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CAPITOL OFFENSES Who Gets Eaten and Who Gets to Eat … BY LOUIS DUBOSE /t was an argument that might have been advanced by Glen Maxey or Elliott Naishtat or any of a half-dozen House liberals. For more than a decade \(the witness at the Senate Criminal Juspeople are not treated differently than others, that they are not singled out as second-class citizens. “The mentally retarded want to be treated equally,” he concluded. “They want to be treated as individuals who have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.” The witness was Williamson County Assistant District Attorney John Bradley making the argument for the execution of mentally retarded defendants convicted of capital murder. Bradley was deadly earnest, even going so far as to suggest that if people who are mentally retarded get a free ride on the death penalty, the door will be left wide open for others to line up before legislative committees in years to come. If you ever need to be reminded of what a mean-spirited society this is, drop in on any one of two dozen daily committee hearings in the Capitol complex. If it is not opposition to Senator Rodney Ellis’ bill exempting the mentally retarded from execution, or opposition to Senator Eddie Lucio’s bill that would provide life without parole as an al’ ternative to execution, it’s the corporate proposal to muscle the state out of radioactive waste disposal licensing and make it a completely private for-profit operation that would turn commercial and Department of Energy rad waste into shareholder dividends. And there are the leaks from the ongoing meetings on welfare reform, where the Governor’s negotiators are proposing Draconian sanctions for the families of anyone who ever cheats on welfare. Legislative politics in the Second Gilded Age are best described by a line from Stephen Sondheim’ s Grand Guignol musical Sweeney Todd a darkly humorous struggle between “who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” If you can’t get a seat at a hearing, go to the Legislature on line, and click on House Bill 1. The House passed an appropriations bill in mid-April, in a day-long session so quiet and infused with consensus that it might have passed for a Quaker meeting. Granted, all of the fighting was over and legislators only had to sit at their desks and vote while those familiar with the bill’s contents watched to ensure that no interest group would use an amendment, or an . amendment to an amendment, to achieve something that hadn’t been agreed to in the Appropriations Committee. Chapter XI of the bill is the catch-all for every item “considered to be desirable and necessary, but not budgeted elsewhere in this act.” The grand total, for the two years covered by the budget, is $6.8 billion. And while the estimate of the “surplus” Governor Bush intends to raid” to lower property taxes is $5.6 billion, a look at Chapter XI suggests that there is no surplus rather a calculated failure to provide funding for the most basic services of government. The largest “desirable and necessary but not budgeted” category in the budget passed by the House is education. What is budgeted is $2.97 billion short of what is needed. The second largest underfunded budget category is health and human services, which comes up $2.72 billion short. The third largest specific budget category on the Chapter XI “wish list” is protection of natural resources, which came up $212.5 million short. Texas is dead last among the fifty states in per capita government spending there is no fifty-first place. It is thirty-eighth in teacher salaries, forty-seventh in spending on social services, and forty-ninth in spending on environmental protection. But there is no narrative in numbers, and the real tragicomedy at the Lege has thus far been playing in committees. The House is just beginning to pass bills, and in the Senate the two-thirds vote required to bring up a bill almost guarantees that a decision has been made before a bill gets to the floor. When Houston Senator Rodney Ellis proposed to end the execution of mentally retarded people who might not fully comprehend the nature of their crime and might therefore be unable to participate in their own defense, he knew it was going to be difficult to get his bill out the committee. “He’s hoping to appeal to what Lincoln once described as the better angels within us,” said an Ellis aide. Lincoln may never have known anyone quite like the Williamson County district attorney, who made an impassioned plea for continued execution of the mentally retarded, warning that if the bill is passed, those on Death Row who are mentally retarded will be in court citing the equal protection clause and demanding retrials. In an attempt to get one more committee member to sign on with the bill, Keith Hampton of the Texas Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys described one mentally retarded client he had represented, who was convicted and is currently serving time. “He calls me every week,” Hampton said. “Collect. It’s the same thing: ‘Hey, this is Jesse. Want me to draw you a cat?’ Then he mails me a drawing of a cat.” Asked by committee chair Ken Armbrister if he wanted a vote on the bill, Ellis responded: “Now? Before this committee? If I asked for a vote I could be covered by the provisions of this legislation.” When Plano Senator Florence Shapiro raised a question about the scheduling of the vote, Ellis said, “Now I know you’re over seventy.” Shapiro, who supports execution of the mentally retarded and admittedly, looks much older than her forty-nine years, seemed offended, until Ellis continued. “Seventy on the I.Q. test,” he said. Ellis left his bill pending. “He doesn’t have the votes to get the bill out of committee,” a Senate aide said. “And they don’t have the votes to kill it.” At the same hearing, Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio laid out a bill that would provide life without parole as an alternative to execution. Unlike Austin Representative Elliott Naishtat, who introduced the same bill in the House and is opposed to state 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 30, 1999