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The Big Legebowski

The gutter balls, the strikes, and everything in between

By Lee Nichols and Jordan Smith, Fri., June 12, 2009

The Big Legebowski
Illustration by Wayne Allan Brenner/Jason Stout

A friend asked me: "Has anything good come out of this session? Anything really big?" All I could do was scratch my head. A few decent things, perhaps – but mostly this will be remembered as the session when Republicans made one last-ditch effort (with the push for voter ID) to shore up their advantage before the state's inevitable demographic turn toward the Democrats. Inevitably, in a backlash, the GOP power play nearly brought down the entire session, when House Dems showed that they wouldn't – as a Republican gubernatorial candidate once put it – "just relax and enjoy it."

Texans will have to judge whether the gambles were worth the chips.

Elections: Can We See Your ID?

The big election issue, of course – and still very much unresolved – was voter ID. Before the highly partisan issue died in flames, it took down with it most of the 81st session. Senate Republicans opened the session rancorously by suspending their venerable two-thirds rule – the tradition that two-thirds of the Senate must agree to bring a bill to the floor – in order to ram through the voter ID bill, Senate Bill 362, over unanimous Demo­cratic opposition and despite three days of testimony that failed to document any need for additional voter photographic documentation.

That should have been quite enough, but as the session neared its end, Republicans learned that the House Democrats can play rough, too. The Democrats' "chubbing" – the homemade House equivalent of a Senate filibuster – prevented SB 362 from ever coming to the House floor – and in the process killed a lot of other legislation both parties wanted.

Virtually unremarked, more productive "voter ID" legislation came from Houston Rep. Scott Hochberg, who carried a bill (House Bill 1457) allowing the secretary of state to make minor corrections to registration records so that clerical errors don't prevent citizens from voting. What a concept – a bill that actually promotes the right to vote.

Environment: Not All Bad News, for a Change

There is a certain justice, albeit bittersweet, to one of Horseshoe Bay Republican Troy Fraser's environmental bills getting killed by the House Democrats' chubbing maneuver to stop voter ID – because Fraser himself was the author of the voter ID bill. Had he not rammed his highly partisan bill through the Senate, his SB 545 (which would have given a big boost to the solar industry in Texas) might have survived. His SB 546 (raising energy efficiency goals for utilities) fared better, surviving both houses, but then he and House counterpart Rafael Anchía couldn't come to an agreement on what those goals should be, so it died in conference committee.

Still, the environment had a mixed session under the dome – compared to the norm, that's a victory in itself. HB 821, requiring television manufacturers to recycle their proportionate share of discarded sets, is on its way to the governor's desk, critically important considering how many analog sets will become obsolete with the looming digital conversion. Austin Rep. Mark Strama's bill to encourage "green collar" jobs in Texas succumbed in the general massacre, but he did manage to get some of the provisions tucked into the budget. Two bills Austin Sen. Kirk Wat­son authored (SB 184, requiring the state to study programs that both reduce greenhouse gases and save the state money, aka the "no regrets" bill) or sponsored (HB 1796, requiring a study of ways to capture and store carbon dioxide offshore) also made it to Gov. Rick Perry's desk. However, another Watson bill to raise the state's nonwind renewable energy portfolio died beneath the chubbing.

Education (and Guns?)

HB 51 (by Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and others), intended to increase the number of top-flight research universities in Texas, passed – let's see if the funding ever follows accordingly. On the other hand, the bill that would have allowed concealed weapons to be carried into those universities' buildings – SB 1164, by Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio (and Austin) – was another victim of the Great Chub.

The State Board of Education nearly deserves a separate listing – no less than 15 bills were attempts to rein in the board, widely regarded as completely dysfunctional. Ultimately, only two survived: HB 772 (Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin), requiring SBOE meetings to be webcast live, was signed into law May 27. HB 2488 by Hochberg calls for major universities to provide open-source instructional materials to public schools and removes SBOE oversight over such materials; it awaits Perry's signature. Another thing that might help the SBOE, at least indirectly: Democrats blocked Perry's renomination of Don McLeroy as the board chair, having just enough votes to prevent the two-thirds Senate approval needed.

Alas, there's no shortage of alternative right-wing crazies for Perry to appoint instead; it will take several election cycles to make a serious dent in that imbalance.

Health Care: A Voice for Nurses

SB 73 by Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, which would have created the Adult Stem Cell Research Consortium – thereby pleasing both stem-cell researchers and anti-abortion activists – was crushed beneath the chub. Making it to the governor's desk was Nel­son's (and Austin Rep. Donna Howard's) SB 476, which will expand the role of nurses in hospitals' staffing decisions.

Also facing death-by-chub were a pair of two-time legislative session losers that would require women seeking abortion to first undergo ultrasound – whether medically necessary or not (SB 182, by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston) – and a measure by Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, that would require women seeking abortion to disclose to the state, ostensibly for statistical purposes, a ream of personal information – including the specific reason she is seeking to abort. (Also facing a chubbed death was a bill by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, to create a "Choose Life" license plate – funding from which would go to "crisis pregnancy centers" – unlicensed and unregulated "clinics" in which counselors encourage women to carry all unplanned pregnancies to term.)

Despite several assaults from a faction of lawmakers seeking to defund Planned Parenthood, the budget for women's reproductive health care remained intact. But after backroom battles in the budget conference committee, the foes of reproductive health expenditures did win their bid to increase by 60% the budget for the state's Alter­na­tives to Abortion program, which funds crisis pregnancy centers.

Criminal Justice: Not Much Accomplished

On May 27, Jerry Lee Evans became the 20th man from Dallas County to be exonerated – after he spent more than two decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. That brings Texas' total number of confirmed DNA exonerees to 40.

Yet if you were to judge the official state response to this dubious honor by what lawmakers achieved on criminal justice issues during this legislative session, you might get the feeling that being No. 1 in wrongful convictions makes them proud. Of the numerous proposed criminal justice reforms, just three (!) have made their way to the governor's desk.

Perry has already signed into law HB 1736, by Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, which increases the pay for exonerees to $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment. The other two are awaiting Perry's signature: A scaled-down version of the perennial Innocence Commission bill, HB 498, by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, would establish an "advisory panel" to assist the state's Task Force on Indigent Defense in conducting an interim study on wrongful convictions and making recommendations to remedy the problem. And SB 1681, by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would require corroboration of jailhouse snitches (perhaps one of the reasons for wrongful convictions?).

Everything else died – victims of the chubbing – including a bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, that would have reformed the way live and photo lineups are conducted, going a long way toward fixing the problem of faulty eyewitness identification, implicated in more than 80% of wrongful convictions. Other Ellis proposals, including a bill that would require police to record all interrogations and one that would ensure that prosecutors test all available DNA evidence, died in the last days of the session, along with a much needed writ reform bill, by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

Taxes: Relief for the Eastside?

Kirk Watson's bill to study property tax "circuit breakers" – mechanisms to limit tax rates if they rise beyond the homeowner's ability to pay, badly needed in gentrifying neighborhoods like East Austin – almost died under the chubbing but was saved when he amended it onto another East Austin-related bill (HB 3983) by another Austinite, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez. We'll see if it can do enough, quickly enough, to break that Eastside circuit.

The Lege did manage to raise the exemption on the business margins tax to cover businesses earning less than $1 million annually, adding some 40,000 exempt businesses at a biennial cost of $172 million. Since the tax was already failing revenue expectations, it's not clear how this is supposed to help – either to fund state needs or to create tax equity. But the legislators can go home and say they cut taxes – and the feds will pay the bill.

Transportation: The Highway Never Ends

The biggest statewide story is clearly the fact that, unless the Lege comes back for a special session, the

Texas Department of Transportation will go out of business on Sept. 1, because its avoiding-Sunset bill (HB 300) didn't get passed. (Perry insists it won't happen, although he hasn't explained satisfactorily how that will work.) We presume that "On the Lege" – and more particularly, the legislators we cover – will be spending some of the interim back at the Capitol.

The highways – if any ever are built again – might be a little safer, thanks to Jeff Went­worth's SB 1317, requiring first-time driver's license applicants aged 18-24 to complete a driver's ed course, and Dan Branch's HB 55, banning talking on a cell phone in school zones, except for emergencies.

Locally, Kirk Watson's bill to restructure Capital Metro's board of directors to give greater voice to Austin residents and to loosen Cap Metro's ability to expand its rail system nearly died from the chub, but he tacked it on to his own SB 1263 – a bill allowing Cap Met to hire "fare enforcement officers" – and got it done.

Labor: The Boss Don't Need You

HB 1657 (by Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, and others) would have basically overruled a 2007 Texas Supreme Court ruling that allowed work-site premises owners to be defined as "general contractors" – thus giving them the same workers' compensation shields from injury litigation. Labor advocates were outraged, because premises owners, being in a better position to know possible dangers on their work sites than general contractors, would no longer have any incentive to clean up or warn of those dangers. Some legislators were outraged, saying the court overlooked the intent of their workman's comp legislation in favor of an uninflected reading of its language. This bill, which would have more strictly defined that language to restore the law, passed the House but couldn't get to the Senate floor.

The message to workers: You're not the state's top priority, and you'd better be extra careful on the job site, because if you get hurt, you're on your own.

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