Political Intelligence

In With the Old

Busted Keel

Despite the best efforts of Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin) and the Texas ACLU to kill them off, the regional narcotics task forces survived the legislative session largely intact. In March, Rep. Keel explained in these pages (“An Even Keel?” 3/14/2003) why the task forces cannot be reformed. They are structurally unsound. A lack of accountability and a license to raise money by seizing assets breeds shoddy police work and rampant corruption. Keel witnessed task force problems firsthand as Travis County sheriff.

A litany of task force scandals across the state make the case that they are irredeemably flawed. While the work of Tom Coleman in Tulia is the best-known example of a task force–in this case the Panhandle Rural Narcotics Task Force–going awry it is far from the only one. In San Antonio, an officer was convicted of stealing drugs from a task force evidence locker; in Wimberley, a suspect accused of twice selling half an ounce of pot was killed by a task force in a raid; and in Hearne, a crooked confidential informant helped set up 28 people.

At the outset of the session, Keel felt confident that his fellow legislators would agree to end this failed drug war experiment, despite their terror of appearing soft on crime. A need to save money and the promise that federal task force funds could be used for other endeavors would help sway them, Keel avowed. And indeed, the Texas House voted to abolish or significantly modify the task forces three times. Yet the vote of the lower chamber was not enough to win passage of the measure. Worried perhaps that the governor would veto a direct bill, Keel focused on putting a rider into the appropriations bills. While it passed in the House, it died in conference committee. Keel also placed an amendment on mammoth government reorganization bills in both the House and the Senate but those bills failed as well.

It seemed like the task forces had won at least a two-year reprieve. Then a week after the session officially ended, 13 of the 45 task forces received a letter from Gov. Rick Perry telling them they would be losing their funding. The outcry was instantaneous. In Palestine, the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force had Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine) and a local judge lobby the governor. The same occurred in the Waco area where the Agriplex Drug Task Force mobilized Sen. Kip Averitt (R-McGregor).

By the end of the day, the governor’s office had faxed a new letter to eight of the task forces claiming the first missive had been a mistake. Not included among the five that will lose funding are the task forces responsible for the worst excesses, in Hearne, the Panhandle, and Floresville.

Yet all is not lost. The work of Keel and the ACLU during the session educated legislators that federal Byrne grants that fund the task forces can be used for other needs such as domestic violence, homeland security, and drug treatment. When it comes time to apply to the governor in January for Byrne money, the task forces may find they have competition. And fresh scandals that could place the task forces back in the news are possible, a fact even prosecutors who support them acknowledge. The Texas District and County Attorneys Association’s website states in their legislative update: “Now that all the dust has settled, it looks like legislative efforts to cut funding to the regional narcotics task forces were unsuccessful. However, this doesn’t mean that those folks are out of the woods just yet–look for this issue to remain on the front burner for a little while (or at least for as long as some of these task forces continue to be their own worst enemy…).”

A Criminal Veto

The Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council and its executive director, Dr. Tony Fabelo, are a rare breed in the Capitol–independent, agenda-free straight shooters. For nearly 20 years, legislators have leaned on the obscure advisory agency for objective insight into the workings of the dysfunctional Texas criminal justice system. That’s why Gov. Rick Perry’s recent elimination of the Criminal Justice Policy Council–by expunging its minuscule funding from the state budget with a line-item veto–has caused such upheaval in the small circle of lawmakers and interest groups that mold criminal justice policy. Liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, and the Texas ACLU fret that the disappearance of their policy guide from the legislative landscape will plunge the problem-plagued system into darkness. And they’re lobbying to get it back.

The council was formed in 1983 as an independent state agency to provide a window into how the criminal justice system works. It studies everything from prison costs and upkeep to the effectiveness of drug treatment programs. In addition, it serves as the Statistical Analysis Center in Texas for the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. The almost-universally respected Fabelo is a fixture at criminal justice committee hearings. Legislators rarely enact policy changes without his input. So lawmakers, advocates and even Fabelo, who was vacationing in Florida, were shocked to learn the governor axed the council’s $2.5 million appropriation from the two-year budget he signed June 22. The governor said in a statement that the council was no longer needed. “The criminal justice crisis of the early 1990s provided a need for an independent agency to assist public officials in restructuring sentencing policies,” Perry said in his budget proclamation. “However, current [council] functions such as program monitoring and developing projections can be contracted on an as-needed basis or assigned to another agency.”

“We disagree with that,” said Scott Gilmore, chief of staff for House Corrections Committee Chair Ray Allen (R-Grand Prairie). “The analogy my boss likes to use is to think of a plane up at 35,000 feet. Then take off its navigation system and try to fly it. It can’t be done. We’ve got an airplane that’s been shot at and hit a couple of times. But it’s still flying. The last thing we want to do is remove our navigation system. From my perspective, from my boss’s perspective, we’d be flying blind without [Fabelo].” Meredith Rountree, director of the ACLU Prison and Jail Accountability Project, said cutting the council would make Texas the only state without an independent agency compiling this kind of criminal justice data. The governor’s surprise veto spawned rumors that the agency’s elimination was payback for Fabelo’s opposition to prison privatization. Fabelo’s studies have concluded that private companies can’t run prisons much cheaper than TDCJ, numbers disputed by the coterie of private prison lobbyists who back the governor.

Of course, no one’s a bigger booster of privatizing prisons than Allen, who authored this session’s private prison legislation and didn’t much like some of Fabelo’s studies either. But it’s indicative of Fabelo’s standing that, despite those clashes, Allen is leading the charge to reinstate Fabelo’s agency. Allen and Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, are lobbying the governor’s office to restore the council’s funding. Failing that, Gilmore said, Allen may try to revive the agency’s budget during this summer’s special session on redistricting.

Rules Mavens

Without ever stepping on the House floor, Hugh Brady and Benjamin Isgur had a larger impact on the 78th Legislature than many representatives did. Their hidden influence was not that of the tiny band of powerful lobbyists who pulled the strings of the Republican leadership this session. Brady and Isgur don’t have oodles of money to offer as campaign contributions in exchange for votes. They don’t push specific legislation. And in fact, they do most of their work on behalf of progressive public policy groups. The strength of the two, who operate a consulting firm called the Brazos Partnership, comes from their utter mastery of legislative rules.

By the end of the session, when House Democratic Caucus leader Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) strode to the back microphone during discussion of a bill, one could almost see Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) flinch. Time and again during the 140-day session, Dunnam and other Democratic representatives raised points of order–objections by lawmakers that a pending matter or proceeding is in violation of a House rule–in an attempt to kill legislation. Often, the discerning eyes that ferreted out these legislative problems belonged to Brady and Isgur.

Their work is not confined to points of order. The two also train legislative staffers at the beginning of the session and help policy groups plot strategy. The duo was instrumental in planning the Killer Ds’ flight to Ardmore. Brady has even written an authoritative book on the rules called “Texas House Practices.” The two men assisted at least one Republican–whom they refuse to name–who wanted to buck the leadership. “We will help Republicans as long as it’s not against progressive causes,” says Isgur.

The duo learned the importance of the rules while working for former Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Austin). As the first openly gay representative, Maxey found himself shunned by his colleagues. He learned that the quickest way to become a player was to master the rules.

Republican leaders might call the duo obstructionists. Brady and Isgur don’t see it that way. “It is not obstructionist when you are trying to make sure the law is being followed,” says Isgur.

This session Republicans provided plenty of opportunity to question the process. A first-time House speaker himself, Craddick had also appointed a record number of new committee chairmen. They shepherded a radical and sweeping agenda through the Lege. Their ignorance of procedure led to a multiplicity of errors. To make matters worse, the House Parliamentarian Steve Collins, whose job is to help the Speaker determine what is within the rules, was himself new on the job.

A classic and defining early example of a Dunnam point of order–in which the Brazos Partnership assisted–occurred during the debate on House Bill 4, the omnibus tort reform legislation. On March 20th, Dunnam called a point of order that a quorum of the House Civil Practices Committee had held a secret meeting to discuss the bill. It smacked of a return to the bad old days before former Speaker Pete Laney (D-Hale Center) reformed House practices. Dunnam’s objection cut to the heart of why rules are important: They preserve ideals such as allowing the public to oversee its government. Craddick and Collins agonized for hours before ruling on the point of order. They knew it was valid, but the legislation was the number one priority of big-money Republican backers. Craddick even tried to dodge his responsibility, indicating he would put the decision on whether to accept the point of the order to a vote of the full House, where Republicans had the votes to defeat it, rather than make the call himself. Ultimately, the Speaker chose to uphold it. The House Civil Practices committee then immediately met around the chairman’s desk on the House floor in a “public hearing” and sent the bill back to the Calendars Committee.

In a number of cases where the issue was not as blatant as a secret meeting, Craddick simply overruled a point of order that Brady and Isgur believe in the past would have been sustained. Most of the duo’s victories proved fleeting in the face of the Republican juggernaut. A point of order stripped an effort to defund Planned Parenthood out of the appropriations bill but the leadership simply found a new home for it. An effort to stop a bill that would outlaw conserving water in rivers kept on bouncing back like an inflatable clown. By the end of the session, Dunnam, with Brady and Isgur’s help, forced the Republican leadership to demonstrate that they value their radical agenda more than following the rules. In doing so, the Dems put the Republicans on notice that the Texas Legislature won’t be forced back to the days of backroom deals without a struggle. “It’s all about protecting us from going back to the time when things were done totally in secret,” says Isgur.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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