Legislature Gets It Together

The 78th Legislature's first week was brief and mostly unremarkable. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced his committee appointments, which were more bipartisan than expected, with six Democrats joining nine Republicans as chairs of Senate committees. Still, the biggest plums remain in GOP hands; Amarillo's Teel Bivins takes over the Finance Committee, Plano's Florence Shapiro will helm Education, Lewisville's Jane Nelson will lead Health and Human Services, and Mount Pleasant's Bill Ratliff -- Dewhurst's predecessor as Lite-Guv -- will chair State Affairs.

Among the Dems, John Whitmire returns to the Criminal Justice chair; fellow Houstonian Rodney Ellis, last session's Finance chair, will chair a new Government Organization Committee, aka the "scrub the budget" committee, and Eddie Lucio of Brownsville will lead a new International Relations and Trade Committee. Also, GOP Sen. Steve Ogden of Bryan chairs a new Infrastructure Development and Security Committee, expected to continue the work of the now-disbanded Governor's Task Force on Homeland Security, chaired by Dewhurst.

On the House side, as expected, Speaker Tom Craddick moved to consolidate his authority by revising House rules. HR 5, presented on the floor Jan. 16 by Houston Dem Ron Wilson, eliminated the Office of House Bill Analysis, empowered Craddick to appoint 27 of the 29 seats on the budget-drafting Appropriations Committee, and eliminated seniority as a qualification for a seat on that powerful panel.

Rookie Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, proposed an amendment to allow 13 seats to be filled by seniority, supported from the floor by Democrats Paul Moreno, Garnet Coleman, Irma Rangel, Elliott Naishtat, Jim Dunnam, and Pete Gallego. All noted the House tradition of honoring seniority, and Coleman noted that Craddick's new system of appointing chief budget officers from Appropriations to particular committees will effectively deliver authority over 80% of the state budget to only seven members. Despite Moreno's guarantee of "many floor fights" under the new system, Rodriguez's amendment failed 105-39, and the rules were adopted 138-4. Rodriguez later noted that the seniority rules had been installed with bipartisan support under former Speaker Pete Laney, and called the change a return to "autocratic" government.

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