For two days, state Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) had been throwing himself against the ramparts of the House leadership. WolensÃ¢â‚¬”who did not run for reelection in 2004 after 24 years as a state representativeÃ¢â‚¬”is generally considered one of the smarter members in the chamber. A lawyer by trade, he is known as an incisive debater who can quickly and ruthlessly pick apart a bill. Wolens appears to revel in dissecting and trying to solve the most complex issues that legislators face. But in WolensÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ last outing as a representative, Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) would not allow him to be heard.
It was during the fourth special session of a 78th Legislature, which like a bad nightmare, just refuses to go away. Governor Rick Perry had called legislators together, without the consensus he declared a prerequisite, to solve a particularly thorny dilemma: How do you increase school funding while decreasing the property taxes that currently pay for education in the state?
The House leadership decided that the only way they could do it was in a secret conference committee with their counterparts from the Senate. Then they could present a bill to both chambers for a hard-to-reject up-or-down vote. But when the full House received a bill to debate from committee on May 4th, the 30-day special session was almost half over.
Craddick decided to end debate and move for a vote on the plan. To force the House to take an immediate vote, Craddick had his budget chairman, Rep. Talmadge Heflin (R-Houston), use a parliamentary maneuver known as Ã¢â‚¬Å“calling the previous question.Ã¢â‚¬ From 1993 to 2003, former Speaker Pete Laney (D-Hale Center) had called the previous question to force a vote only twice. Craddick, in just one legislative term has used the procedure on nine occasions.
Throughout the two days the bill was discussed, what Wolens repeatedly demanded was simply more time. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Do not torture the process or make this a sham,Ã¢â‚¬ Wolens begged Craddick. Ã¢â‚¬Å“This institution cannot continue in a civilized way if we move the previous question after a mere two hours of debate after you brought me here for three months just to do redistricting.Ã¢â‚¬
The next day, Wolens continued to plead his case, only now Craddick wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even recognize him to make a motion. Time and again, Wolens came to the back microphone only to be rebuffed. Finally, he reached his limit: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mr. Speaker, I say this with all due respect and knowing we have been friends for a long time, but what would you have done if Gus Mutscher had done this to you?Ã¢â‚¬
Wolens was referring to Speaker Gus Mutscher, the man at the center of the Sharpstown scandal of the 1970s. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Dirty 30,Ã¢â‚¬ a group of legislators who felt left out under the speakerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s corrupt leadership, had opposed Mutscher. A participant in this rebellion for democracy in the Texas Lege more than 30 years ago was Tom Craddick.
In answer to WolensÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ question on the House floor on May 5th, Craddick replied with parliamentary legalese: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am not advised.Ã¢â‚¬
It took the conscience of the House and one of its longest-serving members, Rep. Paul Moreno (D-El Paso) to speak plainly. In a personal privilege speech after the vote, he blamed CraddickÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s actions on arrogance. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We are in Iraq right now supposedly bringing democracy to that country and yet we do not show democracy here in the state of Texas,Ã¢â‚¬ he noted. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I wish I could tell you that I am leaving this House but I wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. I wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. You are forcing me to come back, if for no other reason than to get even.Ã¢â‚¬ Ã¢â‚¬”JB