Molly Ivins

Embarassments, Far and Near

My, we do have moments in our national debates, and how grateful we are to have Dan Quayle back in the fray, lending his own je ne sais quoi to the festivities. Quayle’s prompt response to the spree of violence in Littleton, Colorado, was: “So I hope we don’t try to use this as an excuse to go and take away guns.”

Boy, those anti-gun people will just use any excuse, won’t they? Quayle also asked rhetorically: “Do you really believe that if we had had stricter gun-control laws in the state of Colorado, that this accident, this tragedy, would not have happened?” And then, he answered his own question: “Of course not.”

Gee, I hate to differ with Quayle, but actually, stricter gun-control laws would have prevented the tragedy. Raising the minimum age for possession of firearms from eighteen to twenty-one, just for starters. Then, banning minors’ possession of semi-automatic assault rifles and requiring background checks on those who purchase explosives and those who buy firearms at gun shows.

According to The New York Times, at least one of the Colorado shooters was under psychiatric care and on medication – perhaps relevant information in a background check. Other standard proposals, such as limiting gun purchases to one a month (now there’s a radical step), would also have flagged these kids.

And now, from the halls of the Texas Capitol, let us examine the 76th session, which is already three-fourths of the way to the finish line. Among students of the peculiar institution, there is widespread agreement that this is a really odd session. It’s not about what it’s about. Appearance and reality are disconnected. The Democrats are maneuvering to take back the Senate; the Republicans are maneuvering to take over the House; and the Governor is maneuvering to become president. Almost nobody is without another agenda, beyond the merits of any measure, in whatever they propose or dispose. A whole lot of second-guessin’ goin’ on.

The unofficial motto of the session is “Now Let’s Not Embarrass the Governor,” but oddly enough, the governor is getting shafted without anyone wanting to publicly embarrass him. They’re just quietly defeating everything he asks for. In truth, he’s having a terrible session, but it’s a little hard to know why.

He is somewhat disengaged, as it were, on account of running for president – a highly delicate task to begin with. He’s being tutored on foreign policy a couple of hours a day, and an endless procession of media bigfeet are arriving to kiss his ring and seek whatever wisdom he can provide on the issues du jour. They, in turn, are engaged in an entirely separate exercise of judging him on how ably he can field questions about Kosovo.

On what is certainly the most important single issue of the session, health insurance for children, the governor has no stand, which pretty much sums up where he is on a lot of things.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program is one of the smartest ideas that the Clinton administration has had and relatively inexpensive at that, since health insurance for kids doesn’t cost much. Texas has about 1.4 million children without health insurance; the issue this session is whether to take three-to-one federal matching funds and cover kids up to 200 percent of poverty – meaning about $33,000 a year for a family of four. Families would pay a $15 enrollment fee and $2 per office visit. The smart part of the program is that we will save more than $3 billion a year in medical costs during the next ten years, according to the state’s own estimate.

The alternative is to take the cheaper route in the short run, covering families only up to 150 percent of poverty – about $27,000 a year. The 200 percent level would cover about 471,000 children, whereas the lower level would cover about 303,000, with concomitantly lower savings in the long run. And if you want to be dramatic, you could also note that 168,000 kids’ lives are potentially at stake.

Many Republicans seem to favor the lower level, apparently out of visceral dislike of government programs or the Clinton administration. Representative Kenny Marchant, chair of the House G.O.P. caucus, told The Dallas Morning News earlier this month that his side did not have a position on the issue. “We’re looking to the governor’s office for guidance on it,” he said. Long wait.

George W. Bush’s major initiative this session is, of course, his proposal for a $2 billion property tax cut, which would be a nifty thing to have on his presidential résumé. The problem is, as several bright players noted early in the session, the money’s not there. Representative Paul Sadler, a major player in the House, says the Senate plan, sponsored by Republican Teel Bivins, actually offers about $600 million in property tax relief.

The House had a rare moment of statesmanship recently during debate on what was quite effectively named the James H. Byrd Jr. Memorial Hate Crimes bill. Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson made what was probably the finest speech of her career on the bill, effectively answering all the usual objections to it. House members proceeded to have as serious and thoughtful a debate as anyone could remember, finally passing the bill, 83-61.

As often happens in the Texas Legislature, many people crossed party lines, basing their votes on personal experience or understanding rather than party position. The governor has no position on the hate-crimes bill.

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected]

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Published at 12:00 am CST