Small Victory, Bitter Defeats

Capitol Chronicle: The House moves to shred the Battered Texas Safety Net

Since there's been so little of it, let's start with the good news.

For reasons still somewhat mysterious, last week the House rejected HB 1554, the "virtual charter" bill that would fund an Internet charter-school program under the supervision of state universities. Authored by Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, the bill as drafted was essentially a voucher bill, allowing wide-open enrollment of home schoolers in "online" education, with computer equipment, software, and Internet access paid for from public-school funds. After a series of floor amendments (offered primarily by Houston Democrat Scott Hochberg), it became more limited in scope and aimed primarily toward at-risk students now in the public schools.

The amendments improved the bill, but more surprising is that they were entertained by the GOP majority at all -- for some reason the leadership abandoned Grusendorf on HB 1554 and didn't enforce rote partisan votes against any and all amendments (as has been standard practice). The bill itself initially passed only 71-70, meaning that a significant portion of the 88 House Republicans had bailed; when that vote was "verified" (every member called by name), HB 1554 failed, 75-66. (A procedural maneuver by Houston Dem. Senfronia Thompson then put a stake in the bill's heart, at least for this session.) Even opponents of the bill were stunned and speculated that the opposition of most rural school districts (and their reps) to voucher programs in general had turned the tide on this one. Maybe so -- but that still doesn't explain why the House leadership didn't just ramrod this vote as it has most other high-profile legislation.

The victory was short-lived, since a few minutes later the Senate passed SB 933 (Shapiro, R-Plano). As drafted, the companion bill tracked Grusendorf's version, and after numerous amendments by Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, and Royce West, D-Dallas, and Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, it passed 27-3 (Barrientos, Gallegos, and Zaffirini the only nays). Reportedly, opponents had the 11 votes necessary to keep SB 933 off the floor, but Shapleigh and West decided instead to amend it, primarily to limit the cost of the program and to cap the pilot schools at two and the enrollment at 2,000 students. (Supporters trumpeted the accountability and monitoring provisions in the bill, but the student-teacher ratio for this video pseudo-learning gives the cut-rate education game away: It's a disgraceful 60-1.)

Word of the House rejection of HB 1554 had reached the Senate before its passage of SB 933 -- giving the senators what amounted to a free vote on a probably doomed bill. For the moment, call it a draw; but at least the good guys won one. (For more on education bills, see "On the Lege.")


Glow Self Esteem

The rest of the week, to put it mildly, was not so good. After years of narrow defeats, the nuke-waste lobby finally blasted a West Texas waste-dump bill (HB 1567) through the House, 107-34, which means plenty of Democrats bolted. Perhaps they were persuaded that "Andrews County" (i.e., Odessa Republican Buddy West and the usual local-Chamber-of-Commerce types) "really wants it." That fails to explain why the House also handily rejected several amendments (offered by Fort Worth's Lon Burnam, Austin's Eddie Rodriguez, Rosenberg's Dora Olivo, and even, by God, Pasadena's Robert Talton) that would have limited the acceptable amount of federal waste or sensibly raised safety standards at the dump itself and for nuke transshipment truckers. Burnam also tried several points-of-order, inevitably overruled. Opponents were reduced to raising the threat of terrorist "dirty bombs" derived from insufficiently protected rad-waste -- all to no avail.

There remains some hope of derailing the dump in the Senate -- though I wouldn't bet the ranch. Enviro-lobbyists are trying hard to round up the 11 votes needed to keep the bill from the floor, and South Austin's Jeff Wentworth is said to be on the fence. It wouldn't hurt to give him a call and politely suggest that turning Texas into the national nuke dump and Texas highways into nukeways is not exactly in the best interests of most Texans. I'm told sometimes that even works.


Ready the Workhouses

Bad as it is, HB 1567 was not the worst bill steamrolled through the House last week. That honor goes easily to HB 2292, the omnibus "reorganization" of the state health and human services that would, for starters, boil 12 current HHS agencies down to three, under a supercommissioner (currently Albert "Axe-man" Hawkins) responsible only to the governor. The extremely radical changes were defended by the bill's author (Burleson Republican Arlene Wohlgemuth) as "streamlining" the agencies, but a major motive for the centralization of power is to allow the commissioner (i.e., the governor) to implement program cuts pretty much at will, without legislative oversight. That grandiose plan moved Houston Dem. Garnet Coleman to propose an amendment to make the commissioner's office a statewide elected position. The effort was doomed -- not before it generated apoplectic GOP denunciations from the back mic -- but it at least made evident the enormous power to be vested in the new office.

The bill would also eliminate some 2,700 HHS employees (a fraction of the 10,000 or so state employees altogether marked for elimination by the House budget) and quite clearly has less to do with "streamlining" than with the hard-right's determination to effectively dismantle as many of the state's social-service programs as possible and to "privatize" (that is, profitize) the rest. All this was bad enough. But HB 2292 had begun as a one-page shell bill and ended on the floor as a couple-hundred-page catchall barely seen by most members before Wohlgemuth began amending whole sections on the floor, in a mirthless mockery of legislative deliberation.

The bill's true intentions were highlighted by Wohlgemuth's comments on the bill's "full family sanctions" (loss of all benefits) for welfare recipients (that is, and their children) who fail to meet their "personal responsibility" requirements, e.g. forced-work programs. Welfare should mirror real life, said Wohlgemuth: "If you don't work, you don't eat."

It's a lesson that might be lost on the average undernourished newborn, but hey: If they don't want to be productive citizens, they shouldn't bother getting born. (The unborn are something else again, as the bill also imposes several new restrictions on abortion providers.) There is much more to this odious and tyrannical legislation, but I'm nearly out of room.

By late Friday, many opponents had left the floor either in exhaustion or disgust, and the final 74-31 vote was a formality. Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat, who had fought hard to improve the bill (mostly in vain), argued one more time that HB 2292 goes "too far, too fast," that in the name of thrift it throws away $4 billion in federal matching funds, that it will cause "lengthy, harmful disruptions" to the lives of the most vulnerable Texans, and that it was authored in a willfully undeliberative and irresponsible manner.

It was a brief but moving speech -- and hardly anybody was listening, inside the Capitol or out. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

HB 1554, Kent Grusendorf, virtual charter, voucher, Scott Hochberg, Senfronia Thompson, SB 933, Florence Shapiro, Eliot Shapleigh, Royce West, Leticia Van de Putte, Gonzalo Barrientos, Gallegos, Zaffirini, nuclear waste, Andrews County, Buddy West, Lon Burnam, Eddie Rodrig

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