The Governor's Surrogates

The Legislature was two weeks from its May 31 conclusion and Governor Bush was nowhere to be seen, preferring to let his legislative aide Terral Smith watch the Lege for him. The Governor never even showed up during the one day when his presence might have made a critical difference – on May 14, when Democrats shut down the Senate for nine hours in a failed attempt to revive the Hate Crimes Bill (see “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” page 10).

Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry got involved – only after Corpus Christi Democratic Senator Carlos Truan convinced him he might be able to negotiate a compromise between Senate Democrats and Republicans. The Governor, however, was nowhere to be seen (although he did send his criminal justice advisor, Vance McMahan, to participate in the failed, day-long negotiations on hate crimes).

Bush sent the Senate some “compromise language,” lifted from the federal Hate Crimes Bill signed into law by his father. But Senate Republicans rejected that, too. When his leadership might have helped break an impasse – and get the Senate back to work on a day when hundreds of bills died because of the shutdown – the Governor was a no-show at the Capitol. He was across the street at the Mansion, meeting with Michigan Governor John Engler and a delegation of Michigan Republicans who came to Austin to endorse Bush’s presidential campaign.

The Governor did jump into one important policy debate late in the session. But he didn’t exactly show up, opting instead to send Terral Smith to a late-night session of the House State Affairs Committee, where Smith attempted to kill a pro-consumer amendment added to an electric utility deregulation bill that, like the Governor, has been kept under wraps for most of the session. The amendment, added to the bill by Houston Democrat Kevin Bailey, would shift some of the financial burden of “stranded costs” (the huge debt held by electric utilities) from residential ratepayers to industrial and commercial ratepayers.

Smith was “openly working the committee, up and down the dais, trying to get Bailey’s amendment off,” a lobbyist said. On the following day Bailey was still angry. “The amendment would ensure that residential consumers would not pay a disproportionate share of stranded costs,” Bailey said in an interview on the House floor.

“They have loaded this bill with almost $9 billion in stranded costs, up from about $4 or $5 billion in the original bill. Under the bill, as originally conceived, close to 75 percent of those costs would be borne [by the electric bills of] residential ratepayers. My amendment just evens it out. It’s now fifty-fifty. It’s about fairness. Their position is about greed. Greedy corporate interests who want to pile rates on the residential ratepayers.”

Bailey said Smith’s lobbying was excessive, but not unprecedented. “They got a right to do it, I guess. But it’s clear. They’re siding with the rich industrialists. “

The amendment stayed on, as three of the Republicans on State Affairs – Paul Hilbert, Kim Brimer, and Kenny Marchant – voted with the Democrats. Bailey was even angrier when he heard that the Governor had described the bill as good public policy, except for “one amendment, which threatens to derail the whole process.”

“Every residential ratepayer in the state,” Bailey said, “ought to be aware of what the Governor is trying to do.” – L.D.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST