Texas. Practically every statewide measure of social well-being and economic fairness had devolved from merely embarrassing to downright atrocious. Teacher pay plummeted; college tuition soared; electricity and home-insurance rates spiked to the nation’s highest. Texas now has more uninsured children of our kids are underfed. Our water supply is approximately as abundant as the moon’s. And the list goes on. As you’ll see in this special Observer issue recapping the 81″ Legislature, admirable attempts were made this year to reverse some of the devastation. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers cooked up smart measures to clean up government corruption; repair the state’s broken law enforcement, transportation and insurance agencies; restore a dollop of economic justice; and bring down the spiraling costs of home insurance, higher education and electricity. Meanwhile, lawmakers fought valiantly against a fresh outrage: Perry’s politically calculated move to reject hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars for unemployment insurance, even as the number of jobless Texans continues to climb and the state’s unemployment fund runs dry. But when the clock chimed midnight on June 1, most of those sound proposals lay limp and lifeless on the floor of the Texas House, trampled into submission by the beast that ate the 81″ Legislature: voter ID. The handiest way to prevent an outbreak of good government, as right-wingers long ago discovered, is to divert everybody’s attention with an issue that’s controversial, divisive, bitterly partisan and largely insignificant all at once. From this reliable formula, the At a February hearin ‘on unemPloyment benefits, Bill Hammond, head of the Texas Association of Business, did his best Marie Antoinette impersonation, accusing jobless Texans of “sit[ting] on their laurels.” Far from sitting on his, Hammond gets paid handsomely for his efforts to defend the indefensiblemore than $317,000 in 2007. This session, he was the loudest voice against accepting $555 million in federal stimulus money earmarked for unemployed Texans. “The dealer gives you your first hit for free to get you hooked, and then you are addicted and are paying the consequences for a long, long time,” Hammond testified. Sounding like he was smoking something, Hammond took another star turn at a March hearing, insisting that people who leave their jobs because of domestic violence should be excluded from jobless benefits. Abuse “is a tragedy,” he allowed, “but the question is, you know, is that the intent of the unemployment fund?” SESSION SNAPSHOT voter ID beast was born. On Day One in January, as Straus was warming hearts in the House with a call for bipartisan consensusdeclaring with shocking good sense that the “speaker’s role … is to help the members, all the members, do good things for the people of their districts”Senate Republicans were already tucking into the dirty work of sabotaging progress. Introduced by Gov. Perry’s longtime BFF, Republican Sen. Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, the bill was intended to make citizens produce a photo ID \(or two other acceptwing Republicans swore, with remarkably straight faces, that nothing was more crucial to the future of the state. The “sanctity” of Texas elections, they said, hung in the balance. So what if they could produce no convincing evidence that voter fraud is actually a problem? Democrats swore, in response, that legions of elderly and minority voters would be disenfranchised by voter ID requirementsthough they could muster only slightly more compelling evidence to back up that counterclaim. On both sides, what really mattered was the politics of this ginned-up business. Rank-and-file conservatives, all swollen with Fox News propaganda about runaway voter fraud orchestrated by liberal groups like ACORN, adore voter ID. Rankand-file Latinos, Texas Democrats’ most important constituency of the future, despise it in equal measure. Surprise: Politics won out. And Texans lost out. The Senate, traditionally the more congenial chamber, was riven by parti san rancor as Republicans set fire to the long-observed tradi tion of requiring two-thirds support for any bill to be brought up for debate. If Craddick’s House had once embodied the old Tom DeLay philosophyif the rules don’t suit your purposes, blow the bastards upthe Senate now became, as many observers lamented, the new House. Every GOP senator except John Carona of Dallas voted to give voter ID a special exemption from the supermajority rule, allowing it to pass on a simple majority votewhich it did, after much time-wasting and energy-draining debate. The collaborative spirit of the Senate was badly damaged. And in the end, voter ID would wreak its devastation on the newly placid House of Straus as well. The speaker had pledged to end the partisan divisiveness that wrecked the last few sessions, and by and large he followed through. Democrats had considerable say in leading committees and crafting legislation. Before the session, Straus had described his modus operandi to Texas Monthly: “Let them do what they want to do.” But what struck a refreshing note in January turned problematic in late May, when the traditional last-minute rush of bill-passing came to a screeching halt thanks to voter IDand thanks also to a lack of effective leadership. On May 21, just before the frantic final push commenced, the Republican-led House Calendars Committee, which schedules bills for floor debate, slated voter ID for May 23ahead of every significant bill with Democratic backing, including sunset reform of the Department of Insurance and 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 26, 2009
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