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Analysis: In Texas, a seasonal shift away from election politics

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Bills were stacked up on the Texas Senate dais near the end of the 2017 legislative session. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

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The Texas Legislature won’t convene until January, but Monday marks the beginning of that session. It’s the day lawmakers can officially file legislation for the coming session — an opening look at the issues legislators want to address or at least talk about.

Even as the presidential race, vote-counting and other election issues dominate the news and public attention, the Texas calendar is moving toward the state government the legislative candidates were elected to run.

The week after a general election in Texas is also the start of what’s called the “late train” — a fundraising period tucked between the election and the beginning of a campaign finance blackout period that starts Dec. 13 — one month before the beginning of the legislative session.

Elected state officials won’t be allowed to raise campaign money (with exceptions for special elections) until late June. Some want to replenish their campaign accounts. Some are waiting to see if contributors to their vanquished opponents come around, checkbooks at the ready, to kiss and make up with the victors. Some want to build the kind of cash balances that persuade potential challengers to shop for opportunities elsewhere.

The fundraising blackout is there to prevent the appearance of bribery, and also the most obvious opportunities for it. It’s unseemly — as the state Senate discovered 30 years ago — to hold a vote and then accept campaign checks on the floor of the Senate from one of the supporters of the very legislation that was under consideration at the time.

That was 1989, when the Legislature was in a special session on workers’ compensation laws. Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, proprietor of an East Texas poultry empire, gave nine senators checks for $10,000 during a break in their proceedings. Most of the recipients were embarrassed when the public found out and returned the checks. The memory stuck, making it into Pilgrim’s obituaries when he died in 2017.

Instead, state officials will be in a flurry of virtual and in-person fundraising for the next five weeks, simultaneously pre-filing legislation they’ll consider in the session that starts Jan. 12. And they’ll resume after the session ends and the governor’s deadline for approving or vetoing bills has ended 20 days later.

They’re also figuring out how to meet during a pandemic. It’s clear that the coronavirus isn’t going away in the next two months. In fact, the daily numbers of new cases nationally are setting new records, and the world is still hoping for an effective vaccine.

On the very local level, the House appears to have settled on a new speaker very quickly once the election was over. State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, apparently has the votes needed to take over when Dennis Bonnen’s term ends in January. And that puts him in position to help other state leaders figure out how to bring lawmakers together while social distancing is the order of the day.

Some Americans are still arguing about the results of the election. Texas — at least the official part of Texas — has started to move on. Canvassing the vote — the process of verifying and certifying the election results — is underway. The state’s presidential electors will vote Dec. 14.

By then, the fundraising will be over. New legislation will be trickling in, along with plans for the session ahead. There’s one more election on the calendar — the special election runoff to replace Pat Fallon, now on his way to Congress, in the Texas Senate.

And the session will start in January, with a fresh attack on the things we’ve become all too familiar with: a pandemic, an anemic economy, an unbalanced state budget that needs cuts or new sources of money, political maps that need to be redrawn, law enforcement reform, and dozens of issues you’ll see in the bills that start landing in the hopper on Monday.

That’s what the election was all about, right?