Tort Deform, continued from page 9 smelling piece of legislative refuse no one wanted to touch. Few senators would comment on the record about tort reform after watching with horror the train-wreck House debate the previous week. As one senate staffer put it, “We just want to get through this without making fools of ourselves like they did in the House.” The hope in most Senate offices was that State Affairs Committee Chair and former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff would fix the bills and spare the Senate the House’s fate. In Ratliff, one of the Lege’s most senior and highly regarded members, their hopes seemed well placed. While he refused to reseparate the tort and medical malpractice sections \(those provisions originally were and then delivered a deliberate, open, and thoughtful committee debate on HB 4exactly what didn’t occur in the House. On April 7, the first day of testimony, Ratliff’s committee spent nearly eight hours discussing HB 4’s first two articles, more time than the House Civil Practices Committee had devoted to the entire 21-article bill. Ratliff methodically plowed through HB 4 article by article, allowing representatives of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the group that wrote the bill, and critics from the Texas Trial Lawyers Association to conduct a real debate. The chairman sat expressionless throughout the first four days of testimony, asking pointed questions that invariably gouged holes in both sides’ arguments. His statesmanship was clearly appreciated. Nearly every tort reform opponent who testified thanked the committee profusely for a legitimate chance to challenge the bill’s provisions. Typical of these sentiments were those of Reggie James of Consumers Union, who paused in the middle of his testimony on Article 1 to say, “I really do appreciate all the questions members have been asking, because it shows [you] are trying to get to the bottom of this, unlike my experience in the other chamber.” It was a sad comment on the tone of the session that tort reform critics were so grateful simply to have someone listen. In past sessions, it fell to the Democratic House to keep a leash on the more conservative Senate. Now the positions are reversed. Not that the Senate’s any more progressive, mind you, just that the House is much more radical. Nowhere is this more true than on tort “reform.” The bare-knuckled tactics that Texans for Lawsuit Reform and its supporters employed so successfully in the House, where the Republican leadership and Speaker Tom power thanks in large part to TLR money, won’t get them far in the Senate. Because senators have larger districts and more diverse constituencies, it’s harder to threaten them with electoral defeat based on a single issue or a single vote. Moreover, Senators aren’t likely to sell their votes for a $5 million medical center, as the leadership allegedly offered several Democrats in the House. Perhaps more important, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst isn’t nearly as close to TLR as is Craddick; in fact, TLR gave money to both Dewhurst and his Democratic opponent John Sharp. TLR’s biggest Senate allies are Todd R-lead the Senate tort reform charge. He’s vice chair of State Affairs and has received nearly $500,000 in campaign funds from TLR in the last two election cycles, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings. Fraser’s presence on State Affairs gives TLR two staunch allies on the committee. But the rest of the committee members, including Republicans Robert Duncan \(Lubhave been less than enthused about HB 4 during hearings. After just a week of testimony on the bill, Senate sources said, the committee was poised to strip or significantly alter the most criticized sections of HB 4. Targets included the provisions aimed at reducing class action suits, the section allowing defendants more easily to change where a trial is held and before what judge, and the socalled “loser pays” clause, which would force even victorious plaintiffs sometimes to pay the other side’s legal fees. Even when a stripped-down HB 4 passes out of committee, Republicans must siphon two Democratic votes just to get the bill to the floor. Ken likely candidate. The other was thought who supported tort reform measures in 1995 and 1997. But Lucio, one of the few senators willing to speak on the record about tort reform, said in early April that he wouldn’t support the bill unless Ratliff trimmed it significantly. He said he backs medical malpractice reform provisions but termed the rest of the bill as “overreaching,” and vowed he would vote for any floor amendment that would split medical malpractice from the tort reform measures. ” I don’t like us addressing Dick Cheney’s problems here in Texas,” he said, referring to the so-called “Dick Cheney” amendment of HB 4 that would absolve the vice president’s former employer, Halliburton, of asbestos liability. HB 4 likely won’t reach the Senate floor before the last week in April. If the Senate alters the bill, as seems likely, HB 4 would then move to a HouseSenate conference committee. Dewhurst would appoint the Senate conference representatives. Ratliff, as Senate sponsor, would head the group, which must also include at least two members of State Affairs. While HB 4 seems headed for conference, several sources said the constitutional amendment, HJR 3, will have trouble passing the Senate at all. HJR 3, which facilitates adding future caps on any civil damage awards with little public input, needs a two-thirds vote to pass. That isn’t assured. If a constitutional amendment doesn’t pass, it can’t be considered again this session, according to Senate rules. In this session of Democratic despair, the torpedoing of HJR 3, and the passage of a hobbled HB 4 appears the best case scenario for Democrats. 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/25/03
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