Capitol Chronicle

Setting the agenda: The future's so bright, you better get out your shades

Capitol Chronicle
Illustration By Doug Potter

You'll all be delighted to learn that the newly elected leadership at the Capitol has seized the Republican high ground and proffered thoughtful proposals addressing the state's budget shortfall, the homeowners insurance crisis, the school finance conundrum, and the looming collapse of health care from emergency rooms to nursing homes.

Well, not exactly.

Indeed, it might be a little while before the Lege gets cracking on those minor, back-burner matters. First it must deal with much more urgent projects: restricting women's reproductive rights, mandating prayer in schools, and heaping additional public abuse on the heads of gay and lesbian citizens. The new legislators also must limit citizen access to the courts, as a reward for the insurance companies, HMOs, housing manufacturers, and other corporate patrons who put up all the campaign cash.

That's not, of course, how the bills' authors will describe much of the early legislation filed last week at the Capitol. We shall instead hear florid rhetoric about "protecting the unborn," "keeping God in the classroom," "tort reform," and most vainglorious of all, "the defense of marriage." It's helpful to remind ourselves how the folks explicitly targeted by such punitive lawmaking feel when they find themselves in the legislative cross hairs.

For example, San Antonio Republican Frank Corte's HB 15 will be called an "informed consent" bill, because it requires that a doctor providing an abortion must describe the process to her prospective patient in extraordinary detail, using "materials designed to inform the woman of the probable anatomical and physiological characteristics of the unborn child at two-week gestational increments [including] color pictures." Corte's bill would also outlaw abortion facilities -- much like topless bars or liquor stores -- within 1,500 feet of a school or church. Why not just call it the "Scarlet Letter" bill, since the law's clear intention is to frighten, shame, and intimidate pregnant women and their doctors into abandoning constitutionally protected and necessary medical care?

Pampa Republican Warren Chisum has revived from the deserved-dead HB 38, which would forbid state recognition of any "marriage or civil union" between persons of the same sex. Since Texas law already defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman, the bill is entirely gratuitous, except as another official insult to gay Texans and a potential record vote to use as a bludgeon against moderate lawmakers. For the latter reason, it will likely pass easily, while a handful of progressives attempt instead to protect gay foster-parenting and adoption. At the Lege, preventing orphans from acquiring parents is known as "defending family values." (See Rep. Robert Talton's HB 194, "Naked City," p.??.)

In a similar vein, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-Far South Austin, and Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, have each filed bills (SB 83, HB 87) requiring school districts to designate a daily classroom "moment of silence" -- no doubt to be employed in Texas schools for nonsectarian obeisance to Allah, Buddha, Osiris, Baha'ullah, et al.

No Day in Court

That's not to say there aren't more momentous items on the agenda for the resplendent new era of Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick. Gov. Perry has already plucked a new chief of staff (Mike Toomey) straight from the insurance lobby, and the three members of prospective Speaker Tom Craddick's transition team all have insurance industry connections. The Dallas Morning News reported Saturday that Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst is also snuffling for staff in the lobby. The governor's spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, noted soothingly, "It's just nothing new."

The coziness seems a little earlier and more blatant than usual, but of course Walt is right: The Capitol's doors have been revolving at warp speed for decades. Indeed, there may well be efficiencies in having the lobby's lips so close to the governor's ear -- he won't have to wait until after the session to derail legislation distressing to corporate interests.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville née Flower Mound, has fired the first shot in the insurance wars, SB 12, which would cap noneconomic damages in medical liability lawsuits at $250,000 and impose specific and quite restrictive limits on what a liability lawyer could earn in such cases. Imagine the sanctimonious outcry at the Lege if someone filed a bill limiting the amount of money a corporate attorney, insurance salesman, or HMO administrator can earn. Yet when it comes to undermining the livelihoods of those known officially in Texas as "greedy-trahl-lawyers" -- and thereby the legal recourse of their clients -- hypocrisy has no limit. Just ask your new attorney general, Greg Abbott.

The Big Picture

The post-election frenzy to consolidate GOP power is likewise unlimited. Last spring, U.S. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay informed the Legislature's joint redistricting committee that the state's Congressional delegation should contain 20 or 21 GOP seats. (The balance is now a precarious 17 Dems to 15 Republicans, if you count as Democrats such donkeys-in-name-only as Charles Stenholm of Abilene and Ralph Hall of Rockwall). The courts didn't agree, and the Hammer responded, "I believe the responsibility for drawing congressional districts does not lie with the court but rather the state legislative body. I look forward to the state Legislature addressing these issues during the next session." It does not take an elephant's ears to hear DeLay's declaration reverberating in the Texas Senate, where last week Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio told a reporter he will "consider" helping the GOP redistrict if it would mean another congressional seat for South Texas (that is, for Eddie Lucio). Where Lucio goes, San Antonio's Frank Madla is generally not far behind -- and those two could provide the votes the GOP needs to address redistricting. (The R's have 19 members of the state Senate, but the chamber's rules require that two-thirds -- 21 members -- agree to bring a bill to the floor.)

Asked about the possibility of re-redistricting, Houston Democratic Rep. Garnet Coleman acknowledged it has happened before, although it always ends up in court and wastes the state's time and money. "The die is cast," Coleman said, "and should [the GOP] try to undo it, [it would confirm] that all this was about is vengeance and partisanship." Congressman Lloyd Doggett said he flatly expects redistricting, and that Democratic incumbents like himself and Martin Frost of Dallas will be likely GOP targets. Frost appears more vulnerable than Doggett, but "after what they already did to Lamar Smith's district," Doggett said, "anything is possible." (Smith, of San Antonio, now represents 200,000 or so people in Travis Co. -- the first time in generations that Austinites have an out-of-town congressman.)

Coleman concluded, "I would hope we would focus instead on the state's real and persistent problems: balancing the budget, fixing school finance, lowering insurance rates for Texans across the board, protecting the health care of children."

Judging from the way the winds are blowing, it seems Coleman's hope has little chance of fulfillment. end story

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Legislature, abortion, Frank Corte, HB 15, informed consent, Warren Chisum, HB 38, defense of marriage act, Jeff Wentworth, Ruth Jones McClendon, school prayer, Rick Perry, Mike Toomey, David Dewhurst, Kathy Walt, Jane Nelson, SB 12, Greg Abbott, Tom DeLay, Eddie Lucio

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