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FEATURE Mixing It Up The New Freshmen Class Adds Some Spice to The 79th Legislature BY DAVE MANN AND JAKE BERNSTEIN As the 79th Texas Legislature convenes amid pomp and ceremony, the remnants of the Lege’s last session hang around the proceedings like an obnoxious dinner guest that won’t leave. Over at the Travis County courthouse two grand juries are parsing evidence of an apparent conspiracy in 2002 to use illegal corporate money to handpick a legislature. The victorious slate of candidates formed the core of one of the largest freshman classes in memory in 2003-36 in the House and seven in the Senate. Not surprisingly, the Republican House freshmen behaved like lemmings, mostly voting as a bloc, placing marching orders and ideology above all. Many likely saw it as simple self-preservation. The party leaders and campaign moneymen who had installed them could easily run them off in the next primary. Consequently, a flurry of legislation ensued benefiting the special interests that had paid the campaign tab. Ensconced in safe districts as long as they behaved, many of the Republican freshmen paid little heed to the substance behind major votes. \(Perhaps as sophomores, they will The freshmen of the 79th Legislature signal an adjustment by both parties to their new roles. The GOP, settled in its majority, adds only a handful of new faces. Some may show an independent streak and bear watching; others will simply fill a seat. The Democrats, meanwhile, have purified their ranks. In the House, at least, they are a more potent opposition party. Democrats who signed on to the radical Republican agenda last session did not fare well: Wilson, Gutierrez, Lewis, Capeloall longtime Democrats booted from office in the primary. Among this session’s 17 House freshmen, 12 are Democrats. The incoming Democrats are sharp and seemingly independent minded. A few are already being discussed as future candidates for statewide office. An Independent Voice? Kel Seliger believes he joined the Texas Senate at the perfect time. The former mayor of Amarillo won a special election last winter to replace Teel Bivins, who departed to serve as U.S. ambassador to Sweden. That was just four months after the Senate had nearly melted down over Congressional redistricting. As he begins his first regular session, Seliger considers it incredibly good fortune that he wasn’t around to strip Democrats of their Capitol parking spaces, as his Republican colleagues did, or engage in any of the other examples of partisan feuding that surrounded the 11 Democratic sena tors’ sojourn to Albuquerque in 2003. “I come in with none of the redistricting baggage,” Seliger said recently. He’s observed “some lingering resentment about some of the things that were said and done. I’m a loyal Republican, but I wasn’t part of that.” With his lack of partisan history, at least in the Senate, Seliger could become a moderating figure in a body that lost a powerful independent voice last year with the retirement of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff. On many issues, Seliger holds some fairly standard conservative positions. He preaches low taxes and small government to spur job creation and economic growth. “I am irretrievably a fiscal conservative;’ he says. “The dollar amount of whatever we do looms over every issue to me. It should. It’s other people’s money we spend.” Some of his policy stands, however, put him directly at odds with his more hard-line colleagues. Seliger, for instance, favors full restoration of last session’s deep cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He contends that access to adequate health care, especially in rural areas of West Texas, is one of the most important issues facing the state. “The ultimate constitutional idea, and I think what we’ve always worked for in this country, very slowly at times, was to have a society based on equality,” he says. “I would hate to see in the 21st century, America divided into classes based upon their ability to pay for health care. We want to be very careful we don’t go there.” Seliger has also taken an interest in criminal justice issues. Texas prisons, for example, are near capacity while the state is short 2,000 prison guards. “We’re going to 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER .1/21/05