The 140-day hangover from the Bush years limped to a close amid predictions that Texas will finally be forced to an income tax next session. The story of the 77th session of the Texas legislature is short: George W. left the cupboard bare.
The successive tax cuts in ’97 and ’99 left no room to edge us up to average in anything. “Forever 48th” is still our state motto. Despite a record $114 billion biennial budget, it’s still unclear whether the state’s miserly social services will even cover increased population growth. The Lege did pass health insurance for teachers–now there’s a blow for liberty–but it won’t be phased in until 2002, so its biennial cost will double the following year. Because the Lege finally simplified the process of applying for Medicaid (thanks to Reps. Elliott Naishtat of Austin and Patty Gray of Galveston, who had the nifty notion of sending one of the 27-page application forms to every member of the Ledge), the Medicaid rolls will swell by an unknown factor.
If it didn’t cost money, you could get things done this session–the hate crimes bill, access to DNA testing for prisoners in the Cowboy Gulag, no kids in the back of the pick-up. But it was gutwrenching to watch the $250 million “Marshall Plan” for South Texas, the state’s perennially underfunded step-child, go down in flames. Although a decent-ish version of indigent defense (no more sleeping lawyers in death penalty cases) was passed–credit due to Sen. Rodney Ellis and Annette LoVoi of Texas Appleseed–Perry is threatening to veto a ban on the execution of retarded people.
But the one thing that cost no money that was supposedly the main purpose of the session–redistricting–did not get done at all. The Senate Republicans, led by David Sibley of Waco–trashed the compromise painfully wrought by Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), treating him as though Austin were Washington and he was Jim Jeffords. Ug-lee. Everybody plays hardball on redistricting, but failure to eventually compromise often results in disaster from unexpected directions. The mess now goes to the Redistricting Board, which is four-to-one in favor of Republicans, and thence inevitably to court.
We have our usual assortment of heroes and villains with four notable contenders for the Special Interest Sleaze Award–Gary Elkins of Houston, who is the loanshark, and John Carona of Dallas, who might as well be. (This is now known by the euphemism “predatory lending.”) Rep. Ken Brimer of Fort Worth and Sen. Chris Harris of Arlington carried the heaviest piece of lobby legislation of the session, a Bad Bill on tax abatement known as the “Intel Bill.” As John Sharp, the former state comptroller, observed recently, “If we had put every nickel of tax abatement we’ve passed for the last ten years into the schools, we’d not only be better off–and all those companies would have moved here anyway.”
If the future of the Democratic Party lies with minorities and women, I’d say we have a future. There is a lot of talent coming up through the Lege Farm Club that an alert party would be grooming for statewide office. Rodney Ellis, who is a real star in the Senate, is clearly the standout, but he keeps saying he’s making too much money to run for anything. Royce West, the dignified black senator from Dallas, was also impressive this session as were Sylvester Turner of Houston, Harold Dutton of Houston, Pete Gallego of Alpine, Chuy Hinojosa of McAllen and several others. Patty Gray of Galveston is boringly Anglo, but a truly effective player. The most notable development in both minority caucuses is an increase in the frustration level: This should ease as more of them get to be major players, but it behooves the D’s to do some care and feeding.
The House R’s continue to show their classic lack of good sense, treating one of their mavericks, Tommy Merritt of Longview (a great political name: for some reason, names with double letters look better on billboards–remember Edd Hargett?), to a public dissing on the very day Jim Jeffords walked the party in Washington. Bill Ratliff, who has always had redeeming social value, proved it again as Lite Guv. He presided fairly and appointed a number of Democrats to chair major committees. ‘S funny how individual members can go up and down from session to session: Sibley, who has been a useful player in the past (I think I cost him the lieutenant governorship by mentioning several times in my column that he’s quite bright) not only played obstructionist on redistricting, but couldn’t find the time to do anything helpful. Honorable mention should go to the ailing Tom Haywood (R-Wichita Falls), for casting a courageous vote to allow the hate crimes bill to come up. Haywood, who has Parkinson’s, was terribly ill and made it through the session on sheer guts and the help of his devoted daughter Denise. His son died of AIDS on the last day of the session, depressing everyone.
And then there were the indefinable, ineffable performances that lend enchantment and je ne sais quoi to the Ledge. Does anyone understand why Ron Wilson (D-Houston), the Unguided Missile, does what he does? He made several strong stands this session, but for what purpose it was hard to tell. I have a terrible confession to make concerning Warren Chisum, the Bible-thumper from Pampa: I can’t help it, I like him. He’s such a genial ideologue. Whereas Kent Grusendorf and Arlene Wohlgemuth are both graduates of the Phil Gramm School of Charm.
Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.