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Point Austin: Backstage at the Circus

The Lege melodrama can be a hard act to swallow

By Michael King, January 11, 2013, News

After a couple of decades of following the Texas Legislature, I admit I find it increasingly difficult to embrace the return of the biennial circus. Oh, they're entertaining enough, I suppose. This week's opening episode featured the farcical denouement of Longview Republican Rep. David Simp­son's challenge to the House speakership of incumbent Joe Straus. Simpson (aka the Scourge of the Transportation Safety Administration), with the always rhetorical help of hard-right backbenchers and bloggers, had puffed himself up like one of those harmless lizards inflating his jowls to frighten predators. In the end, he withdrew without a humiliating vote, muttering gracelessly about alleged and unspecified "retaliation." Straus was reelected by acclamation.

In that context, it was refreshing to hear the speaker accept the job with a real sense of public responsibility rather than political sabre-rattling. Straus noted that the Legislature's job is to represent all Texans, including the 10 million or so newcomers expected to arrive over the next two decades. With that in mind, the session's priorities, he declared, should be "quality education, a reliable water supply, a healthy transportation system, and an honest state budget." Straus is no liberal, but it's hard to argue with his call to sustain the "core responsibilities" of government. He even dared a sly dig at the reckless secession talk disfiguring Texas political discourse in recent years: "Our economy is so vast and diverse that if Texas were its own country – and no, don't worry, that isn't something we're going to do this session – but if we were, we'd be the 14th largest economy in the world."

He reiterated the need to focus on education – likely to be a budget flashpoint after the radical cuts last session – suggesting at least some willingness to address the structural shortfall for both public schools and higher ed.. Alas, it's unlikely that he'll have many or sufficient GOP allies.

Intriguingly, Straus' emphasis on education was echoed in the Senate, where San Antonio Democrat Leticia Van de Putte accepted her election as president pro tem. She noted the same state demographic trends, adding that most of the growth – welcomed in the abstract by conservative pols – is in the Latino population and requires a renewed commitment to education, lest Texas waste a "historic opportunity to build something grand." Ever hopeful, Van de Putte reiterated her welcoming catchphrase: "Bienvenidos, y'all."

Hard Shell Game

It would be delusional, of course, to describe that optimism as the week's dominant Capitol note. The Senate's president pro perm – Lt. Governor David Dewhurst – fresh from a hard-right trouncing in his U.S. Senate campaign, has vowed to make Texas "the most fiscally and socially conservative" state in the union, by which he primarily means "repeated tax cuts" and whatever else the Tea Party wants. Gover­nor-for-Life Rick Perry beat the same drum, even as the manufactured holes in this year's yet unwritten budget will have to be filled by rising revenues already spent in the last one. But the governor again called for "tax relief" – rather than responding to the state's critical needs in education and health care, he's content to applaud growth while refusing to pay for it.

For Perry, in good times and bad, tax cuts are always the priority – that, and finding hot-button issues to distract the voters from the shell games being played with their money. With redistricting, voter ID, and public school finance currently punted to the courts, Perry's nominated distractions for this session appear to be drug-testing of working people (i.e., public assistance and unemployment insurance applicants) and the ever-reliable anti-abortion crusade.

It's that sort of pandering that makes it difficult, bi-year after bi-year, to extend a full-throated Austin welcome once again to the state's dominant political players. While there are quite a few pols in the Straus and Van de Putte mode, they are unhappily outnumbered by folks ready to follow the Perry and Dewhurst model: permanent cynics, permanent campaigners, permanent panderers.

The Limits of Citizenship

So bienvenidos it is, but with very mixed emotions. The spectacle of grown men (and some women) putting on all that pomp and circumstance in order to (in recent example) prescribe invasive gynecological procedures for pregnant Texas women while they simultaneously make it impossible for many thousands more of those same women even to visit a gynecologist – that process has an undeniable entertainment value, even an educational aspect, in the fine art of institutional hypocrisy. It's painful to watch – mortifying even – but instructive nonetheless. On the other hand, there are thousands of real lives at stake – Texas families, Texas children, Texas working people – making it difficult simply to laugh and turn away.

Not surprisingly, Perry's opening-day speech to the Lege bypassed Texas women altogether, to embrace instead the unformed contents of their wombs: "We also need to better protect our most vulnerable citizens, the unborn, by expanding the ban on abortion to any baby that can feel the pain of the procedure." That official "protection," of course, will not extend to "citizen-babies" actually born – since the governor has repeatedly made it clear he will oppose any expansion of Medicaid that in fact pays for most of these Texas births, and will also do everything in his power to undermine national health care in Texas.

In Perry's political universe, citizen vulnerability has an expiration date. "Fetal pain," he proclaims, is to be outlawed. Once that citizen takes her first breath, however, she's on her own. When the governor says, "Suffer the little children" – he really means it.


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