A Decade at the Lege
Some wit once said that when Texas' founding fathers decided that the state legislature should meet for 140 days every two years, they made a mistake; what they meant to say was that the Lege should meet for two days every 140 years. Nonetheless, our elected representatives continue to provide fodder for political pundits and headline writers every other year, which makes it hard to pare down our list of top battles of the decade to only 10. A few gems -- like the 1997 "Memorial Day Massacre," in which Rep. Arlene Wolgemuth, R-Burleson, killed off dozens of bills in retaliation for the death of one bill prohibiting gay marriages and another requiring parental notification on abortion -- didn't make the cut, not because they weren't newsworthy, but because their effects didn't seem so monumental in hindsight. That said, here are our picks for the top 10 legislative battles of the decade:
1. Redistricting. The redistricting battle, which takes place every 10 years, largely determines to whom legislative districts will fall; for decades, the ax fell mostly on Republicans, who lacked the political numbers and clout to draw district lines in their favor. In 1991, the tables turned when Republicans sued to halt a Democratic redistricting plan approved by both houses; the suit led to a special legislative session, a federally imposed districting plan which would have added as many as four new GOP Senate seats, and the eventual passage of the original Democratic plan. In between came partisan bickering, a Supreme Court ruling, and even a scandal, when the head of the panel that wrote the GOP-supported plan recused himself after admitting he let a Republican state lawmaker help him devise the plan. Whew! Now that Republicans have increased their numbers and power in the Lege, we wonder what battles 2001 will bring.
2. School finance. Few laws have been as far-reaching -- and as contentious -- as the so-called "Robin Hood" school finance law, which required property-rich school districts to share tax revenues with poorer districts. The bill gave property-rich districts -- a designation which now includes Austin ISD -- five options for sharing their money. Critics dubbed this a "Robin Hood" scheme because, they said, it worked by robbing tax dollars from the rich and giving them to the poor.
3. Tort Reform. The phrase itself reflects the pro-business, anti-litigation leanings of Republican legislators who drafted the bill: not "consumer protection rollbacks," nor "business liability exemptions," but "tort reform." And 1995 was a banner year for tort reformers, who succeeded in drastically decreasing businesses' liability for personal injury and death caused by their products, rolling back insurance rates for corporations, and making it harder to sue doctors for malpractice. While supporters said the law would decrease the burden of "frivolous" lawsuits, critics said it decreased corporate accountability.
4. Welfare Reform. Also in 1995, the Lege approved a sweeping welfare overhaul which limited the length of time Texans could remain on welfare. The bill required that welfare recipients work, go to school, or participate in a job training program, unless they had children younger than five; one contentious provision, supported by Gov. Bush as the "moral" thing to do but scuttled as the session drew to a close, would have cut off benefits to children whose mothers already had two or more children.
5. Concealed Weapons. Considering how much owning a gun has become a part of the state's mythology, it's hard to believe that just five years ago, weapon-wielding Texans were fighting for the right to tote their firearms in public venues. The concealed handgun bill, which opponents said would lead to a rash of firearm deaths and do little to protect law-abiding citizens, was passed with strong support from Gov. Bush, who said it would make Texas a safer place to live. The jury is still out.
6. Property Tax "Relief." Bush's $1 billion property tax cut turned out to be the tax relief that wasn't. Politically, the reduction in local school property taxes was a boon for the governor, who used the cuts (misleadingly, critics said) as ammunition in his second gubernatorial campaign. But financially, the budgetary maneuver did little to help Texas' average homeowner, who saw property taxes actually increase over the next year as property values and local tax rates continued to skyrocket.
7. Home Equity Loans. 1997 was also the year that Texans approved a constitutional amendment allowing home equity loans. The new law allowed homeowners to use the equity in their homes as collateral for loans, to a maximum of 80% of a house's value. Critics warned that borrowers might fall prey to unscrupulous financial institutions who could foreclose on a home if a homeowner found himself unable to pay. Many of their fears were reinforced when, after the law went into effect, potential customers were deluged with a flood of ads urging them to gamble their homes on fancy cars, expensive vacations, and bigger and better home appliances.
8. School Vouchers. This fight may have ultimately fizzled, but the specter of vouchers -- which take on the friendlier appelation "school choice" at places like James Leininger's Texas Public Policy Foundation -- was ominous enough to strike a cold chord of fear in the hearts of legislators who feared that taking money from public schools to fund private education would do nothing to benefit the large majority of students who would be left behind. Ultimately, Rick Perry's pet issue was more bark than bite; opponents kept vouchers from coming to a Senate vote, and efforts by supporters to tack voucher proposals onto other bills died painlessly.
9. Hate Crimes. The word around the Capitol was that the popular James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act was killed not by democratic consensus but by gubernatorial fiat, after the bill's supporters refused to remove references to sexual orientation from the bill's language. The bill, which would have increased the penalty for several categories of bias-motivated crime, died in the Senate after a day of back-room wrangling and open confrontation on the Senate floor, where Democrats accused the Republican majority of holding back the legislation in order to protect the governor.
10. Parental Notification of Abortion. The conventional wisdom about the Texas Legislature is, if a bad idea gets repeated enough, sooner or later people will start to think it's a good one. That seems to have been the case with parental notification, which has been resurrected every session only to be squashed with equal regularity. Not so in 1999, when legislation by two Republican senators was passed requiring doctors to notify the parents of any minor who asks for an abortion. The bill's passage was one of the most stunning defeats in Texas' history for abortion rights activists, and one of pro-lifers' most sweeping victories.