This is it.
In three days Texas voters will have the final say on who they want to govern the state for the next four years, who should represent them in Austin in the next legislative session, who are the best candidates for judicial and local races and, equally important, who will represent them in Washington as well.
Judging by the early voting turnout which ended yesterday, the electorate will have plenty to say.
And no wonder. There is so much at stake in this year’s election that to sit it out is not an option for most voters, as was the case four years ago when the turnout was light.
As usual, a bad economy triggers voter participation and apparently this time is no exception. Most informed voters know — or should know — that in the next two fiscal years the state government is expected to face a budget shortfall of as much as $21 billion, by far the largest deficit in state history and one of the worst in the nation.
If the projected money shortage materializes, virtually every state-funded program or social service will greatly suffer and in some instances even be eliminated. This means the pain will be more severe than in the 2003 legislative session when Texas faced a $10 billion shortfall.
What remains to be seen is who will hurt the most. At a time when the state population is rapidly growing — and nowhere is this more evident than in the public schools — a good bet is the more than 1,000 school districts in the state and programs such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program, just as it happened seven years ago.
This explains why civil rights organizations, advocates for the mentally disabled population and senior groups are already sounding the alarm and in some instances even threatening lawsuits if the budget cuts are too deep.
But there is much more at stake in this year’s election, especially in Texas Legislature races, and both major political parties know it.
Aside from the projected budget shortfall, no issue is more critical than redistricting, particularly for West Texas which stands to lose political representation even though the state as a whole is expected to gain four congressional districts because of its explosive demographic growth in the last decade.
This also explains why there is so much interest in legislative races, particularly in the House where Republicans currently hold a 77-73 majority but hope to gain at least six seats and possibly as many as 10. However, Democrats are fighting just as hard not only to stay within striking distance of being the majority party and even harbor hopes of regaining control of the chamber.
In few districts is the struggle for control of the House more evident than in District 85 where two-term Democratic incumbent Joe Heflin of Crosbyton is fending off a strong challenge from Plainview Republican Jim Landtroop.
As it happened four years ago when it was an open seat, the big guns in the Republican Party are helping Landtroop with hundreds of thousands of dollars and with political advertising. But the Democrats have also gone to bat for Heflin and he is waging an aggressive campaign of his own as well.
In District 85 and in other key House races both parties are fighting hard because the majority party has the upper hand every 10 years when the boundaries of the state’s political districts are redrawn.
This also explains why Big Money is largely bankrolling the District 85 race and other key House contests. But it is up to the voters to be well informed and vote on what they know about the candidates and the issues instead of relying on numerous misleading ads they are bombarded with.
The voters, like both political parties, know — or should know — how much is at stake in this election.
ENRIQUE RANGEL is A-J Austin bureau chief. Address comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 12457, Austin, TX 78711-2457.