On the Lege

So, what else is new?

The special session of the 78th Legislature, now roughly three-fourths gone, has not been entirely devoted to not-quite redistricting. It just seems that way. And if the not-quite redistricting isn't accomplished by the time you read this, the governor has threatened to make everybody stay in their rooms until they do as they're told. At that point, the question will be: Will the Senate play ball or play hooky?

Meanwhile, on the apparent presumption that idle hands are the devil's workshop, Gov. Rick Perry eventually "added to the call" 29 extremely important items, beginning with really, really abolishing the Aircraft Pooling Board (which the regular session hadn't quite managed to do and will likely cost more money than it saves) and ending with unvetoing his vetoes of the comptroller's cash-management funds. If you've been paying attention (it's entirely understandable if you dozed off in late June), those were the two vetoes amounting to $212 million that allowed Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn to certify the 2003-2005 budget despite an error in HB 3588 (Perry's colossal "Trans Texas Corridor" project) that would have otherwise left the state short about $186 million. (See "Capitol Chronicle: Fun With Carole, Rick, and Greg," June 27.)

Additional Item No. 25 on the call just happens to be "relating to corrections to House Bill 3588," which will have the effect of shoving a couple of hundred million dollars of spending forward into the next biennium -- freeing up the same amount in this one. Ergo, Item No. 29: If the Lege agrees, the comptroller gets back her cash-management funds.

But Strayhorn immediately began looking the governor's gift horse in the mouth. Last week her staff determined, she says, that the combination of Perry's other vetoes and leftover federal money -- that's right, the Lege somehow neglected to allocate roughly $370 million in federal aid to Texas, because we already had so much money lying around -- leaves a total of $702.6 million in unappropriated funds. Moved with a spirit of sudden compassion (and perhaps the realization that she'd been out of the headlines for, oh, about two weeks), Strayhorn told a health care symposium audience, "Many Texans with disabilities are concerned that almost immediately they'll be getting notices that their services are cut. I am saying that we can remove some of that anxiety and close the gap on some of those vital services right now."

Since the Lege just happens to be in town, Strayhorn added, it should restore some of the money slashed earlier from such state luxuries as home care for children, the elderly, and the disabled. Unfortunately, those fripperies -- unlike, say, Item No. 18, "Relating to a modification in the qualifications for membership on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission" -- are not on the governor's call, and he as well as budget chairs Sen. Teel Bivins and Rep. Talmadge Heflin made it immediately clear that the comptroller should put a cork in it. "We have a methodology in place to handle a dispersion of the money," said Heflin, whose budget assignment has left him sounding increasingly like an assistant bank loan officer.

To be frank, it's self-evident why Bivins, Heflin, et al. might be a trifle less than enthusiastic about any spending suggestions emanating from Strayhorn. For the past six months, the Comptroller Who Would Be Queen has missed no opportunity to denounce the Lege for its feckless "spending spree" in the previous state budget and to raise the alarm that the "rainy day fund" (Hurricane Claudette, anyone?) was being recklessly exhausted in this one. Suddenly she finds some change under the cushions, spots a microphone, and turns into Florence "High-Roller" Nightingale.

In any event, the governor wasn't listening. Perry certainly recognizes the need for even more "tort reform" -- insufficiently disabled victims of asbestos exposure are next on the list to be barred from the courthouse (Sen. Kyle Janek's SB 7). Yet nowhere on the call are express funds for border health care initiatives that Perry first began promising to deliver in his State of the State address and has repeatedly threatened to withhold if the Valley reps didn't vote his way on tort reform, on the budget, on redistricting ... on the Greater Haskell High School Prom Queen. When the special session began, Valley and El Paso lawmakers essentially shrugged at the governor and said, "We heard you the first time" -- but have lately taken the heat off Perry by squabbling over who gets how much money where. If there's a meltdown over redistricting, the governor will have them by the short hairs again until 2005.

In the immediate world of Gov. Gradgrind, there were more important matters to be taken in hand. Other than redistricting, Perry's big strikeout in the regular session was the "Death Star" government-reorganization bill that had died of elephantine overambition. Learning that lesson, the governor had Rep. David Swinford of Dumas, who had piloted the original Death Star (HB 2), chop its sequel into a brace of episodes and slowly piecemeal the movement of legislative power into the executive branch -- bringing state agency commissioners more directly under the governor's authority, expanding his interim power over appropriations, and limiting the ability of the Legislature to get in the way. The most brazen gesture in the latter direction was, for no substantive reason, to reduce the term of the insurance commissioner from two years to one. Over strenuous objections, Swinford and Speaker Tom Craddick rammed that through the House, but the Senate -- accustomed to at least being allowed ceremonially to bless gubernatorial appointments every two years -- will be a harder sell. (And if the Senate stays pissed over redistricting, it's definitely a whole new ball game.)

The House also approved the abolition of the Office of State and Federal Relations, the state's D.C. lobbying staff that, if the Senate concurs, will now move directly under the governor's authority. House Democrats pointed out, to no avail, that the Legislature was engaging in unilateral disarmament and that henceforth if it has matters it wishes to take up with Congress or the White House (as, for example, federal funding), it can send a note to the governor asking if his D.C. liaison can spare the time and energy. "None of these changes are particularly dramatic in themselves," said Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman, "but they definitely represent a slippery slope of handing what should be legislative authority over to the executive branch." You might wonder why Speaker Tom Craddick (whose unofficial Lege-floor nickname is "Wanturm" -- that is, "One-term") waited so many years to pick up the House gavel if all he intended to do with the power was give it away.

Continue to wonder.

Perry did have one big strikeout: his attempt to keep secret his budget "working papers," declared public in April by Attorney General Greg Abbott after the governor, in the wake of the comptroller's January surprise increase in her estimate of the deficit, had attempted to hide his draft budget from the San Antonio Express-News. Reporter Gardner Selby finally got hold of Perry's draft and pointed out it wasn't nearly as abstemious as the governor was pretending and was certainly not "zero-based." Even the House Republicans wouldn't buy embarrassment as a sufficient excuse for official secrecy -- indeed, it's the reason for the state's still-excellent Open Records Act -- and Swinford was forced to pull down the bill.

Ever the gracious loser, Swinford immediately blamed the media -- every major daily had editorialized against this preposterous bill -- for browbeating his spineless colleagues into submission. "The news media really gets real persnickety about anything being closed, so they just start beating the living heck out of everybody," he told the Houston Chronicle. "There were a lot of our members that said, 'You're right, but we really don't want to take the beating,' so the intimidation factor of the news media worked -- so they all ought to go celebrate."

Indeed, we should -- and lift one to Gardner Selby for doing his job. So much of what is happening this session has been determined behind closed doors, that if a few revelatory executive summaries get dragged out into the painful light of day, so much the better. Slaying vampires, although highly entertaining, is already hard enough work in the dark.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

78th Legislature, Rick Perry, Aircraft Pooling Board, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, HB 3588, Talmadge Heflin, David Swinford, Office of State and Federal Relations, Garnet Coleman, Tom Craddick, Greg Abbott, Gardner Selby

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