Capitol Chronicle

The State of Whose State? The Governor Runs for Governor and the Rest of Us Run for Cover

Gov. Rick Perry
Gov. Rick Perry (Photo By Alan Pogue)

The campaign is over. Let the campaign begin.

For the last two legislative sessions, George W. Bush's State of the State addresses lacked only red-white-and-blue bunting to be full-contact presidential whistle stops, and the House chamber was accordingly packed with pols, media, and stargazing onlookers, SRO. Seen in that diminishing light, there was a curious air of anticlimax to his successor's State of the State address last week. But then, Rick Perry's only running for governor.

It was only a minor indignity that the governor-by-succession had to wait until the House honored "Old Rip," the legendary Texas horny toad who survived 31 years of undeserved entombment (1897-1928) in the cornerstone of the Eastland County courthouse. Old Rip died of pneumonia less than a year after his resurrection, but in the interim (House Concurrent Resolution 31 helpfully informed us) he got to meet Calvin Coolidge. Apparently Rip, whose embalmed corpse remains on display ("in a plush lined casket") at the courthouse, bore no visible grudge against his ruthless captors, and their descendants are now building him a statue at the county seat. They will have to vie for phrynosoma cornutum glory with Karnes County, for the House also declared the city of Kenedy the Horned Lizard Capital of Texas (HR 39).

After such a stellar opening act, it's understandable that the governor's soft-shoe turn might be a little less than riveting. There were small but real post-Bushean blessings: Perry's a more relaxed public speaker than Bush, knows his text, and happily refrains from ending every sentence with a sanctimoniously falling intonation. After a pro forma intro that acknowledged the capture of the last of the Connally Unit fugitives, Perry re-declared his previously announced session priorities: higher education, math teaching, traffic amelioration, and border initiatives. It's neither an instinctive nor glamorous combination -- it was a particularly bumpy segue from commuter traffic jams in the suburbs to endemic diabetes and tuberculosis along the border -- but it is clearly designed to play to the crucial demographics of the next election. And the bold initiatives, in the current Clinton/Bush vogue of "small government," are more public relations than public policy. Perry would expand the Texas Grant program of college scholarships, create a Master Teacher program in mathematics, spend some more money on highways (now there's a dramatic Texas departure), and make certain some of those roads are on the border.

There was lip service to other social needs, but that was Perry's core list. The speech's core message was something else again: "Now is not the time to commit ourselves to numerous programs that we may not be able to one day sustain." Translation: When the economy was booming and the budget expanding, my predecessor and the Legislature thought it best to dedicate every windfall to tax cuts; now that the economy is teetering on the brink, for some reason the state's cupboard is looking bare. ...

Perry's $40 million math initiative gives a sense of the scale we're talking about. Perry is basing it on Bush's reading initiative, which he described in glowing terms during an earlier visit with Capitol reporters. Statewide, Perry said, the program has trained 183 "master reading teachers," with another 349 in the pipeline (master teachers get a salary bonus upon completion of the training program). That's admirable, and no doubt beneficial to those 500 or so teachers -- but set against what Perry himself described as a "shortage of public school teachers estimated to be 42,000," it seems like preciously small beer. Perry promised more scholarships for future teachers, as well, but made literally no mention of the crisis in teachers' health insurance that has teachers leaving the profession in droves and the rest of the Lege leadership scrambling to find the money to plug the gaps somewhere. Beyond his four narrowly cast priorities, Perry grudgingly conceded, "If additional revenues are available, we should look for ways to also address the pay needs of our hard-working prison guards and other state employees."

All in all, it wasn't the sort of kickoff speech that should win Old Rick an iron statue on the grounds of the Eastland County courthouse. But considering the current choices allowed Texas voters, it may well be good enough for a governorship.

Perry had begun by saying he would attend more to the "state of the future" than the "state of the state." Perhaps there's a good reason. For a more accurate and comprehensive rendering of the "state of the state" than the governor's calculated political pieties, I highly recommend the report "The State of the Lone Star State," edited by Paul Robbins and Andrew Wheat and published last fall by Texans for Public Justice, and available at their Web site, www.tpj.org. (For a selection of lowlights, see the chart at right.)

On the Floor

Austin Republican rep Terry Keel has introduced a bill with Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, and co-authored by Austin Democrat Glen Maxey, that would decriminalize medical marijuana (HB 513). With a broad-spectrum sponsorship like that, one might think such a simple, sane bill might actually stand a chance of passing the Texas Legislature. But that's probably too much to hope for.

Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would create a commission to review the state's capital punishment and clemency process, and declare a two-year moratorium on executions while the review takes place (HB 720). El Paso Democrat Elliott Shapleigh is said to be preparing similar legislation in the Senate.

Meetings of the budgeting committees (Senate Finance and House Appropriations) are for the most part endless drones of agency presentations, interrupted by the occasional burst of either grandstanding or acutely pointed questions from the reps. Some early dust-ups were generated by nursing homes (Sen. Chris Harris grilling Health and Human Services Commissioner Don Gilbert), the TNRCC (Sen. Carlos Truan chiding Ralph Marquez and his voluntary cleanup program for grandfathered polluters), and the parole board (Reps. Helen Giddings, Sylvester Turner, and several others jumping on Gerald Garrett of the Board of Pardons and Paroles for refilling the jails with technical violators). These are early indicators of potential floor battles on all these issues.

Liberal legislators have apparently chosen children's Medicaid enrollment as their high-profile issue this session, as some 600,000 eligible kids are unenrolled because of bureaucratic regulations and a lack of state outreach. A Democratic group led by Galveston's Patricia Gray and Austin's Elliott Naishtat (and including one GOP supporter, Eastland's Jim Keffer) held a capacity-crowd press conference to announce the initiative last week, complete with dramatic visuals, press kits, and three working mothers who have run afoul of the Medicaid procedures while trying to enroll their children. Austin's Glen Maxey described two of the three related proposals (cutting down the paperwork in the application process, eliminating the face-to-face interview, and providing yearlong coverage instead of the current six months) as costing "only" $36 million. In a $100 billion state budget, said Maxey, "That's chump change. I'm a freshman member of the Appropriations Committee, and I could find $36 million to pay for it."

On his ascension to speaker pro tempore, Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, was treated to the traditional ritual of extravagantly enthusiastic (and half-comic) seconding speeches from his colleagues: He was compared to Mel Gibson (in The Patriot), Russell Crowe (in Gladiator), Ferdinand the Bull (the Disney cartoon), Sandra Bullock (in Miss Congeniality), and Pancho Villa, with sidelong nods to Machiavelli's The Prince and Attila the Hun (as in The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun). Strangest toast of the day was from Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who said, "Being a former English teacher, I thought about comparing Senator Harris to some great literary figure: Jason in Homer's Odyssey comes to mind because he was a real tough guy." He may have been a real tough guy, but Jason (of Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica, aka Jason and the Argonauts) never set sandal in The Odyssey. Made us wonder if Nelson's former students could have passed the TAAS test. Asked about the misplaced mythology, a spokesman for Nelson said he'd get back to us. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Rick Perry, Old Rip, Texans for Public Justice, Terry Keel, Harold Dutton, Glen Maxey, Chris Harris, Patricia Gray, Elliott Naishtat, Jane Nelson, Elliott Shapleigh, Carlos Truan, Helen Giddings, Sylvester Turner

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