Page 29


We’ve Got Issues, People BUT WHICH ONES WILL THE 81ST LEGISLATURE TACKLE-AND HOW? by Melissa del Bosque, Dave Mann and Forrest Wilder illustrations by Alex Eben Meyer Mr here’s usually no telling how the Texas Legislature will use its 140 days in session every two years. But it’s no secret what lawmakers should be working on. The state’s major problems are plainly evident: an uninsured population that outnumbers the population of Louisiana; skyrocketing college tuition; high homeinsurance rates; a chronically underfunded and mismanaged social safety net; unchecked carbon emissions; a looming water crisis; overcrowded prisons; and crumbling schools. But, as ever, the issues that lawmakers should address are not necessarily the ones they will address. More often than not, the Legislature displays an uncanny ability to ignore, put off or even exacerbate problems. \(Sometimes they do all threea feat Then there always seems to be an unforeseen, and highly emotional, issue that pops up and dominates debate for several weeks. Often it’s a shocking new piece of socially conservative legislation put forth by the GOP’s Christian conservativesa ban on gay adoptions, say? Or, perhaps, limiting abortion procedures to alternate Tuesdays before 11? \(Last session, the right wing raged for weeks over Gov. Rick Perry’s proposal to Occasionally a muckraking reporter will unearth a horrid scandal that becomes the talk of the session. In 2007, two such controversies were launched from the pages of this magazine: The Observer broke stories detailing abuse in Texas Youth Commission facilities and revealing the existence of a database in the governor’s office that was collecting personal information on Texans. This session begins with a whole new level of uncertainty. Former House Speaker Tom Craddick, whose hard-line ideology and style made it relatively easy to predict the nasty floor fights coming, has been deposed. In his place stands freshfaced, 49-year-old Joe Straus, a mild-mannered moderate Republican from San Antonio. Straus has served in the House for only two sessions, so he hasn’t staked out clear positions on a lot of policy issues. Why does the speaker matter so much? Because one of the sentences you’ll keep reading below is, “The bill passed in the Senate and died in the House.” Craddick was a master of channeling worthwhile bills to committees led by his cronies, where they died with hardly a whimperand certainly not a vote. Another frequent phrase you’ll see: “Since 2003 …” That 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 23, 2009 was Craddick’s first year as speaker, and in terms of long-term damage to the state, it was a deregulating, privatizing, serviceslashing doozy. Straus’ supporters, Democratic and Republican, tout his record for consensus-building and bipartisanship, and he has pledged to run the House in a more genteel manner. But it remains to be seen if he will follow through on those promises and what, if any, bills Straus will put his newfound political power behind. All we can say for certain is that lawmakers will pass a state budget for the next two years, because they’re constitutionally required to do it. With the largest projected budget deficit since 2003roughly $9 billion, the result of a drop in oil and natural gas prices-2009 could be an austere session. The shortfall could be offset by the $9.1 billion that will be available in the state’s rainy day fund over the next two fiscal years. But dipping into the fund requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers. When Texas lawmakers have to close a large budget gap, health and human services typically receive deep cuts, and any legislation that will cost the state a dime, no matter how enlightened, becomes a nonstarter. With those caveats in mind, we humbly offer the following 10 hot issues that could dominate the legislative session. You know, maybe. D.M. 1 HEALTH CARE Sickos In 2003, when Gov. Rick Perry was informed that Texas was the 49th healthiest state, his response was, “Thank God for Mississippi.” Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. Texas has more uninsured residents than any other stateby far. One-quarter of our population lacks health insurance. With a gross domestic product that’s the seventh largest in the world, Texas should have a better health care system than, say, Cuba’s. Yet health care hasn’t been a priority for state lawmakers, especially over the past six years, when the GOPcontrolled Legislature has cut funding for key programs.