that ended with the incumbent losing.
The number of new House members could exceed 40 with a dozen more races to be settled in November. One incumbent senator lost a primary battle and another is expected to lose a seat in November.
The 83rd Legislative session will be the second for two senators and 35 House members.
The numbers mean at least 75 House members, half the body, and eight senators, more than a quarter of the upper chamber, will be freshmen or sophomore legislators.
Political observers said the lack of legislative experience makes major policy changes, such as addressing public education funding formulas or assessment tests, unlikely.
Member turnover is nothing new. Historically, the state capitol experiences a substantial bump in new membership every fifth legislative session, according to Legislative Reference Library data. Before the 78th Legislative Session in 2003, seven incumbent senators and 36 incumbent representatives did not return.
Redistricting, retirement, seeking higher office, successful challengers and death are all factors in turnover.
How chamber members react to the loss of experienced leadership will be the biggest question going into January, said Texas A&M University political science professor and author of several books on the Texas Legislature, Harvey Tucker.
Most of the legislative workload is handled by committees.
Their departure will leave an experience void, he said.
“They’ve lost top money experts,” Tucker said. “The budget is so complex it takes members a couple cycles before they start to learn the language.”
Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler disagrees. Though departures in the Senate will not go unnoticed, “the world is not going to end. The work will get done.”
Eltife said all legislators are replaceable and that the institution and process will not fall apart because of turnover. He said fresh faces represent new ideas and perspective rather than a learning curve.
NOVICE OR KNOW-HOW
Election of the house speaker will be the first indicator of the political tenor in the chamber during the session.
Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has been supported by a strong majority of members in the past but lost key lieutenants during the election. He has drawn one challenger so far, Mineola Rep. Bryan Hughes.
Tucker said novice members and weakened leadership will enhance Gov. Rick Perry’s status, given his past willingness to veto. It could mean Perry points the way for major legislative agenda items this session, he said.
That in turn means it will likely be a partisan agenda in both heavily Republican chambers, he said. Continued escalation of partisan politics could compound the membership turnover’s effect on the session.
“Will (Republicans) try to use the expertise of the minority party?” he asked. “Or will it be the continuation of take-no-prisoners politics? If they do that it adds to the loss of knowledge.”
Former state representative David Hudson said the session hinges on newcomer participation in the process and party inclusion versus exclusion. He said less experienced legislators have to respect the learning curve and do the work while respecting each other.
That may be difficult because Austin is mirroring Washington D.C.-style partisan politics more and more each session, Hudson said. Political “bomb throwers” can add volatility to the process, he said.
“Whether Republican or Democrat, base, core supporters don’t respect cooperation,” he said. “They want blood and if you don’t give them that you’re viewed as weak.”
Kronberg said new members are typically more ideological when first elected. They enter the Capitol Building with little understanding about who and what they represent, he said.
“Most legislators, unless they’ve worked in the legislature before, think they were elected to represent an ideology or a relatively narrow point of view,” he said. “They don’t realize they represent school districts, hospital districts, big employers, small employers, water districts and homebuilders and the kind of problems they will be asked to vote on have different impacts for different constituencies.”
Kronberg said they learn it is a balancing act.
East Texans participated in the incumbent purge. Reps. Leo Berman, R-Tyler; Wayne Christian, R-Center and Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, were not re-elected. The three legislators had nearly 40 years in the House and would have all moved up the seniority ladder. Berman, who was elected in 1998, was No. 34 on the seniority list.
Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, will be the most senior House member from East Texas. He is ranked No. 57 on the seniority list and expects to move ahead of about 110 legislators on the list.
Flynn said the next session presents tremendous challenges. But he said he looks forward to working with new members to address “the horrendous impact of Obamacare” on the budget, inequitable public education funding, limiting the size of government and ensuring the budget is balanced via spending cuts not tax hikes.
Matt Schaefer, who defeated Rep. Berman in the GOP primary, said he is doing his homework in preparation of looming session. He said he has the advantage of participating in the process as a legislative consultant.
Schaefer said he has already been tapping future colleagues and professionals familiar with Austin for knowledge, know-how and insight but insists he is not the typical rookie legislator.
“I know where the bathrooms are at,” Schaefer said. “I think I am ahead of the class and I am chomping at the bit to get to work.”
Kronberg said the 2013 does have more governing experience compared to 2011 freshmen. There are more former mayors, city councilmen, county commissioners, people who have handled budget and committee processes before, he said.
Hudson said the 140-day session will be like nothing else they have experienced.
“I don’t care how much government and business experience people have,” he said. “It’s different. It takes time to learn the nuances of a session.”