Day three of new legislator school includes a panel on media relations. “Don’t do anything in Austin you wouldn’t want your mother to know about,” one veteran of broadcast journalism advised the nine novitiates. Rodney Ellis, the Houston Democrat and new chairman of Senate Finance, further admonished the new members that their spot in the limelight was fleeting. “Each session, work out an agenda of what you want to get done, because you may not get to come back,” he told them. “Then at least you can say, ‘When I had the juice, I did something with it.'” What Ellis didn’t say was that those with the most juice, particularly those on an ideological mission (and there are a couple in this class), will more likely than not be disappointed by their fellow partisans. Partisanship is important, particularly in this redistricting year, but it only goes so far as a motivating factor. What they should have been told is that at least half of what the lege does in any session is settle differences between competing business interests, most of whom don’t particularly care which party is in power.
It takes strong leadership (and, usually, a crisis) to channel the energy of the lege away from these “little bills” (that is, special interest bills) into tackling something big and genuinely in the public interest, like water law or school finance reform in 1997. Or, for that matter, to bring the members together behind big bills that aren’t in the public interest, like tort reform in 1997 or electric utility deregulation last session. Early indications suggest that there may be no such channeling of energies, for good or ill, this time around. Because of the uncertainty of Bush’s accession–and the close-fought struggle over leadership in the Senate–the lege appears directionless this session. There seems to be very little “agenda setting” coming out of Austin. One recent poll quoted in the Dallas Morning News asked Texans to name the most important issue facing the state; “Don’t Know,” topped the list at 28 percent, a sure sign that the legislative leaders haven’t been out making the rounds of editorial boards, doing the usual pre-session flogging for tax-cuts, workers’ comp reform, and the like. Add to that the energy drain of redistricting, and the sentiment around the capitol this year seems to be “don’t expect much.” “It’s going to be a good session for chipping at the edges of things and filling in some of the gaps from last year,” one lobbyist said. A good session for “little bills,” in other words.
Still, momentum seems to be building around a couple of big-ticket items, foremost of which is health coverage for school teachers and staff. Currently, districts negotiate independently to obtain insurance for their employees, resulting in considerable variation in coverage and benefits from district to district, and, in some cases, outrageously high premiums–or no coverage at all. The push this session will be to provide state-guaranteed uniform coverage. The price tag will be in the billions, but it’s been a long time coming. “It’s going to be a tough sell to get what teachers and staff definitely deserve,” Austin Democrat Elliott Naishtat said. Another big ticket item is pay raises for correctional officers in the state’s badly neglected prison system, where long-running staff shortages are being blamed for a host of problems, including the recent escape from the Connally unit in South Texas and the mayhem that followed. This is how problems get solved in the Texas lege: In the bizarre calculus of government by crisis control, every Oshman’s store they hit is worth an extra hundred a month for Texas Correctional Officers.