South Plains Cincinnatus WVill James E. “Pete” Laney become the Cincinnatus of the South Plains? Laney, a Hale Center farmer and conservative Democrat, was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives by acclamation on the opening day of the 73rd Legislature, but he surprised some of his colleagues a few days later when he embraced sweeping House reform proposals that would reduce his power. In his acceptance speech, Laney, 49, emphasized that he would stress ethics and openness. “There is no issue more important to me than earning the trust, the respect and the support of the people of Texas for the House of Representatives and the work it does,” he said. The 2q-year House veteran had little to distinguish himself as a reformer. As State Affairs Committee chairman he was considered a dependable lieutenant of previous House Speaker Gib Lewis and Laney notably waited until the closing days of the 72nd Legislature before he moved the ethics bill for action. But Laney had impressed enough young lawmakers with his fairness on State Affairs that he methodically picked up support when it came to replacing Lewis, the Fort Worth conservative Democrat. Under pressure from Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle for misdemeanor ethics violations, Lewis stepped down after a record five terms as Speaker. Laney reportedly assured lawmakers he would not seek more than two terms as Speaker; he appeared to back off from that commitment after his election, saying that. House members would decide on whether to limit his terms. But he delivered on rules reforms designed to open up the legislative process and said the proposed rules offer “much-needed and dramatic changes,” which set the stage for what could be the first reform session in 20 years. In the past, more than half of the bills were passed by the House in the last three days of the 140-day regular sessions, due to parliamentary rules which gave key lawmakers and lobbyists more control over the flow of bills. Under the proposed rules, the deadlines would start kicking in 17 days before the end of the session, which at least would reduce the crush of bills. The rules also would require the Calendars Committee, into which bills all too often disappeared in the past, to vote publicly on each bill within 30 days of receiving it. The Speaker would appoint only half of the members of the Appropriations Committee, with the rest determined by seniority. He also would be prohibited from removing committee chairs after they are appointed. In the closing days, non-local bills would need final House approval 17 days before the end of thesession; final passage of Senate bills would be needed six days before the end of the session. Only conference committee reports and amendments would be considered on the fifth and fourth days before the end of a session; on the third and second days before the session’s end, the House would limit itself to conference committee reports. Laney has proposed streamlining the House committee system, reducing the number of committees from 36 to 31. Good-government lobbyists said Laney’s support appeared to clinch the long-sought reforms. “For the first time in at least 10 years the Calendars Committee is going to have to work in public,” said Suzy Woodford of Common Cause. “And there will be layout rules, so that we won’t have ethics bills passed at a minute to midnight of the last day of the session with nobody knowing what’s in the bill,” she said. Among the leaders in the House reform workign group were progressive Democrats John Hirschi of Wichita Falls, Libby Linebarger of Manchaca, who helped convince the reform group that Laney was open to reform, Sherri Greenberg, Elliott Naishtat and Glenn Maxey, all of Austin, Republicans Talmadge Heflin and Bill Carter of Houston and Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and conservative Democrats Warren Chisum of Pampa and Billy Clemons of Lufkin, who was among the first to press for rules reforms when, as a Calendars Committee member he blew the lid off its secretiveness. He also was a key to getting the liberal Democrats and Republicans together, despite his initial mistrust of the Laney supporters, Woodford said, and there was somehope that the working relationships created by the rules-reform coalition might carry over to school finance reform and other issues in the coming session. Well,. it’s still early enough in the session to dream. Laney said he hoped to resolve the state’s school finance deadlock within 30 days. In the meantime, he was holding off on committee assignments, although he denied the two were connected. At least, he said, “Not at this time,” although the perception persists that lawmakers who stall a school equity plan this time around will end up on the taxi squad. Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, on the other hand, named 12 committees, including three Republican chairmen in a nod to the New Reality: Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant takes over Education, Ike Harris of Dallas heads State Affairs and Don Henderson of Houston heads Jurisprudence. The other chairs are Democrats, including Administration, Bill Haley of Center; Criminal Justice, John Whitmire of Houston; Economic Development, Carl Parker of Port Arthur, who sought a move after five sessions as Education chair; Finance, John Montford of Lubbock; Health and Human Services, Judith Zaffirini of Laredo; Intergovernmental Relations, Ken Armbrister of Victoria; International Relations, Trade & Technology, Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi; Natural Resources, Bill Sims of San Angelo; and Nominations, Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin. Steve Carricker of Roby will chair the Committee of the Whole on Redistricting, Ethics and Elections. Irhe budget news is grim; even with the lot tery contributing to a 5.2 percent increase in the state’s estimated revenues, Comptroller John Sharp said the state will fall $3.2 billion short of keeping services at the current level. State District Judge Scott McCown of Austin warned that he will enforce the Texas Supreme Court’s order to cut off state funding for public schools if the Legislature does not adopt an equitable school finance plan by June 1, but lawmakers have halved the amount of new money earmarked for public schools, with prisons the other end of the school spectrum getting the bulk of any windfall. The two-year spending proposal drawn up by the Legislative Budget Board as a stating point for lawmakers, a budget that contemplates cuts in monthly Aid to Families with. Dependent Children, Medicaid, family planning, AIDS/HIV services and prevention funding for child abuse and neglect, “is inhumane, shortsighted and without redeeming social value,” said Phil Strickland, chairman of the CARE Coalition of Texas, a coalition of 49 human services organizations. “If Texas had a strategic plan for mediocrity, this would be an excellent first step,” said Strickland, also with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Oh, that Texas would aspire to mediocrity! The Lone Star State’s traditional stinginess on AFDC payments already places it 47th among the 50 states; the proposed cut from the current $57 a month to $45 a month “guarantees Texas the trophy for being the leading grinch in the nation,” Strickland said. He added: “Governor Richards, you care about humans who hurt. Lead us to do more, not less, to meet their needs.” But Richards told her Health Policy Task Force the state does not have $2 billion to pay for health care for pregnant women and children, as the task force recommended, although she supported the appropriation of $50 million for immunization of children. In the days leading up to President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the taxconscious governor was lobbying Congress to relieve the states of health-care obligations. “Paying for health care is killing us,” she said. “In the short term, we hope there will be relief from some of the federal mandates.” Senate finance officials reportedly are pinning their hopes for making up a $1.6 billion annual shortfall in health and human services on a “shell game” that would attract four federal dollars for every dollar the state spends on Medicaid. But there is some concern that the new deficit-conscious Congress will put a stop to the program that awards extra money to hospitals that serve a disproportionate share of low-income patients. If that happens, guess who loses. J.C. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5 .1014.1ti,
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