How Can We Miss Them If They Won't Go Away?

Although 'Die' is not quite 'Sine,' all the buzz is of a special session

How Can We Miss Them If They Won't Go Away?
Illustration By Doug Potter

No doubt like you, around the Chronicle News department we've been feeling pretty sorry lately for Gov. Rick Perry. While the rest of us have been making summer vacation plans, the governor has been trying to come up with a plausible excuse to call the Legislature back to Austin for a special session, the real purpose of which will be congressional redistricting. The occasion has to be serious enough to qualify as a state priority, if not an outright emergency. But it also has to be sufficiently inessential to resolve quickly or to shove aside altogether to get to the real business at hand: making the U.S. House safe for Tom DeLay and his hard-right agenda for the rest of the decade.

Speaker Tom Craddick and his allies tried on ethics reform for size -- politically hard to attack and mostly ineffective -- but that fizzled when the Senate threatened to retaliate by scuttling university tuition deregulation, potentially worth a half-billion dollars in "nontax" methods of balancing the budget. There is passing enthusiasm for the "government reorganization" bill (SB 1952, Ellis) that would downsize many state agencies, slash spending, and centralize more power in the governor's office -- but most of the bill's fiscal measures were enacted by amendment to other bills, and summoning legislators to increase executive powers smacks of, well, overreaching. Most recently, UT honchos allowed as how they might need authority to cap "Top 10%" high school graduate admissions before they get entirely out of hand. But an "emergency" attempt to keep more poor and minority students out of flagship schools could be really bad PR -- not to mention political poison for that handful of minority Democrats the Republicans will need to force redistricting past the remainder.

So you can understand the governor's predicament. Several published reports last week indicate that rooms had been scheduled by Craddick's office and redistricting field hearings planned for several cities -- without yet notifying the minority members of the House Redistricting Committee. On Tuesday, Craddick announced the room reservations had been canceled and that no hearings would be scheduled "until and if" Perry calls a special session. And the special session itself (God, DeLay, and Karl Rove willing) is the governor's call. Public-school finance is already taken -- even redistricting can't be allowed to obstruct the endlessly delayed school debate -- and that will take its own session in the fall or spring. (Meanwhile, somebody needs to further brief Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, whose summer plans may also involve presiding over the Senate, and who keeps suggesting that he might not ask the Senate to take up redistricting at all.)

Trying to be helpful, the News staff has tried to come up with a few suggestions for truly emergency matters facing the Legislature.

  • Children's health insurance? It's true that more than a million Texas children still lack health insurance, but it would be difficult to make the case that we can throw more kids on the mercy of local emergency rooms and taxpayers without getting some negative feedback from even Republican voters.

  • The looming Medicaid collapse? Come Sept. 1, both doctors and patients will endure a tidal wave of underfunded facilities and crashing provider rates -- but since we've already done all we can to make that problem worse, no sense in bringing it up again until 2005.

  • Capital punishment? We have an admittedly unconstitutional system for killing the mentally retarded, and there's the increasing likelihood that Texas has executed more than a few condemned prisoners who were literally innocent. That might seem like an emergency matter, but hey -- how many folks in those demographic groups actually vote?


    Imbalanced

    For the record, we doubt that the governor will warm to our helpful suggestions. By the time you read this, he may well have found another rationalization. But it's worth remembering, before the circus comes back to town, that the 78th regular session is not really quite concluded. Officially, Gov. Perry has until June 22 to veto any of the more than 1,400 bills now sitting on his desk, although nobody is yet predicting a repeat of the 82-veto massacre of 2001. And on June 4, two days after the official sine die, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander threw what may become a major monkey wrench into the works.

    At a press conference to announce she had just received the massive appropriations bill (HB 1), Rylander delivered two pointed messages: 1) Contrary to popular belief, there is no 10-day limit on the comptroller's review of the budget for certification as "balanced"; 2) she and her staff intend to take as much time as necessary to review the inordinately complex 2003 document, as well as the numerous related "savings" bills that reverberate into the official budget bill. (No word as yet how any delay beyond June 22 might affect the governor's veto deadline.) Rylander added that she had hired a constitutional scholar simply to analyze the various pieces of legislation to confirm they will pass constitutional as well as financial muster.

    Austinites, especially Chronicle readers, are fully aware that Rylander is no stranger to political grandstanding, and at least some of her headline pique had to do with the Lege's refusal to enact all of her financial recommendations and pet programs, as well as its willingness to exhaust the state's Rainy Day Fund. "Let's just hope we don't have a real hurricane," she drawled. But she is also wary of the budget's "anti-bounce" provisions, which will trigger additional across-the-board cuts to major program areas (public safety, health and human services) if her office concludes that the Lege's numbers simply don't add up. "As I've told you," she repeated, "I don't like one-time funding sources, I don't like smoke and mirrors, I don't like delays and deferrals, and I don't like across-the-board cuts."

    And all that is exactly what she's got. A couple of times Rylander noted one last miserly sort of legislative thriftiness. The state had effectively been bailed out of its deficit by a last-minute (and one-time) infusion of federal funds, $1.26 billion out of the $20 billion in relief to the states negotiated by the Senate in return for enacting the massive White House tax cuts. (It seems small enough justice, since that amount represents almost exactly what Governor George W. Bush insisted on in his short-sighted 1999 tax cut -- the primary purpose of which was to launch his presidential campaign.) Much of that money was already dedicated to Medicaid, but the Lege also used more than $127 million just for general revenue purposes in this year's budget -- thereby cavalierly walking away from another $202 million in federal Medicaid matching funds had the money been dedicated to health care for children, the elderly, and the disabled.

    Texas has more uninsured children than any other state, but our conservative legislative leaders apparently believe that $202 million in taxpayers' money will be better spent in some other jurisdiction.


    The Short List

    Among my favorite moments in the House this year occurred when El Paso Republican Pat Haggerty tried to amend the bill killing Robin Hood -- a purely cosmetic, self-destructing piece of legislation that expires in the fall of 2004 if the Lege hasn't come up with a new school-finance system -- to abolish the state sales tax as well. Haggerty is a savvy if not terribly energetic legislator, with volubly little patience for rhetorical persiflage. Despite embarrassed grumbling from his GOP colleagues, he nailed the absurdity of the Robin Hood bill, a gift to suburban reps who had promised credulous voters they would "abolish Robin Hood" and now, having caught the car, were determined to pretend victory.

    "I don't know what you're complaining about," Haggerty told members who spoke against his amendment, which would also self-destruct without actual effect. "You get to go home and lie to your constituents that you've abolished Robin Hood. Well, I want to go home and lie to my constituents that I've abolished the sales tax." Equal-opportunity dishonesty -- Haggerty's wry request doesn't seem too much to honor, in a season of prevarication.

    Abolishing Robin Hood was among the big lies of the 78th session, one that will publicly come 'round to haunt the legislators sooner rather than later. Another in heavy rotation is that they've balanced the budget with "no new taxes" and "while maintaining services for the most vulnerable Texans." That must be why the budget is crammed with hidden fees and service reductions calculated to burden most of those Texans least able to endure them and why the governor prevented the press from covering his private arrest and arraignment of disabled protesters who confronted him about budget cuts that will make their lives even more precarious and dependent upon arbitrary charity.

    There were smaller but equally malevolent lies: that gays and lesbians are second-class citizens undeserving of rights constitutionally accorded other Texans; that enforced pledges of allegiance and prayer will be somehow productive of patriotism and piety; that Texas women are incapable of making decisions directly affecting their most intimate health and happiness without the intrusive hand of the state to indoctrinate or misdirect them at every turn; and that in Texas, the term "'individual' includes an unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth."

    In subsequent judicial and legislative proceedings, we shall no doubt hear more of this peculiarly doctrinaire mystification of what it means to be a human being. Meanwhile, actual children will continue to be born in Texas, and our elected leadership seems determined to continue to pretend that the community's responsibilities for those children and their families come to an abrupt and absolute conclusion at the moment of birth. end story

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    KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

    78th Legislature, Rick Perry, special session, Tom DeLay, Tom Craddick, redistricting, Tom Craddick, Medicaid, Pat Haggerty, SB 319, Robin Hood

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