Early Warning: The Lege is Coming!

Tribune Fest offers a taste of things to come

Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, hunting terrorists
Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, hunting terrorists

Gov. Rick Perry’s developing romance with Satan was not the only mixed pleasure offered by last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival – a three-day policy immersion for wonks and wonkabees.

There were also a series of “legislative preview” panels on various aspects of state policy: trade and transportation, public and higher education, race and immigration, health and human services, etc. NewsDesk sat in on a sampler of the sessions, and found at least one connecting thread: denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

Trade and Transportation: Potholes are Here Discussing the state of highway construction and maintenance in Texas, state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, quipped: “The potholes are coming!” (Darby was joined by Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, and state Sens. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, hosted by Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsey.) That was his Paul Revere-style warning on the lack of state funding for road construction, or even for maintenance: “We don’t have enough money to cover the roads in their current condition.” Speaking only of farm- or ranch-to-market roads – not highways – Darby (who serves on the House Transportation Committee) estimated $1 billion of needed state work and another $1 billion for counties – and little prospect of paying for either.

Darby and Nichols both blamed “diversion” of dedicated gas road taxes for some of the problem (not to mention that largely for ideological reasons, the gas tax hasn’t been raised in 20 years), but Phillips pointed out that some of those funds were moved to the Dept. of Public Safety or Motor Vehicles – both of which have highway related responsibilities. Watson described the state’s current policy as “debt, diversion, and denial,” and said that if the state isn’t going to meet its transportation responsibilities, “it needs to get out of the way” and permit local initiatives (e.g., local option gas taxes, which again flamed out in the last session). Phillips noted that toll roads, while politically unpopular in Austin, have had considerable local success in North Texas – but whether other regions can be persuaded to accept tolls remains uncertain.

Setting the larger political context, Ramsey asked the panel where Gov. Perry’s declared “Texas Compact” – which reflexively opposes any new taxes – would fit into the discussion, and Darby grumbled, “I didn’t see anything about fees in there.” Watson responded more dismissively, “I haven’t read the Compact.” He argued that whatever the governor’s position, or even under the threat of veto, legislators shouldn’t short-circuit a debate about funding just because the governor says so. Perhaps surprisingly, Darby echoed: “‘No’ is not a solution.”

Shorthand version?: For the foreseeable future, if you want a road built (or repaired) somewhere in Texas, you’d better be ready to pass the hat.

Race and Immigration: Stop the Libyans! State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio offered, “Bienvenidos, y’all!” as the greeting to immigrants most in keeping with Texas’ state and international traditions. It was a sentiment mostly shared on the panel: state Sens. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, and state Reps. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, and Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock – with Riddle inevitably the loudest and angriest holdout. Her GOP colleague Gonzales (like most of the Republican reps, suddenly all squishy at UT) tried to find a moderate line in front of this mostly blue Central Texas audience. He pointed out that both party platforms say the federal government has primary responsibility on immigration, and noted that the Texas DREAM Act (allowing in-state tuition for certain undocumented immigrants) was primarily an education and economic development bill – and has since been turned into a “symbolic” political football. (It was one of the surreal reasons Perry’s presidential primary campaign was undone – because he couldn’t defend it before the racist GOP base, whom he accused of having no “heart.” Mitt Romney quickly learned that lesson.)

Riddle, on the other hand, was having none of Gonzales’ attempts at moderation, beyond mustering the defense that she and Van de Putte share interests in clothing, shoes, and shopping. “Bienvenidos” is not exactly in Riddle’s vocabulary, and though she preemptively declared it “offensive” to call her “anti-immigrant” – she also made it clear that she considers “undocumented immigrant” and “criminals” to be synonymous terms. “Our first priority,” she said, “should be the safety and security of the people of Texas,” and reported that Houston is now “the command and control center of the Mexican drug cartels” and moreover, that “there are people in Libya who want us dead!” What either had to do with immigration issues at the Legislature was never precisely clear – but look for Riddle to sponsor legislation closing the Texas border with Libya. For a fuller taste of Riddle's rabid xenophobia, visit her Facebook page – utterly charming.

Back on planet Earth, Van de Putte said the legislative atmosphere would largely depend on Governor Perry: “If he again puts these ‘red-meat issues’ [e.g., voter ID and sanctuary cities] on the call, it will set a toxic tone from the very beginning.”

Health and Human Services: More with Less Ramsey also hosted this Lege preview panel – Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas – and but for the shift to social services, the refrain was the same as transportation: How can we provide services for more Texas residents without actually spending more money? There were no magic wands on the dais, and the discussion quickly devolved into Deuell and Zerwas wanly explaining that the Lege is doing the best that it can, to which West, and especially Coleman, responding that the Lege is in a health care crisis of its own making.

Ramsey asked what the coming of Obamacare – recently ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court – would mean after the election, and Coleman said neither Obama nor Romney could effectively remove the benefits the law has brought: continuing coverage, coverage of preexisting conditions, and so on. Deuell responded that having health insurance is not the same as having health care, and that Texas can’t afford to expand Medicaid to “able-bodied people.”

Yet when the discussion shifted to the Women’s Health Program and the banning of Planned Parenthood, Deuell (echoed by Zerwas) appeared to reverse his position, arguing that there will be “sufficient providers” to replace the 50% or more of those Texas women previously served by Planned Parenthood. Deuell has been a major player, of course, in the legislative undermining of the WHP and the assault on Planned Parenthood, but he downplayed his role by referring vaguely to those who oppose PP as simply following their convictions.

An audience member described herself as working for minimum wage at a job that does not provide insurance benefits and which she cannot herself afford, and she asked Deuell what he proposed for her. His answer was Paul Ryan’s “Patient Choice Act” – the VP candidate’s proposal that would provide insurance vouchers or tax rebates for working people, and somehow, Deuell said, “make people consumers again.” One can only surmise that Dr. Deuell has never had the opportunity to buy insurance on the “free market” on minimum wages, with or without a voucher – he’d be waiting in line at the emergency room, like everybody else. In other words: If you’re expecting the next Legislature to find ways to provide for the fundamental needs of Texans – NewsDesk repeats – you’d better be ready to pass the cowboy hat.

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