The Spirit of 76th

The Presidential Card

Predictably, the governor's all-but-official presidential run cast a long shadow over the Capitol, injecting the question of political motive into every decision made by Democrats and Republicans alike. Democrats were accused of playing the presidential card in their protracted and ultimately fruitless fight to win long-sought hate crimes legislation in the Senate. Meanwhile, Republicans were accused of playing politics with teachers' futures with their stubborn insistence on tax breaks for property owners over pay increases for teachers.

But in the final analysis, Bush's absence may have hurt his party's goals as much as it aided them. Without the strong presence of the governor, and with only rookie Lt. Gov. Rick Perry to guide them, Republicans in the House and Senate were set adrift on a roiling partisan sea, with no anchor to rescue them from Democrats' flying accusations. Although Bush claimed after the session that he had "been doing my job for the state of Texas," in reality the governor had all but abandoned his allies in Texas for potential compatriots in Washington, New York, Israel, and Britain, many of whom doted on him at his mansion and graciously provided their endorsements for his prospective presidential run.

If Gov. Bush was a sleeping giant this session, Republican legislators were the children dutifully tiptoeing around his feet, doing their best not to awaken or offend him. A number of bills -- most notably the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which passed the House by a wide margin early on but wasn't even allowed out of committee in the Senate -- were reportedly killed (directly or indirectly) by Bush's quiet gubernatorial intervention. Austin Democrat Elliott Naishtat says anti-death penalty legislation was another victim of the governor's agenda. One bill in particular, he said, sought to give juries the option of sentencing capital murderers to life without the possibility of parole -- an option supported by most House Democrats and some Republicans, but not Bush. Says Naishtat: "We basically had to sign a blood oath that we wouldn't let HB 150 [a related bill that allows defense attorneys to inform juries that criminals sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole for 40 years] be amended on the floor to include life without parole," after similar bills failed to make it out of committee.

If the governor plans to take credit during his presidential bid for legislators' accomplishments -- and all early signs indicate that he will -- he will have to find a way to graciously gloss over some pretty noteworthy failures, including the one he calls most "disappointing" -- the death of publicly funded private school vouchers. Even though vouchers were expected to be one of Lt. Gov. Perry's pet issues as well, he was unable to persuade even some in his own party to support the measure.

Bush's legislative wish-list fell short in a number of other notable areas:

• He failed to win a fully "voluntary" emissions reduction program for large industrial polluters. (The final bill was amended on the House floor by Rep. Glen Maxey, D-Austin, and Rep. Zeb Zbranek, D-Winnie, to require the largest corporate polluters to pay fines that will triple annually after the year 2002).

• He failed to push through his promised $2 billion property tax cut for homeowners, and had to settle for a $1.4 billion cut that allowed for an additional $1,000 a year raise to Texas teachers, who are among the worst-paid in the nation.

• Several welfare reform measures that were Bush priorities went nowhere.

• And he was unable to convince the House to exclude 220,000 children from the federally funded Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The CHIP legislation will provide health insurance to about 471,000 Texas children who are ineligible for Medicaid -- those whose parents make up to 200% of the federal poverty level ($32,900 for a family of four). Bush wanted to cover only families making below 150% of the poverty level.

Naishtat, who chaired the Human Services Committee where the CHIP bill was heard, says that even though Bush "worked very hard to make sure we wouldn't cover families up to 200% of the poverty level," he was quick to take credit for the bill's passage after the session was over, bragging that the legislation "will substantially increase the number of Texas children covered by health care." But Naishtat says he isn't surprised by Bush's apparent turnaround. "The governor appears to be running for president, and he's eager to appear as committed to the plight of children as he can," he said.

Maxey, who co-chaired Naishtat's committee, says the governor was smart enough to know when he was licked. "The best compliment I received on my work on CHIP was that in a private meeting, George Bush told me, 'You crammed it down my throat.' And coming from where I was and where he started, I told him I didn't recall being that forceful, but I was pleased that he saw the value in giving health insurance to the children of working people."

Capitol Offenses

Cooler heads prevailed this session on a number of ill-conceived proposals, including one by Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, seeking to prevent Austin from enforcing its water-quality rules in its extraterritorial jurisdiction in Hays County. Legislation by Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, that would have allowed Texas to execute juveniles as young as 16 by lethal injection, died in a Republican-chaired committee. So did provisions that would have created a number of new capital offenses, including the murder of a parole or juvenile probation officer, the murder of a domestic violence victim, and murder committed on school grounds.Bills seeking to ban gays and lesbians from adopting children or becoming foster parents, sponsored by Reps. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and Robert Talton,R-Pasadena, respectively, also met a timely end.

Chisum Goes Green?

Meanwhile, Chisum turned out to be an unlikely hero in an entirely different arena this session: his own Environmental Regulation Committee. Chisum, who's not exactly known as an environmentalist, found himself allied with the likes of the Sierra Club when he crafted and won approval of a bill creating an "assured isolation" disposal site for low-level radioactive waste (a less-secure underground site in Sierra Blanca was rejected last year).Chisum's measure also required that a license to such a facility be held by the state, rather than by a private company, which would have kept federal government wastes from being disposed of in Texas. Rep. Gary Walker, R-Plains, got the bill amended to give the license to a private company, Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County, which would have cleared the way for the disposal of federal Department of Energy radioactive waste. When that bill died, it was resurrected as a set of amendments to another Chisum bill, which passed the Senate. However, Chisum refused to let the drastically amended bill come up again in the House -- a move that killed the legislation, and guaranteed that Texas will not have a radioactive waste disposal site until at least the next legislative session.

While environmentalists opposed the bill as amended, Ken Kramer, Sierra Club state director, said he was disappointed that Chisum was forced to euthanize his original legislation, which in its earlier stages signified an improvement in the state's radioactive waste disposal policy. "The considerable progress that was being made toward responsible management of low-level radioactive waste came to a crashing halt," Kramer said in a press release issued after the bill's demise. "Although [Waste Control Specialists] was not ultimately successful in getting what they wanted, their lobbyists managed to lay waste to the state's radioactive waste management policy and program."

Teaching Compassion to Conservatives

Naishtat's levelheaded leadership of Human Services helped scuttle a number of excessively punitive welfare reform measures supported by Gov. Bush, including a proposal to cut off benefits to additional children born to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families recipients (filed by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound). Also thwarted was Christian's legislation seeking to permanently ban anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving TANF benefits, and a bill by Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, requiring that TANF recipients submit to random drug tests, and automatically lose their benefits if the test uncovered even traces of illegal substances.

The problem, of course, is that sanctions like that don't get tough on offenders as much as on their dependent children. But Maxey says that Bush's primary legislative aide, Terrell Smith, actually tried to get Maxey and Naishtat -- "the two most liberal members of the House and chairman and vice chairman of the Human Services Committee" -- to help attach the governor's plan to impose full-family sanctions on welfare cheats and automatically freeze assistance for drug users as an amendment to the Department of Human Services sunset bill. "He wanted us to help pass an amendment that we don't agree with, to help George Bush, who we don't think should be president," Maxey said incredulously.

Small Victories

Thanks largely to the efforts of Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos -- who was promoted by his colleagues to head of the Senate Democratic Caucus this session -- state workers will see a small but significant pay raise of $100 a month next year. The pay-raise provision, included as an amendment to the session's record $98 billion budget bill, includes staff workers at the University of Texas, who currently make as little as $14,000 a year. In another Democratic victory, $300 million will be allotted to encourage school districts to adopt full-day kindergarten, a proposal pushed by House Education Committee Chair Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, as part of the omnibus social promotion bill. Legislation by Rep. Rene Oliveira and Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, both border-area Democrats, will create a border advocacy division in the governor's office, accelerate the provision of water and sewer services to border colonias, and expand county and state regulatory powers to stop the development of colonias. (The bill does not, however, provide substantial new money to border initiatives.) Another bill, authored by Rep. Pete Gallego, D- Alpine, and sponsored in the Senate by Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, prohibits execution of defendants who are deemed incompetent -- those who are unable to understand the severity of their crime and punishment. (Another Ellis proposal, which would have prohibited the execution of mentally retarded inmates, passed the Senate but was shipwrecked in the House Calendars Committee).

Devastating Defeat

But for the state's liberals, the 76th Texas legislative session was not defined by its victories as much as it was by a single stunning defeat: the demise of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, filed by Ellis and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. The legislation, which would have increased the penalty for several categories of bias-motivated crimes, even won the vote of the notoriously anti-gay Warren Chisum in the House. But the bill died in the Senate on May 14 after a day of back-room wrangling and open confrontation on the Senate floor, where Democrats accused their 16 Republican colleagues of holding back the legislation in order to protect the governor, who reportedly opposed the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class in the bill. In response to a post-session inquiry about the hate crimes bill, Bush said he was "glad our laws in Texas are tough and we treat people according to the law." But the governor's detractors had another explanation for his reluctance to come down on one side or the other on the act: "Whether or not [Bush] intended it, the presidential campaign is taking place on this floor today," Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told his colleagues during the daylong debate. "Whether he intended it or not, the presidential campaign is shaping the actions and the issues of this body and this Legislature."

Right to Life, Right to Guns

Conservative legislators won a number of ideological victories this session -- which could score Bush extra points with far-right Republicans -- including legislation that will significantly reduce a girl's ability to obtain an abortion, and a bill that will restrict the right of cities to hold gun manufacturers responsible in court for gun-related violent crime. Conservatives also defeated legislation mandating that the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which collectively determines the fate of convicted capital murderers, meet when making its clemency decisions.

The parental notification bill, resurrected biennially by Senate Republicans Jane Nelson and Florence Shapiro, requires doctors asked to perform an abortion by a minor to notify the girl's parents before performing the procedure. Signed by Bush on June 7, the legislation contains one exception: a girl may appear before a judge to demonstrate that she is mature enough to undergo an abortion without parental notification. But attempts by Democrats to include in the bill other ways to bypass the notification rule -- such as through a non-parental older relative, clergymember, or counselor -- were defeated.

Bush says he believes the notification law "is going to reduce the number of abortions in Texas. I think in other states it's been proven it works." The next step could be legislation requiring parental consent before an abortion can take place. Not pushed heavily this session, that concept may reappear in the future, especially if pro-life backers can prove that no dire effects -- such as the increase in dangerous or illegal abortions predicted by pro-choice advocates -- result from parental notification.

Then there was the reactionary, ill-timed gun law by Dripping Springs freshman Rep. Rick Green and Houston Republican Sen. Jon Lindsay. The bill prohibits cities from suing firearm manufacturers to recover damages resulting from gun violence without prior approval from the Legislature -- a huge limitation on potential firearm torts. When asked about the value of his legislation, Green said the bill assigns responsibility for gun violence to criminals, rather than gun manufacturers. "We're talking about a manufacturer making a product legally and a third party coming along and obtaining the product and misusing it in an illegal way. To hold them liable when that happens would be absolutely unfair," Green said. The bill passed on May 18, less than a month after the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, put gun manufacturers on the defensive across the nation.

Beg Your Pardon?

Another conservative victory was the death of heavily publicized legislation to require the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which makes all decisions regarding clemency for convicted capital murderers, to meet and deliberate as a group before deciding whether to recommend clemency. (The governor officially grants or denies clemency, but he can do so only on the recommendation of the board, which has recommended clemency only once during Bush's tenure, in 1997). Naishtat, who sponsored one of three Parole Board-related bills, says that a watered-down version of his proposal got the nod from House Criminal Justice Committee Chair Pat Haggerty, a Republican, and was grudgingly approved by then-Parole Board chairman Victor Rodriguez early in the session. But the bill was scrapped, Naishtat says, when Gov. Bush told Haggerty "not to let anything related to the Board and clemency out of his committee this session."

"The governor's office was afraid that I might be successful in amending in floor debate the watered-down version, and that he would be faced with signing it or vetoing it," says Naishtat. "He didn't want to have to do that."

Pricey Drinks

For a while, it looked as if this would be the session that Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, was finally able to push through a law banning open containers of alcohol in cars. After all, this time it wasn't just a matter of ending a questionable, albeit popular, custom -- millions of dollars in federal road construction funds were at stake if the Lege failed to pass the law. But while a watered-down version of Hill's bill made it through the House on May 11, the measure died in Senate committee. The state could now lose a significant chunk of its highway construction funds: $21 million a year will be redirected from construction to public safety education programs. That amount could double in 2002 if the Lege doesn't pass an open-container law next session.

Meanwhile, the Lege did manage to pass a bill reducing the standard for intoxication from .10% to .08% of blood alcohol content. The law, long favored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, carried with it the incentive of $26 million in federal transportation funds.

Looking Ahead

Bush still has a few days to exercise his veto power, but chances are you won't see many executive vetoes this session. That's because Bush -- who has called this his most successful session ever -- spent most of his legislative currency lobbying for the passage of bills that would aid his political aspirations, and the quiet defeat of others on which he did not want to take a stand. Later, when the Legislature approved bills Bush had opposed, the governor was quick to take credit for (largely Democratic) accomplishments, a move which legislators say is typical but was especially pronounced this session.

"No matter who's in the governor's slot, or what party, they usually try to take credit for whatever we do," says Austin's Barrientos. "On the question of CHIP, teacher pay raises, case workers for abused children -- we've had those up there [on the Senate floor] over and over. The governor cannot take credit for doing it. He may sign the bills, but we have to give credit where credit is due."

The calendar may still say it's 1999, but most legislators are already thinking about 2000. Even beyond the shakeup that is likely to take place if and when Rick Perry vacates his seat to take over the Governor's Mansion (early candidates to fill Perry's shoes include prominent Republican Senators David Sibley of Waco and Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant), 2000 is significant because both Democrats and Republicans want to be the majority party during the 77th Session when the Lege will redraw the lines for redistricting, after the U.S. Census is taken. "The Supreme Court has ruled that you can gerrymander based on political lines, which pretty much leaves it open for the party in control to draw lines that would ensure victories for their party," says Liz Chadderdon, a spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party. "It's something that we at the Democratic Party are taking very seriously."

Speculation at this point may be a bit premature, but it seems likely that Drew Nixon -- the Republican senator from Carthage who was convicted on criminal charges twice during his term, once for illegal gun possession and once for soliciting a prostitute on South Congress -- will opt out of next year's race, leaving his seat open for a Republican or moderate Democrat to fill. In addition, several House Republicans may be vulnerable in the next election, particularly some of the more ideological freshmen (gun crusader Rick Green, for example, won by fewer than 100 votes).

"There are seats all over and there are a lot of Republicans running for higher office, and there's a lot of maneuvering that's going to go on if Drew Nixon doesn't run," says Maxey. "Nobody knows what the lineup in the Senate will do. I'm hopeful. I don't predict any dire things happening."

The governor's all-but-official presidential run cast a long shadow over the Capitol, injecting the question of political motive into every decision made by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More On the Lege
Lege Lines: Stretching Toward a Sunset
Lege Lines: Stretching Toward a Sunset
Don’t praise the Senate GOP for working quickly to pass what’s needed

Mary Tuma, July 21, 2017

Lege Lines
Lege Lines
Sine die at last, transportation, water, and more

Richard Whittaker, Aug. 9, 2013


Lege, Legislature, Texas Legislature, Gov George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Elliot Naishtat, Glen Maxey, Bills, Hate Crimes, Chisum, Abortion, Tax, Presidential, Democrats, Republicans

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle