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No Laughing Matter

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Newspaper obituaries for Teel Bivins, who passed away on Oct. 26 at age 61 after a long bout with a rare brain disease, focused on the highlights of his political career: the 15 years he represented Amarillo as a Republican in the Texas Senate and his short stint as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Sweden. Absent from the remembrances was any mention of the policies Bivins successfully championed, which have left a lasting—and unfortunate—mark on the state. Also missing was any hint of the most memorable aspect of Bivins’ public persona: his humor.

Bivins was damn funny. He possessed a wonderful eye for irony and delivered cutting one-liners with devastating timing. In 2003, Bivins served his first, and only, term as chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. His wit was refreshing during monotonous hours of testimony about arcane state budget numbers.

Like many of the policies he advocated, Bivins’ humor had an edge. During one Finance Committee hearing, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, interrupted a presentation by state health officials to shamelessly grandstand. She talked at length about why meat-safety inspections were important (as if anyone disagreed). Chairman Bivins let her go on, but after a few minutes, he was clearly getting restless. Nelson finally finished by saying, “So those are important issues I’m going to be paying attention to this session.” Bivins was silent for a beat and then said in perfect deadpan, “Well, good for you.”

Later in the same hearing, Eduardo Sanchez, then head of the Department of Health, pleaded with the budget-writers not to cut funding for a state program supplying AIDS patients with anti-retroviral drugs. Why not? Bivins asked. The AIDS patients still had a terminal disease even with the drugs, right? The room was quiet for a moment while the comment sunk in. Bivins seemed to be saying that the AIDS patients were going to die anyway; why should the state spend money on them? Sanchez explained that the anti-retrovirals were saving lives and making AIDS a chronic disease, not a terminal one.

In the end, the program survived, but Bivins’ comment had underscored the kind of thinking that produced the austere 2003 budget. The state faced a $10 billion shortfall that year, and Bivins and other Republicans used the budget gap to cut to the bone. It was the 2003 budget, partially crafted by Bivins, that famously cut hundreds of thousands of Texans off Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, not to mention trimming nearly every state agency. Texas is still recovering.

But Bivins’ longest-lasting legacy will be the nuclear waste dump outside the West Texas town of Andrews. The Dallas-based company Waste Control Specialists had tried to pass a bill allowing the dump for three straight sessions before Bivins ascended to the Finance Committee chairmanship. In 2003, Bivins, whose district bordered the proposed site, muscled it through. In the years since, Waste Control has built one of the nation’s largest and most controversial nuclear dumps. (See “Waste Texas,” March 6).

Teel Bivins is gone, but the nuclear waste he helped bring to West Texas will be around for hundreds of years. And that, in the end, isn’t very funny.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.