We’ve Got Issues, People
But which ones will the 81st Legislature tackle—and how?
There’s usually no telling how the Texas Legislature will use its 140 days in session every two years. But it’s no secret what lawmakers should be working on. The state’s major problems are plainly evident: an uninsured population that outnumbers the population of Louisiana; skyrocketing college tuition; high home- insurance rates; a chronically underfunded and mismanaged social safety net; unchecked carbon emissions; a looming water crisis; overcrowded prisons; and crumbling schools.
But, as ever, the issues that lawmakers should address are not necessarily the ones they will address. More often than not, the Legislature displays an uncanny ability to ignore, put off or even exacerbate problems. (Sometimes they do all three-a feat pulled off with the school finance crisis three years ago.)
Then there always seems to be an unforeseen, and highly emotional, issue that pops up and dominates debate for several weeks. Often it’s a shocking new piece of socially conservative legislation put forth by the GOP’s Christian conservatives-a ban on gay adoptions, say? Or, perhaps, limiting abortion procedures to alternate Tuesdays before 11? (Last session, the right wing raged for weeks over Gov. Rick Perry’s proposal to mandate the HPV vaccine.)
Occasionally a muckraking reporter will unearth a horrid scandal that becomes the talk of the session. In 2007, two such controversies were launched from the pages of this magazine: The Observer broke stories detailing abuse in Texas Youth Commission facilities and revealing the existence of a database in the governor’s office that was collecting personal information on Texans.
This session begins with a whole new level of uncertainty. Former House Speaker Tom Craddick, whose hard-line ideology and style made it relatively easy to predict the nasty floor fights coming, has been deposed. In his place stands fresh-faced, 49-year-old Joe Straus, a mild-mannered moderate Republican from San Antonio. Straus has served in the House for only two sessions, so he hasn’t staked out clear positions on a lot of policy issues.
Why does the speaker matter so much? Because one of the sentences you’ll keep reading below is, “The bill passed in the Senate and died in the House.” Craddick was a master of channeling worthwhile bills to committees led by his cronies, where they died with hardly a whimper-and certainly not a vote. Another frequent phrase you’ll see: “Since 2003 …” That was Craddick’s first year as speaker, and in terms of long-term damage to the state, it was a deregulating, privatizing, service-slashing doozy.
Straus’ supporters, Democratic and Republican, tout his record for consensus-building and bipartisanship, and he has pledged to run the House in a more genteel manner. But it remains to be seen if he will follow through on those promises and what, if any, bills Straus will put his newfound political power behind.
All we can say for certain is that lawmakers will pass a state budget for the next two years, because they’re constitutionally required to do it. With the largest projected budget deficit since 2003-roughly $9 billion, the result of a drop in oil and natural gas prices-2009 could be an austere session. The shortfall could be offset by the $9.1 billion that will be available in the state’s rainy day fund over the next two fiscal years. But dipping into the fund requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers. When Texas lawmakers have to close a large budget gap, health and human services typically receive deep cuts, and any legislation that will cost the state a dime, no matter how enlightened, becomes a nonstarter.
With those caveats in mind, we humbly offer the following 10 hot issues that could dominate the legislative session. You know, maybe.
1 HEALTH CARE
In 2003, when Gov. Rick Perry was informed that Texas was the 49th healthiest state, his response was, “Thank God for Mississippi.”
Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. Texas has more uninsured residents than any other state-by far. One-quarter of our population lacks health insurance. With a gross domestic product that’s the seventh largest in the world, Texas should have a better health care system than, say, Cuba’s. Yet health care hasn’t been a priority for state lawmakers, especially over the past six years, when the GOP-controlled Legislature has cut funding for key programs.
Anne Dunkleberg, associate director at the nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities, has been studying the state’s health care crisis for several years. She’s hopeful that a new presidential administration will help solve some of Texas’ problems. President-elect Obama already has promised between $2.5 and $5 billion for the Texas Medicaid program in his economic stimulus package.
If Texas is going to take advantage of that money, however, it will need to be able to enroll (and re-enroll) families in state programs. But the state’s enrollment and eligibility system has been a mess since an attempt to privatize it collapsed in 2006. During that failed effort, many of the state’s health and human service employees who once enrolled eligible families were laid off or left. The remaining employees are overworked, underpaid and demoralized. “They are working under siege-like conditions,” Dunkleberg says.
Partly because of the enrollment problems, Texas has already left millions on the table in federal matching dollars for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). There are 1.5 million children in Texas eligible for Medicaid and CHIP but unenrolled. The state has failed to comply with minimum federal standards for enrolling children in the government programs. “Texas has been out of compliance with the federal standards for years,” says Dunkelberg. “But the Bush administration was never interested in enforcing the standards.”
The state also would benefit if legislators created health-insurance options for families who make more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (that’s $40,000 for a family of four). At the moment, 48 percent of Texans don’t receive health insurance from their employers. That means children in many middle- and working-class families go uncovered.
With the present economic crisis, Dunkleberg thinks it will be hard for lawmakers to adjourn this session without passing some aid for its ailing health care system. “Insurance premiums are growing faster than incomes,” she says. “People are viewing this now as an economic security issue.”
2 CLIMATE CHANGE
State of Denial
There’s a certain gall about Texas’ policy, or lack thereof, toward climate change. It’s not just that we’re one of largest carbon producers in the world-if it were its own country, Texas would be the eighth most prolific emitter of greenhouse gases. It’s not just that our elected leadership has done nothing to reduce those emissions. It goes deeper than that: Quite a lot of our lawmakers still refuse even to admit that global warming is caused by human activity.
“Texas is really a bastion of global-warming denial,” says Andy Dressler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M who has testified on global warming before the Legislature. Dressler said legislators have been hesitant even to discuss the topic, probably because “if you start talking about it you’re going to do something about it. … They have to have silence on the issue.”
Last session, of at least a dozen filed bills addressing climate change, only one-a study of climate-related impacts on the Rio Grande-made it into law. Republicans in the House and Senate who oversaw energy and environmental legislation scoffed and snorted their way through the session, letting even mild proposals to study the problem die silently.
But this year may be different. Don’t expect newly minted Al Gore protÃ©gÃ©s driving Toyota Priuses to the Capitol. But do look for a somewhat less hostile political climate on climate change.
One reason: Congress and the Obama administration have signaled that major federal climate change legislation is in the works. “The Obama package will give Texas a choice: lead or get left behind,” says state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. “Luddites need to move away and let leadership take the day.”
As the nation’s top emitter of carbon dioxide, Texas arguably has the most to lose and the most to gain from federal action, says Bea Moorehead, executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy group. States that move sooner to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions will have an easier time adapting to a carbon-restrained world. Advocates like Moorehead want to build on the successes Texas has had with wind power and energy conservation by pushing incentives for the solar industry and expanding efficiency standards. Such measures, they say, will create jobs and cut air pollution while replacing sources of greenhouse gas.
Environmentalists would also like to impose limits on carbon-emitting industries-a much harder sell. A sweeping proposal by Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis, the Texas Global Warming Solutions Act, would cap greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels and require that polluters come into compliance by 2023. More likely to succeed are bills that focus on low-cost strategies. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is re-filing what he calls a “no-regrets global warming bill.” The bill simply requires the state environmental agency to identify ways to reduce emissions at no cost. Sounds straightforward enough. But in 2007, the same bill died in Craddick’s House after passing the Senate 28-3.
One ray of light: With Craddick ousted, so will go the chairmen he appointed to oversee-and block-environmental legislation. Green advocates expect Speaker Straus to be friendlier to environmental concerns, including climate change. They point to a voluminous energy-efficiency bill Straus steered through the Legislature last session. “That certainly seems auspicious,” Moorehead says.
Since taking power in 2003, the GOP leadership in the Legislature has looked to outsource everything from food stamps to photocopying. In the past three sessions, the Republicans doled out billions in taxpayers’ money to private corporations to carry out government functions. Problem was, their enthusiasm for private contracting didn’t extend to oversight of those contracts. The result has been a series of scandals in which government contractors have wasted taxpayer money and bungled critical programs.
Take-please-the Accenture contract in 2003. Legislators handed the company hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to privatize and revamp eligibility systems for food stamps and Medicaid. The result was a disaster. Several thousand Texans lost vital healthcare and social services.
Keeping an eye on private contractors ought to be a top issue this session. “Every single lawmaker should take notice,” says Sen. Eliot Shapleigh. “Waste is waste and fraud is fraud-it’s not a Democrat or a Republican issue.”
One reason for the Lege’s aversion to oversight is the enormous amount of money spent on lobbying by private contractors. Many of the lobbyists are former legislators, who leave public service only to secure well-paid lobbying jobs from the companies to which they helped steer government contracts. Lauren Reinlie of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice cites two industries notorious for using that revolving door: “Each year Texas pays private prison contractors $200 million,” she says. Meanwhile, “the state has paid at least $2 billion to private contractors for health and human service projects since 1996.”
“A lot of the money is wasted on paying back political cronies and peddling political influence,” Shapleigh says. Last session he authored Senate Bill 769, which would have tightened up oversight of government outsourcing. The bill passed the Senate but-repeat after me-died in the House. Shapleigh says he will try again this session.
4 HOMEOWNERS INSURANCE
The mere mention of “home insurance regulation” can be enough to glaze over the eyes of even the most committed policy wonks. Insurance policy is dry, arcane, lingo-intensive, and lacks the political cachet associated with issues like abortion or health care. Yet home insurance could well be the most important pocketbook issue the Legislature deals with this session.
Texas consumers pay the highest home-insurance rates in the country, an expense that affects nearly all Texans (even you renters out there). And with a burgeoning foreclosure crisis, reducing home-insurance premiums could help keep many struggling families from losing their homes.
Companies writing home insurance policies in Texas have enjoyed some of their most profitable years on record, even with the occasional hurricane rolling ashore. Insurance companies in Texas in 2007 earned roughly $400 of pure profit on each policy they wrote, according to calculations by Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group. Nice work if you can get it.
Consumers have not been as fortunate. Texans are paying higher rates-annual premiums average about $1,200 a year-for less coverage, thanks to a deregulation bill the Legislature passed in 2003.
Meanwhile, the Legislature has kept state insurance regulators virtually powerless to do anything about the home insurance market. Insurers don’t even have to get permission from the Department of Insurance before raising rates. In an industry-friendly system called “file-and-use,” they simply have to notify regulators that they’ve hiked the price. (Thought you’d like to know …)
Nearly six years after the last major reform-crafted largely to please the industry-state lawmakers will almost assuredly try again this session to design a home insurance market that benefits consumers.
Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers are calling for stricter regulation, such as making companies get approval before they raise rates. Rep. John Smithee, an Amarillo Republican who has headed the House Insurance Committee since 2003, prefers a hybrid system in which most companies must gain approval for rate increases but “good actors” would be rewarded with less regulation.
You’ll be surprised to learn that the insurance industry-a powerful presence at the Legislature-wants even less regulation. But the chances for genuine reform increased, at least in the House, when Joe Straus became speaker. Former Speaker Craddick, as was his way, had kept insurance reform bills bottled up in committee. “The former speaker was a real hindrance to reform,” said Alex Winslow of Texas Watch.
Straus’ views on homeowners insurance aren’t yet well known. But moderate Republicans who backed Straus, such as Fort Worth’s Charlie Geren and Plano’s Brian McCall, have pushed pro-consumer bills in past sessions. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” says Winslow. This session might be consumers’ best chance in years to see lower homeowners’ insurance rates.
5 COLLEGE TUITION
In 2003, University of Texas officials pitched their plan to transfer tuition-setting authority from the Legislature to individual colleges and universities in terms that any self-respecting free-market legislator would appreciate: They called it tuition deregulation. The Texas Legislature had already deregulated electricity, telecommunications and insurance. Why not tuition?
Five years on, college and universities have exercised their new powers liberally. Since 2003, tuition and fees have soared 86 percent at UT-Austin and 70 percent at Texas A&M, and more than doubled at UT-Dallas. The average hike across the state: 58 percent.
Like electricity prices and home insurance rates, the cost of a college education has become a cause of alarm among middle-class voters-and, thus, an increasingly hot political issue.
Many lawmakers in both parties have come to view their vote to unfetter tuition as a mistake. “Like many members, I had serious concerns about passing a tuition deregulation bill in 2003, but I reluctantly supported it because we [were] faced with an enormous budget shortfall,” wrote Rep. Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, in December in the San Antonio Express-News. “Unfortunately, we were led to believe that complete deregulation-not moderation-was the only answer.”
Pitts blamed Tom Craddick and his lieutenants for blocking tuition reform in 2007. With Craddick out of power, legislators have loosed a flurry of bills aimed at undoing or reining in deregulation. One such bill by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would freeze tuition and only allow increases pegged to the inflation rate. Hinojosa’s measure has eight co-authors in the Senate, including four who voted for the 2003 deregulation.
But simply capping tuition doesn’t address the fundamental problem, says Keshav Rajagopalan, the UT student body president. “A lot of legislators have heard grumbling from constituents and have pointed at the university, but they need to look at themselves,” Rajagopalan says. “Year after year we’ve seen an underfunding from the Legislature. It really hasn’t been a priority for them.” Indeed, the state’s share of higher-education funding has plummeted from 85 percent in the 1970s to just 16 percent today.
With such a large drop in state funding, universities have had no choice but to pass on the difference to students and their families, says Kevin Hegarty, the chief financial officer at UT Austin. Higher-education officials would like to see “the state step up to some commitment to fund at least at the inflation rate,” he says. But given the souring economy and other pressing issues, Hegarty said it would be “Pollyannaish” to predict a major funding boost this year.
6 VOTER ID
Perhaps the most divisive and emotional issue debated in the Legislature the past four years has been a proposal to require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Not surprisingly, voter ID, as it’s commonly called, has gotten just a tad partisan. Many Republicans love the idea; nearly all Democrats detest it.
The argument for voter ID sounds simple enough: Protect the integrity of elections and reduce fraud by requiring that voters show a photo ID and prove they are who they say they are. Republican supporters say the photo ID requirement isn’t particularly onerous-after all, you need one these days to board a plane or rent movies from Blockbuster.
Democrats don’t buy it. They argue that instances of voter fraud are extremely rare and don’t affect elections. They also contend that some voters don’t have photo IDs, and the requirements would disenfranchise many elderly, minority and poor voters.
Those constituencies usually favor Democrats. And Democrats believe that’s the real driving factor behind the Republican’s voter ID push.
Debate on voter ID bills in the Texas House the past two sessions was bitter and nasty, with Democrats accusing the GOP of trying to resurrect a poll tax. Voter ID barely passed the House in 2007, but it died in the Senate when an ailing Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, returned to the chamber from liver transplant surgery to provide Democrats the necessary vote to block the bill.
Had Tom Craddick captured a fourth term as House Speaker, voter ID probably would have resurfaced this session. With Joe Straus taking over, the chances that a bill will pass this session are slimmer. But it’s a delicate issue for Straus. He voted for it last session, and many powerful voices in his party will pressure him to bring it back to the House floor.
On Jan. 14, Senate Republicans cleared the way for Voter ID to pass the upper chamber, specifically exempting Voter ID legislation from the requirement that a bill pass a two-thirds vote before it can be debated. That likely means the Democrats’ only chance of stopping Voter ID lies in the House and its new speaker.
Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat who helped lead the opposition to voter ID last session, believes that any bill resembling last session’s would be a nonstarter. A viable ID bill, he says, would need a “vote-saving” provision in which those without an ID could sign an affidavit at the polling location affirming their identity and then be allowed to vote. He would also want to see a provision that helps poor voters pay the fee for an ID. “It would need to include all those provisions and others,” Anchia says. “I anticipate that [Straus’] statements about not having divisive issues coming to the floor would obviate a bloody floor fight on a voter disenfranchisement bill.”
7 FOSTER CARE
Texas’ foster care system is a wreck. The state ranks 47th in the nation in funding for child welfare. In 2008, Child Protective Services caseworkers handled an average of 39 cases each. The national average is 24. Child deaths from neglect and abuse regularly haunt the evening news. Underpaid and overworked caseworkers continue to flee the state agency.
It got so bad recently that the federal government fined Texas $4 million for violating federal child-welfare standards. Still, lawmakers have chosen to address the problems piecemeal rather than provide the major funding and reform the system needs. This year isn’t likely to break that pattern. “The budget is flat this year,” says Jodie Smith, public policy director with the nonprofit Texans Care for Children. “There is also a general feeling among legislators that the problem was fixed.”
Not quite. In 2005, legislators gave Child Protective Services $250 million. More than 3,000 new investigative caseworkers were hired, and all caseworkers received $5,000 pay increases. The increase in investigations of abuse and neglect caused a spike in the number of children the state removed from their families and placed in foster care. The state quickly ran out of places to put all those kids. As a result, some children had to sleep in state offices for up to 20 days. It caused a bit of a stir.
The Texas Legislature has looked to privatization as a way to fix the foster-home shortage on the cheap. In 2005, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, carried SB 6, privatizing some oversight and placements. But the deaths of three children in foster care in North Texas under the supervision of a private company called Mesa Family Services spurred a revision of that legislation. In 2007, Nelson passed a bill that scaled back the privatization she’d put in the session before. But the 2007 bill privatized another part of the system-creating a pilot project for management services normally performed by state caseworkers in 5 percent of cases statewide. Smith expects Nelson to file legislation expanding the pilot project to 10 percent of cases statewide.
With an economic crisis and a faltering Texas economy, advocates don’t expect legislators to provide the needed funding for the state’s starving child-welfare system. The nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities points out that Texas would have to spend another $451 million per year just to catch up with other Southern states, which spend an average of $206 per child (Texas spends $134). This session, advocates like Smith will face the tough task of capturing the attention of legislators who have already moved on to other problems.
“It’s difficult to sustain their attention,” she says. “But we have to keep up the investment in the system so that we don’t cycle into crisis again.”
8 DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY
It’s been rough sledding lately for the Texas Department of Public Safety. First, the state police largely took the blame for allowing the Governor’s Mansion to get torched last summer. In June, a legislative review panel harshly criticized DPS as a disorganized and antiquated agency. A month later, Col. Thomas Davis resigned after eight years as head of DPS. And as a final blow, the agency’s own consultant issued a scathing report in late October that called for a major overhaul.
With DPS undergoing sunset review-the process by which the Legislature examines and reauthorizes a state agency, usually every 12 years-a bill that reforms the agency will certainly pass. What that overhaul will ultimately look like remains anyone’s guess. But big changes seem likely.
DPS has suffered from a shortage of officers in recent years as its mission has expanded to include preventing terrorism and illegal immigration, areas of law enforcement that were once the domain of the federal government. Gov. Rick Perry has dispatched teams of DPS troopers to South Texas to guard the border, which further stretched an agency already struggling to replenish its ranks. The short staffing may help explain why only one trooper was guarding the Governor’s Mansion the night of the fire. (The arsonist hasn’t been caught.)
In its initial report, the Sunset Committee characterized the agency’s auto licensing and inspection divisions as disorganized. Its report recommends taking these non-law enforcement duties away from DPS and spinning them off into their own agency.
After the harsh sunset assessment last summer, DPS contracted the consulting firm Deloitte and Touche to evaluate the agency. The resulting report, issued last fall, recommended a radical restructuring of the agency to better streamline law enforcement divisions that now work semi-autonomously. The consultants proposed that DPS form a division devoted solely to intelligence gathering and counterterrorism. That may make bureaucratic sense-intelligence gathering is now spread among many divisions-but civil liberties advocates are concerned that a DPS division exclusively devoted to spying on Texans would lead to all kinds of privacy violations.
In an era of terrorism and cybercrime, when crooks are as likely to steal money with a computer as with a gun, DPS’s role is clearly changing. And the agency is likely to look very different in five months.
Social conservatives have been nervously pacing the Capitol hallways ever since it was clear Joe Straus would be the new House speaker. Straus, whose family business is horse racing, has conservatives worried that the gambling lobby will go all in this session to legalize casinos in Texas.
Suzii Paynter, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, expects some “full-blown casino bills” this session along with a move to put video lottery terminals (video slots) at racetracks. The devastation of Galveston by Hurricane Ike gives gambling advocates another angle to preach the economic revitalization benefits of casinos. “They will always try to find some reason as to why gambling is good for the state,” Paynter says.
Paynter points out that the Texans for Economic Development Political Action Committee, funded by gambling interests, contributed $1 million to several political campaigns in the last election cycle. They supported 22 Democrats and 6 Republicans who won their elections.
Gambling supporters claim that casino gambling could generate $3 billion to $4.5 billion in state and local tax revenue. That kind of money might be too attractive for many legislators to ignore. Some have proposed using gambling revenues to shore up everything from deteriorating public schools to college scholarships. Last session Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis and Republican Sen. John Carona filed a gambling bill that would have provided $1 billion per year for college tuition aid.
What gives opponents-who are not, of course, all social conservatives-some encouragement this session is the economic crisis, which has slowed expansion plans for many large casino operators. Gambling revenue in Las Vegas has already dipped by 8.5 percent, according to Time magazine. Plans to build one of the world’s tallest casinos (55 stories) petered out at the 12th floor.
For his part, Straus, whose father founded the Retama horseracing track in San Antonio, has promised to avoid personal involvement in any gambling legislation. That doesn’t mean, however, that as speaker he can’t appoint gambling-friendly committee chairs, or allow gambling legislation to move freely through the legislative maze.
Paynter, a veteran of several battles at the Capitol over gambling, is readying herself for a tough session. “We will probably see an expansion of electronic gambling machines around bingo areas,” she says. “I call it electronic game creep.”
She’s already cranking up her rhetoric. “The truth of the matter is that the nation is in a recession and Texas is skating on a bubble,” Paynter says. “This is a time for thrift, not promoting gambling addiction and the crimes that come with gambling.”
Heroes and Villains
Although the hysteria over illegal immigration has died down considerably since 2007, social conservatives in the Legislature are once again putting immigrant-bashing bills at the top of their agenda.
On the other side, a strange-bedfellows coalition of GOP-oriented business interests, Democratic-leaning Latino organizations and immigrant rights advocates that coalesced during the last legislative session is prepared to make sure any anti-immigrant measures are dead on arrival. “That coalition is in place and ready to ensure that the debate on immigration occurs on the federal level and not the state level,” says Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.
In 2006, during a special session of the Legislature, Anchia-a savvy House player-forced employers that rely on immigrant labor into the fray by introducing legislation that would have penalized businesses who hired undocumented workers. “We wanted to create the most broad coalition possible, and many business interests that had a stake in the discussion had been silent to date,” he said. They spoke right up when their businesses were targeted. Anchia says he has no plans to file such legislation again because the coalition has stuck together and even grown.
That won’t deter Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, intrepid leader of the anti-immigration faction. Berman has already introduced at least half a dozen bills. Among them: a draconian measure that would strip undocumented people 14 and older of various public benefits; a stipulation that public schools inquire about students’ immigration status and enter the information into a database; a requirement that all state agencies enforce federal immigration law or risk losing funding; a constitutional amendment making English the official language of the state; a tax on all money wire transfers between Texas and (only) countries south of the border; and-just for the hell of it-a mandate that all undocumented immigrants in the state move to “sanctuary cities.”
“I understand why bills like that get filed,” says Anchia. “They’re born out of frustration with the broken federal system. But they’re not good policy. Even if they passed they would be wholly ineffective,” creating “a patchwork of immigration rules at the local, state and federal levels.”
The anti-immigration bills are also born out of politics. Berman has positioned himself as a fearless crusader, unafraid to anger the business wing of the GOP and those Republicans sensitive to the state’s shifting demographics.
“There are very few legislators who want to deal with it,” Berman told the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “They’re afraid of losing Hispanic votes.”
If the Legislature doesn’t act to crack down on illegal immigrants, Berman says he will take a run at the Governor’s Mansion in 2010.