Adiós! Don't Let the Door ...

Instant Highlights and Lowlights (mostly) of the 78th Legislature

Adiós! Don't Let the Door ...
Illustration By Doug Potter

Monday at the Lege was Sine Die -- that's Latin for "Run for the hills!"

The legislative dust hasn't settled yet, and even the authors are uncertain what's in the omnibus late-train bills. What follows is a preliminary snapshot of the major bills we've been tracking most closely this session. The final weekend was even more chaotic than usual, and several major bills passed (or failed to pass) in the final hours. All bills enacted by the Legislature remain subject to Gov. Perry's review: He has until June 22 to sign or veto.

The Weakest Go to the Wall

Presuming the comptroller certifies the officially $117.4 billion budget (HB 1) in the next few days -- hardly a sure thing, since so many revenue-related votes were still Ping-Ponging between the chambers over the weekend -- the new Republican leadership resolved the $10 billion deficit with "no new taxes." Schoolteachers and school districts will be docked for insurance and pensions; underpaid Medicaid providers will be further dinged on reimbursements; there are countless dubious increases in "fees," "penalties," and "bonds"; state colleges will charge more for tuition; and local taxpayers will be expected to make up the difference -- all of this in the name of the Legislature's pretense of fiscal discipline. Despite a late lagniappe of federal Medicaid money, the cruelest cuts will be to health and human services: 330,000 children will lose Medicaid coverage (with remaining coverage radically limited); another 170,000 children will lose coverage under C.H.I.P.; in-home care for elderly and disabled will be reduced; more than 7,800 pregnant women will lose prenatal care. The poorest regions and the most vulnerable will suffer the most. "With this budget," El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh told his colleagues, "we mark the passage in Texas from 'compassionate conservatism' to just plain old mean-spiritedness." -- Michael King

Adding Insult to Injury

The medical malpractice/tort-reform bill (HB 4) threatened to crash when Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, declined to give the business lobby absolutely everything it wanted. Ratliff held out for more flexible caps on noneconomic damages in medical-malpractice lawsuits, and eventually won a combination $750,000 cap among doctors and health care institutions. If malpractice-insurance rates decline even marginally, it will be declared a victory for providers and consumers. But if the malpractice horror stories accumulate and citizens are without effective recourse to the courts, the tort reformers will have much to answer for.

-- M.K.

The Governor's Assurances

The "emergency" homeowners-insurance bill (SB 14) already looked like a bucket of water on a forest fire when it nearly steamed out Saturday night. House sponsor Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, returned from his daughter's graduation to find that some still-unidentified vandals had mysteriously removed a provision controlling unjustified "management fees" charged by big players like Farmers Insurance. Smithee said he would scuttle the bill -- until he received a promise from Gov. Perry that the insurance commissioner would "monitor" the fees for fairness. Overriding blistering criticism by a few members, that was enough to convince Smithee and 112 of his House colleagues to vote aye -- meaning it will take effect upon the governor's signature and supposedly "roll back rates" this summer. If you believe that ... agents are lining up to sell you a whole lot more insurance. -- M.K.

Slamming the University Door

Public-school finance -- aka Who'll Kill Cock Robin-Hood -- will be the focus of a special legislative session likely this fall, so we will have weeks if not months to ponder that can of worms. So the education boll weevils went elsewhere ...

Very late in the session, Speaker Tom Craddick decided state-university tuition must be completely deregulated immediately -- and to that end he held hostage the budget. Legislators already fending off attacks (e.g., vouchers, online charter schools) on public-school equity were suddenly outflanked on higher-education equity. Tuition deregulation will effectively allow appointed regents to set credit-hour fees for public universities at whatever rate "the market" will bear. It is an unexpected and bitter pill -- with very ominous long-term consequences. All the minority senators (led by Dallas Democrat Royce West) could do was to filibuster to death SB 86 (Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio), which would have put curriculum restrictions and numerical caps on the "Top 10%" admissions bill. If there's any silver lining to tuition dereg, it's that even conservative student groups are screaming -- stunned to discover what "no new taxes" really means. -- M.K.

Health Care District Survives

The Central Texas health care district bill had all but died in the House until a quick-save last week in the Senate. The bill that had died as HB 2327 (carried by Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat) was born again on the coattails of HB 2292 -- the controversial omnibus health and human services reorganization bill (passed late Sunday) that threatens harm to the same folks the proposed health care district is designed to help. Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who had co-sponsored HB 2327, had planned to mount a filibuster against HB 2292, but relented when Wentworth added the amendment reviving the health care district. In the end, Barrientos could only vote no on HB 2292, because he opposed everything the bill contained except the health care district. HB 2292 was a priority of the Conservative Caucus, so it doesn't risk a veto, but the district will still need to go to the voters. Considering what the Lege has done to state health care, prospective patients may want to start an immediate waiting list. --Amy Smith

The Biennial Gay-Bash

Late last week, Randall Ellis, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, wasn't quite ready to declare victory but did acknowledge a sense of relief. Of the handful of anti-gay bills filed this session, only the Defense of Marriage Act (SB 7), which withholds state recognition of civil unions allowed in other states, made it to the governor's desk. "We haven't declared victory yet because there's still a chance of a bad amendment," he worried; that extra disaster never quite happened. Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, had already tried and failed to revive his anti-gay bill (HB 916, prohibiting adoption by more than one person of the same sex) as an amendment to another bill. Given the rabid-right tenor of the Legislature, things could have been a lot worse. The gay-rights lobby's biggest victory was Pasadena Republican Rep. Robert Talton's biggest defeat. Talton tried to ban the placement of foster children in gay or lesbian households (HB 1911 and 194), but a well-organized counterattack -- some 300 people registered their opposition at a hearing on HB 1911 -- effectively deep-sixed the bill. The DOMA measure (SB 7) does not threaten to change the status quo dramatically, since the state never recognized gay unions in the first place -- it's just one more insult piled on injury. Gov. Perry signed the bill last week in a private ceremony -- no photo op allowed -- attended by DOMA supporters, staff members, Senate sponsor Wentworth and Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, sponsor of the companion HB 38. -- A.S.

Ethics, Schmethics

First, Speaker Craddick -- who had assigned Dallas Democrat Steve Wolens to carry an ethics bill -- allowed House members privately to gut Wolens' HB 1606, intended to strengthen campaign finance disclosure requirements and the Texas Ethics Commission. The Senate watered it down even more and according to Campaigns for People President Fred Lewis "even managed to roll back some of the watershed 1991 ethics reforms." The eviscerated bill passed both chambers, was nearly scuttled (in a curious Saturday night power play by House conference committee members), then mysteriously rejuvenated in a back-room deal between Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Gasping for air, the bill finally passed the House very early Monday morning (for more on the melodrama, see "Capitol Chronicle," p.18). Two other ethics bills -- SB 649, the "Show Us the Money" bill, and SB 1616, banning corporate money from campaigns 60 days before an election -- never escaped committee. -- A.S.

Calling for Lysistrata

For women -- in particular young and poor women -- the session could have been much worse, with a slew of laws proposed to deprive women of the right to control their own bodies. Women's rights supporters were successful in defeating several bills and in softening cuts in services. The majority of women-bashing bills were sponsored by conservative white men and made it to the floor with the blessing of the all-male House State Affairs Committee and its almost all-male Senate counterpart. Texas women might consider engaging in Lysistrata-style tactics as a strategy to achieve better results next session.

Bad bills passed:

Rider 11, an amendment to the appropriations bill (HB 1) sponsored by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, will deny funding to any family-planning organization that provides abortions. A transparent attack on Planned Parenthood, this bill costs five of PP's dozen state affiliates at least $13 million and will affect at least 110,000 patients.

HB 15 (Frank Corte, R-San Antonio) imposes a 24-hour waiting period for abortion and requires providers to offer frightening (mis)information about fetal development and scientifically discredited claims of links between abortion and breast cancer. The bill also mandates that all abortions after 16 weeks be provided in ambulatory surgical centers (if any), driving up costs for both providers and patients.

SB 319 (Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria) and HB 246 (Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie) grants personhood to fertilized eggs. Marketed by its supporters as opposing violence against women, it doesn't actually increase penalties for pregnant women who are victims of violent crime. Women's rights groups worry this law will aid efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade. Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, was the single House vote against the bill, after most Democrats left the chamber in an unsuccessful attempt to bust the quorum: SB 319 passed 100-1. (Reps. Capelo, Peña, and Villareal subsequently put "no" votes on the record.) For Farrar's subsequent floor speech against the bill, see We Are Defining When Life Begins.

Bad bills blocked:

HB 945 (Phil King, R-Weatherford) would have toughened rules permitting teens to seek judicial bypasses for abortion without parental consent. HB 1655 (Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson) promoted "Choose Life" license plates in order to raise funds for "crisis pregnancy centers" -- i.e., anti-abortion clinics.

The Big Brotheresque HB 1700 (Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood) would have forced women convicted of child abuse involving alcohol, drugs, and other substances to submit to contraception even without their cooperation.

HB 2054 (Wayne Christian, R-Center) would have forbidden additional financial benefits (negligible in any case) to women who give birth while receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- harming the newborn to punish the mother. -- Lauri Apple

In the Jailhouse Now

The number of criminal-justice bills executed this session rivals the number of death row inmates who've faced a similar fate in Huntsville. For most measures there will be little, if any, mourning, while others, like the perennial life-without-parole bill, will certainly return in 2005. Some key bills did make it through both houses and to the governor's desk -- many may actually get Perry's signature.

Among bills poised to become law:

HB 28 (Terri Hodge, D-Dallas) mandates that the State Jail Division of the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice seek the services of volunteer organizations to tutor inmates and teach classes on such topics as life skills and parenting.

SB 1145 (Frank Madla, D-San Antonio) would give local mental health and mental retardation authorities the ability to prioritize funds to develop programs to aid in diverting citizens from the criminal-justice system.

SB 1948 (John Whitmire, D-Houston) will free the 14 Tulia defendants while the Court of Criminal Appeals decides whether to adopt a lower court's recommendation that their convictions be vacated. Perry signed the bill on Monday.

HB 2668 (Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie) would allow judges to sentence low-level drug offenders to community supervision instead of jail. Hailed by supporters as a progressive drug-reform law, the bill is largely the byproduct of the budget deficit.

Among failed bills likely to be refiled in 2005:

HB 357 (Harold Dutton, D-Houston) was one of three similar bills proposing the formation of an innocence commission to study wrongful convictions. Dutton's HB 366 would have added a life-without-parole sentencing option, and HB 343 would have abolished the death penalty.

SB 218 (Rodney Ellis, D-Houston) would have banned the execution of youthful offenders. SB 1678 by Whitmire, to reorganize the Board of Pardons and Paroles, included an amendment by Ellis to require the board to meet in person on death-penalty decisions.

HB 614 (Terry Keel, R-Austin) and SB 163 (Ellis) sought to define how courts would determine mental retardation in death-penalty cases (after or before trial). Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing the mentally retarded is unconstitutional, the issue will certainly return. -- Jordan Smith

Not Easy Being Green

One longtime green lobbyist called this the worst session for environmental legislation in decades. The across-the-board budget-slashing through 2005 will have its inevitable effect on anti-pollution monitoring and enforcement, although much other regulatory mischief -- including banning citizen evidence from anti-pollution cases -- was blocked by the death of HB 2, the omnibus government-reorganization bill designed to give more direct power to the governor. The single biggest catastrophe was HB 1567 (Buddy West, R-Odessa), enabling a massive nuclear-waste site in West Texas, a literally incalculable folly to threaten the state and its citizens for countless generations. More locally, HB 2130 (Ed Kuempel, R-Seguin) -- the "supergrandfathering" bill -- will exempt several development projects from the Save Our Springs ordinance and flood-control regulations. The bill also threatens to exempt a large chunk of Edwards Aquifer property from regulation. -- A.S./M.K.

The Concrete Beat

No matter how desperate the state's fiscal troubles, there's always money for Texas highways, and no matter how chaotic and overburdened the legislative calendar, there's always time for a little Austin- and green-bashing. Which are no longer one and the same -- from San Antonio to Sunset Valley, our neighbors have hitched up to Austin's growth-management train, which the Lege traditionally does its level best to derail. Highlights from the concrete beat:

The Mother of All Road Bills, HB 3588 (Mike Krusee, R-Taylor), got hashed out of conference Sunday night; on Monday, Krusee got the half-asleep House to accept some technical corrections, including (he said) "that some of the parts of the bill were handwritten, and we had them typed." Stay tuned next week. HB 3588 enables Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor boondoggle, expands the powers of regional mobility authorities (of which the Central Texas RMA is the only one in existence), and levies new fines on repeat driving offenders for trauma care and, uh, more roads.

The resulting smog is "managed" through the Texas Emissions Reduction Program; several bills, including HB 638 (Chisum) and HB 1365 (Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton), used legislative legerdemain to keep the TERP alive (and funded), or at least lively enough to fool the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which could yank Dallas and Houston highway funds for noncompliance with previous Clean Air Act rulings. (By the way, the money now going to the TERP will, after 2008, go to, uh, more roads.)

As for the roads around here, HB 1204 (Todd Baxter, R-Austin) -- the bill to "harmonize" (in tones pleasant to developers' ears) city and county regulations in municipal ETJs -- gives the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's roadway plan specific precedence over the actual city or county involved. (So if CAMPO -- growing ever more dominated by suburban road fans -- plans another new highway across the aquifer in Austin's ETJ, Austin can't deny projects because it doesn't want to build the road.) HB 1204 also goes out of its way to allow Lowe's to build a store opposed by Sunset Valley. -- Mike Clark-Madison

Gambling Bills Crap Out

Key members of the GOP brain trust think the poor don't pay enough in taxes. But the state's most efficient system for taxing the poor -- the Texas Lottery -- almost died along with its sunset bill, SB 270, after a House-Senate spat between the authors, Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, and Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, over reforms to the benighted Lottery Commission's byzantine-yet-toothless bingo regulation system. The lottery's sunset was pushed forward to 2005, and the one new gambling measure that had been hooked to SB 270 -- allowing Texas to join a multistate lottery like Powerball -- got smuggled through in the late hours by House fiscal honcho Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, who needs the $100 million in Powerball bucks to make his budget balance. Other new gambling measures -- including slot machines at race tracks, legal eight-liners, lottery keno games, and lottery ticket sales at bars -- all died cruel deaths, but expect them all to come back to life during the special session to consider school finance. -- M.C.M.

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