Political Intelligence

Send Out the Clowns

PYRRHIC VICTORY?

U. S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) arrived in Austin on Oct. 6,with his congressional redistricting crusade fl oundering. Just nine days remained in the third special session. Republicans were fi ghting amongst themselves. Gov. Rick Perry had left for New York for campaign cash and a stock exchange photo-op. The Senate and the House refused to play nice. At one point,Lite Guv David Dewhurst compared the House ‘s negotiating tactics to those of Iranian cab drivers. (He later apologized to Iranian cab drivers). In three days of hammering,DeLay brokered a compromise map that emerged in the early morning hours of Oct. 9.

The final map is such a partisan gerrymander —the Republicans stand to gain at least seven seats —that Democrats in the Capitol were privately pleased. Dems see three blatant Voting Rights Act violations that they believe will lead the federal courts to kill DeLay’s map. Even Republicans seemed jittery. Toward the end of the week,Senate Republicans reportedly held a heated caucus meeting during which edgy Republicans worried about jeopardizing their political careers for a doomed map.

Unperturbed,the leadership steamed ahead. On Friday —Lisa Marie Presley Day at the Capitol —the House and Senate took up the compromise map. Setting the appropriate tone for the proceedings,a forlorn blue haired clown sat among the spectators in the Senate gallery. After the House passed out the map, fl ocks of Republican and Democratic reps headed to Dallas for the one event more important than redistricting —the Texas-Oklahoma football game. Back at the Capitol, the two chambers engaged in their own version of the Red River Shootout. Dewhurst told House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) that the Senate wouldn’t vote on redistricting unless the House passed the Senate’s version of the government reorganization bill (House Bill 7). The Senate’s version strips the Comptroller’s offi ce of its government effi ciency and school performance reviews. Dewhurst and Senate Republicans (not to mention the governor)were clearly out to discipline that tough grandma, Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

By late Friday,as more House members left town,roughly 30 House Democrats saw an opportunity. If the House lacked a quorum to pass government re-org,the Senate might reject redistricting. The Dems took off,and the House adjourned until Sunday afternoon.

By Sunday,Craddick and Gov. Perry had spent the weekend arm-twisting Republicans to vote for the Senate version of HB 7. Many House members disliked parts of HB 7 and worried about angering constituents. A vicious fl oor fi ght broke out when moderate Republicans –for the fi rst time this year –bucked the leadership and railed against the bill. Craddick and the House leadership refused to let reps debate reorganizing the government. A motion to allow discussion failed. It’s believed to be the fi rst time the House leadership prevented debate on a major bill since 1991,when Gib Lewis was Speaker.

After the House passed HB 7,attention shifted to the Senate. Dewhurst cajoled “yes ” votes from three wavering Republican senators. The Senate finally passed redistricting by 17-14. Before adjourning the special session,though, Senate Republicans held one more caucus meeting to discuss a motion by Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria)to lift $57,000 in probationary fi nes imposed on each of the 11 Dems who fl ed to New Mexico. As Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano)left the caucus,she could be heard saying:”Stick a fork in it,it ‘s done. “The caucus had decided to keep the double secret probation in place. Bring on the courts.

THE RIGHT-HAND MAN

Meet Gregg Phillips, the man charged with overhauling Texas’ health care safety net. His job history reads like central casting’s description of a right- wing ideologue:architect of Mississippi ‘s failed foray into privatization,Republican political operative,government outsourcing consultant,and head of Mississippi’s Republican Party. On the surface,allowing someone like Phillips to rewrite state health care policy seems akin to letting a pacifi st run Lockheed Martin. But since the very goal of the reorganization is to dissolve or privatize major swaths of Texas ‘safety net, Phillips is the the ideal man for the job —especially if you hate government-sponsored healthcare and don ‘t mind the appearance of an occasional ethical indiscretion.

The Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC)hired Phillips in March as its deputy commissioner for program services. In that role,Phillips has been given the reins to implement last session ‘s House Bill 2292, the right-wing ‘s long-sought mammoth revamp of state health care services [see “Legislative Malpractice,” June 20,2003 ]. The legislation,which Phillips helped craft, is full of terrible policy ideas too numerous to list. It essentially squeezes 12 existing state agencies into fi ve and slashes 3,500 state jobs to privatize several core state functions. Most notably,all eligibility and enrollment services for Medicaid,the Children ‘s Health Insurance Program,food stamps,welfare, and social security will be handed over to private companies.

Phillips ‘tenure could already be headed for trouble. On Sept. 15,HHSC awarded Deloitte Consulting a contract to help organize and manage the agency ‘s massive reorganization. That would normally be unremarkable —Deloitte is one of the world ‘s major consulting fi rms,and the contract went through an open bidding process. However, it ‘s worth noting that before coming to Texas,Phillips served as a senior manager at Deloitte Consulting. It looks unseemly for the agency to grant a major state contract to Phillips ‘former employer. Phillips couldn ‘t be reached for comment. An HHSC spokesperson said Phillips didn ‘t have a confl ict because he worked for a Deloitte offi ce outside Texas and because “he did not participate in the review of bids or the selection of the contract. He was totally removed from that. ” Phillips has made ethically questionable decisions in the past. In the early 1990s, Phillips headed the disastrous downsizing of Mississippi ‘s Department of Human Services. He privatized the state ‘s child-support collection and welfare-to-work programs. After severe criticism and with his projects in disarray,Phillips resigned in 1995. The same day he left state government,Phillips was hired by a state subcontractor —a company to which he had awarded a state contract only 18 months before. A legislative oversight committee concluded that Phillips ‘ action “creates the appearance of impropriety ” and recommended that the state conduct an ethics investigation. The child-support collection and welfare-to-work programs were later returned to Mississippi ‘s state government.

Now the 41-year-old Phillips has a second chance. With Phillips in charge,HB 2292 ‘s right-wing sponsors will likely get their desired amputations of state government. Meanwhile, low-income Texans can only hope Phillips will produce better results this time around.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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