1144f%i e. g g ittriAttl& `Mad Dog’ Meng friend or foe? Austin has come up with a number of screwy ideas in his six-year legislative tenure, and he is commonly perceived in the state Senate as a right-wing wildman. His nickname is “Mad Dog,” if that gives you some clue, and during debates his colleagues have been known to howl, yap and bay when he approaches the microphone. He’s as regular looking a man as you’re ever going to meet, but the mere mention of his name among Capitol regulars sets many to giggling. People like to hear and tell stories about old Mad Dog. But while everybody has had a lot of fun at his expense, few have noticed that the west Houston conservative has sponsored some rather sound legislation. The Senate has just passed a “sunset” bill, requiring dozens of state agencies to justify their existence every few years or go out of business. With the Carterinspired fad of cutting back government, the sunset idea has proved a big hit this session, and a lot of reformers and editorialists are very pleased with themselves for pushing it; but sunset legislation was first proposed in Texas by Mad Dog Mengden back in 1974. Some good ideas This time around, Senator Mengden has a few more good ideas that people should know about. First, his SJR 43 proposes a constitutional amendment to prohibit any state agency \(except higher funds from private sources. The practice is much more widespread than most realize drug companies contribute openly to the Mental Health & Mental Retardation agency, chemical corporations cough up a few bucks for the state agricultural extension service, and energy firms make grants to state research agencies. Mengden says the outside help amounts to influence peddling: “By contributing these funds, private organizations assume the role of lobbyists, trying to butter up the state agency receiving the money in order to influence it in certain ways.” The flaw in Mengden’s proposal is his exemption of colleges and universities, which are probably the worst offenders. There isn’t a school in the state unwilling to set up special courses of study favored by a contributing firm. Many accept corporate grants to perform research of specific interest to contributors, and the presidents of most state colleges and universities are on the corporate take in some form or other. Mengden acknowledges the problem, but says he doesn’t want to bite off more in this bill than the Legislature would be willing to chew: “I left [colleges and universities] off for political reasons to give the bill a chance to pass,” he told the Observer. Then, along with Sen. Ron Clower duced SJR 35, a constitutional amendment that would give Texans two of the most effective tools of direct democracy initiative balloting and the referendum. Under the initiative provision, if 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election sign a petition in favor of a particular measure, the proposal will appear on the ballot in the next general election; and if a majority of voters say “yes” to the proposal, it will become state law. The referendum would make possible a voters’ veto of an act passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. If the act is not approved at the polls, it would be struck from the books. Call Mengden a conservative if you will, but a lot of liberal Democrats are unprepared to extend such democratic controls to the people. Mad Dog has given legislative expression to other admirable tendencies. Consider his proposal to prohibit state regulatory officials from entering financial or professional relationships with any of the firms they regulate during their tenure in office and for five years thereafter. Madness is relative Of course, Mengden has done plenty to earn his nickname. His unfortunate side is reflected in a current effort to push Texas backwards on the ERA \(see madness is relative, particularly in Texas where a House full of reputedly sane legislators has just passed an insane highway bill that appropriates a good 15 percent of the state budget without even knowing how the money would be spent. While it’s fun to carry on about Mad Dog’s latest caper, it’s a mistake to overlook the man’s seriousness and his contributions to progressive government. Given a choice between the democratic craziness Mengden often champions and the Petroleum Club rationality that currently governs Texas, I’ll throw in with the Mad Dogs. J.H. March 11, 1977 7
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