The Lost Lege of 2009



If Texans loathe and fear the G-word—government—half as much as everybody always assumes, there should have been hoedowns and fiestas spontaneously erupting in every Lone Star city, hamlet and colonia when the 81st session of the Legislature sputtered to its constitutionally mandated halt on June 1. When the dust had cleared from the biennial 140-day slugfest in Austin, their senators and representatives sure as heck hadn’t given ’em much.

For those of us who cling to the utopian pipe dream of good government, the 2009 session was less a cause for celebration than a nasty kick in the privates. Nothing unusual about that, of course. But there was reason for cautious optimism at the get-go—actually, before the get-go. The Republicans’ once formidable edge in House seats had been cut to just two after last November’s elections. With Wendy Davis, a rising Democratic star from Fort Worth, gaining a seat in the Senate, Republicans were two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to ramrod bills through that chamber. And in December, a coalition of Democrats and non-loony Republicans had come together to replace the tinpot dictator of the previous three sessions, House Speaker Tom Craddick, with a rich, genial and relatively moderate Republican obscurity from San Antonio named Joe Straus.

Craddick had reigned over the Capitol since 2003, when the Republicans’ government-shrinking reactionaries and corporate puppet-masters handed him the gavel. Under Craddick’s thumb—with Gov. Rick Perry leading his “wealth first” cheers from the sidelines, and Big Oil and the home builders’ lobby calling the shots—the Legislature had deregulated and privatized just about every square inch of 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 (and adults) than any state in the union. Twenty-two percent of our kids are underfed. Our water supply is approximately as abundant as the moon’s. And the list goes on.

The Texas House on Day 1.As you’ll see in this special Observer issue recapping the 81st 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 81st 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 voter ID beast was born. On Day One in January, as Straus was warming hearts in the House with a call for bipartisan consensus—declaring 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 acceptable forms of identification) before casting a vote. Right-wing 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 requirements—though 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. Rank-and-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 partisan rancor as Republicans set fire to the long-observed tradition 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 philosophy—if the rules don’t suit your purposes, blow the bastards up—the 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 vote—which 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 ID—and 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 23—ahead of every significant bill with Democratic backing, including sunset reform of the Department of Insurance and Department of Transportation. If Democrats wanted meaningful reform, they would have to let voter ID come up for a vote first. The strategy was wickedly clear, as Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, readily admitted: “We fear insurance,” he said. “They fear voter ID.”

Fear triumphed. With filibusters not allowed, Democrats stalled debate on voter ID by “chubbing”—chattering for the maximum allowable time about a series of routine “local and consent” bills that should have been quickly cleared away before important legislation was voted on (see story, pg. 21). Half-hearted attempts at breaking the logjam got nowhere. Anti-chubbing Democrats were ignored. Republicans howled and stamped and bayed to no effect.

Unable or unwilling to break the deadlock, Straus strayed from his even-handedness and blasted Democrats as “obstructionists.” The Democratic caucus chairman, Rep. Jim Dunnam, who’d orchestrated the “chubfest,” shot back: “We didn’t take up bills on the House floor until maybe the latest point of any session. Why wasn’t insurance reform on the House floor weeks ago? Why’d we go home last week every day at 6 or 7 o’clock so that committees could go have dinner? … These were decisions that the speaker made.”

The House had gone from “Kumbaya” to Mutually Assured Destruction. And a session that had promised a long-awaited break from partisan gridlock had ended in another sickening example of just that. Voter ID had, indeed, been derailed. So had a noxious bill by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, originally intended to force women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasounds against their will. So had a Republican proposal to allow concealed handguns on college campuses. But so, too, had just about every bill that might have made Texas a fairer and better place.

Nobody won. Everybody lost. It was, ultimately, the same old dirge sung in a different key.

And what do you know? It ain’t over yet. Because the end-of-session meltdown doomed bills to reform and reauthorize the state insurance and transportation departments (see story, pg. 26), Perry will be calling the angry horde back to Austin for a euphemistically named “special session.” The guv gets to pick the date—and set the agenda. Which just might, if he thinks it’ll boost his poll numbers, include voter ID. And which won’t, you can rest assured, revive any of the progressive legislation that didn’t deserve to die.

Even without the special session, Perry is pretty much the only person in Texas with reason to smile about the 2009 Legislature. He was doing just that, in fact, the day after the lawmakers sped away from Austin to try to spin the results to their constituents. At a news conference in the suddenly empty Capitol, Perry gave the 81st session a big thumbs-up. “I grant you, there was some unfinished business,” he allowed. But otherwise, it had been a triumph—for his political prospects.

Back in January, Perry was languishing in the polls, trailing U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison by double digits among likely Republican voters in next year’s gubernatorial showdown. But the governor used the Lege to make hay with right-wing Republicans. It wasn’t about effectiveness—far from it. The main item on Perry’s legislative priority list that passed was a puny thing: a bill to allow Texans to buy “Choose Life” license plates. And in an unusual show of defiance, lawmakers rejected two of his appointees—most notably Don McLeroy, the creationist dentist who no longer chairs the State Board of Education. But with his vocal support for voter ID and mandatory ultrasounds, his political ploy to block stimulus funds for unemployment compensation and his crazy-like-a-fox campaign for a doomed-from-the-start “states’ rights” bill, Perry used the session to woo ultraconservatives and vault past Hutchison in the polls.

In fairness, let us note that the governor also made perhaps the only sensible comment about the end-of-session failure to pass sunset bills to keep key state agencies in operation: “I have no idea what they were thinking. … I thought I was watching an episode of Lost.”

Also worth noting: Before the end-of-session madness took hold, a smattering of worthy measures did manage to become law: a “media shield” allowing journalists to protect their sources without risking jail time; minor improvements for the troubled Texas Youth Commission; a partial cure for the state’s sick institutions for the mentally disabled (see story, pg. 19). And Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, finally got her fellow lawmakers to post-ratify the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the poll taxes Texas and other states once used to keep minorities, women and low-income folks from voting.

The 24th amendment was ratified in 1964. It took the Texas Legislature 45 years to symbolically grant its assent. You don’t have to be an English major to spot some very telling irony in that.