This is the final Observer issue of 2005. It was a quite a year in politics: a newly reelected president saddled with approval ratings in the 30s; the first indictment of a serving White House aide in more than a century; and, in the Jack Abramoff investigation, perhaps the biggest scandal Washington has seen in decades. In Texas, we witnessed three sessions of the Texas Legislature, the tragic death of State Rep. Joe Moreno, and the rise of the Kinky for Governor movement. Looking back, though, two related storylines stand out: the continued fallout from Congressman Tom DeLay’s 2003 scheme to redraw the state’s congressional districts, including the congressman’s entanglements with the criminal justice system; and Texas’ repeatedly clumsy attempts to reform how we fund and operate public schools.
On November 22, the Texas Supreme Court issued its long-awaited judgment on the state’s school finance system. The Court declared that the current method for funding Texas schools amounts to a statewide property tax and therefore violates the state constitution. Justices gave the Legislature until June 1 to devise a new tax structure. As for the poorly and unequally funded public schools, which school districts argued also violates the state’s constitution, the Court decided the situation was bad, but not severe enough for them to forcibly open the Lege’s pocket book. “More money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students,” the majority opinion reads. That may be true, but without more money for education, Texas will never meet the demographic challenge that is before it.
In any case, the court has left the spending decisions entirely up to the Legislature, a prospect that should fill every Texan with dread. We’ll spare you a rehash of the Lege’s Keystone Kop efforts to pass a school finance package. Let’s just say that even by the standards of the Texas Lege, this was a miserable year. They’ll get another whack at it this spring during an expected special legislative session on school finance. And there’s still a chance that the three branches of Texas’ government, all dominated by Republicans, can muster a school finance system that benefits at least a majority of Texans. The record to this point, though, isn’t encouraging.
As for DeLay, the Hammer was indicted and re-indicted this fall by Travis County grand juries. DeLay and his attorney Dick DeGuerin then got into the Christmas spirit early with a little judge shopping. Three judges later, they ended up with San Antonio Democrat Pat Priest, who denied DeLay’s motion to quash the most serious charges against him. The former majority leader will likely stand trial early next year for allegedly laundering campaign money.
Even as DeLay faced prosecution, the last piece in the scheme he helped hatch in 2002 came to light. A 2003 Justice Department memo unearthed by The Washington Post revealed that six lawyers and two analysts in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division concluded that DeLay’s redistricting map violated the Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, they were overruled by a GOP political appointee.
It’s been three years since the 2002 election that provided this brand of right-wing Republican control over all branches of government, in Austin and in Washington. As is so often the case with revolutionaries, the contempt they showed for the rules on their ascent to power could well spell their ultimate downfall. Regardless, three years later, the record shows that this group of Republicans ideologues—which rose to power as political insurgents—simply can’t make the responsible, nonpartisan decisions required for functional governance. People of all political persuasions are starting to realize that we can’t subsist much longer on this diet of cronyism and incompetence.