News Top Tens
Top 10 State Stories1) The Republican Ascendancy: In the style of the masters they serve, once the Republicans took over all the statewide offices, the House, and Senate, they acted like majority stockholders in a corporation rather than leaders of a bipartisan government. They set about dismantling the social safety net, public education, and protections against corporate malfeasance, as well as any sense of fair play or cooperation. You have an objection? Too bad. Shut up.
2) The Decay of Public Morales: What a long, strange trip it's been for Dan Morales -- from the state's top law enforcement office to a Texas jail cell. Once a spectacularly rising star in the Democratic Party, the former attorney general waged an unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial primary bid against Tony Sanchez followed by an endorsement of Republican Rick Perry, and then plunged into a four-year prison sentence in 2003 on two felony convictions stemming from his role in the celebrated $17.3 billion tobacco settlement of 1998.
3) The Usual Suspects Are Usually Black: It took four years to reach a just (interim) conclusion, but 2003 saw Gov. Rick Perry's pardon of 35 people (mostly black) wrongfully convicted in a drug sweep of the Panhandle town of Tulia. Patched together on the fabrications of an undercover cop named Tom Coleman, the fiasco gave the rest of the nation another reason to question the Lone Star State's peculiar brand of criminal justice.
4) Damn That Scurvy Robin Hood!: Public school funding badly needed fixing, but lawmakers decided being Tom DeLay's personal errand boys on redistricting came first. Supposedly, a spring 2004 special session is going to find a new tax system to adequately fund the state's bursting school system. Meanwhile, dozens of poor school districts have joined a suburban school lawsuit against the recapture ("Robin Hood") financing system, precisely because it moves around the same inadequate property tax funds while the state cries poverty. While the Lege fiddles, schoolteachers and students will spend another couple of years making do.
5) Virtual Vampires: The tort deform and insurance lobby weren't the only bloodsuckers haunting the lobby this year. Three times the virtual voucher folks brought bills to the floor requesting public school funds for home-school computer programs -- so-called "virtual charters" -- and three times a bipartisan coalition of urban and rural reps shot them down. Backers then twice tried (and failed) to bypass the Lege altogether and put first Bill Bennett, then put poorly rated Eagle Academies in charge of a statewide virtual giveaway. Anybody got a virtual wooden stake?
6) Evolution Acknowledged by SBOE!: Proponents of "Intelligent Design" (creationism repackaged) tried to drag Texas back to the stone age, or at least to Kansas, with charges that proposed biology textbooks were insufficiently critical of evolution. Despite the best efforts of its more Bible-thumping members, the State Board of Education finally adopted all 11 books.
7) Insured Profits: The Legislature arrived with big promises about holding the reins on runaway homeowners insurance rates, adding much sound and fury about bringing the insurance companies to heel. After much barking from the pols and the insurance commissioner, the bite of the SB 14 reform package has been underwhelming: Despite a 45% average rate increase from January 2001 to September 2002 and an agency finding of $512 million in overcharges, less than 9% of consumers have seen any cuts at all. Coverages have been radically cut as well -- and tales of bungled or abused claims handling continue to accumulate. The good news? The companies think everything's just peachy.
8) You Can Kiss My Butt!: It's legal now, you know, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark reversal of sodomy laws in Texas and 12 other states. Gay rights activists and supporters across the country took to the streets June 26 to celebrate the Lawrence v. Texas ruling that stemmed from a curious set of circumstances: Houston police, acting on a tip from a prank caller, burst through the door of a private residence to find two men engaged in -- horrors! -- consensual sex.
9) Rick and David and Tom and Carole: Seizing the reins of power doesn't guarantee party unity. When Gov. Perry and Speaker Craddick finally pushed redistricting through the House, Lite Guv Dewhurst briefly made noises that statesmanship might be preferable to screwing one's opponents. But Tom DeLay gave him a come-to-Jesus, and Dewhurst eventually got on board in a big way. Still, problems remained: When all three tried to pass a bogus budget, Comptroller Strayhorn called them on it -- and the Lege stripped many of her powers in retaliation. Rumor has it she now thinks "Governor Strayhorn" has a nice ring to it.
10) Still No. 1!: "I am ready, warden." Those were Ivan Murphy's final words before becoming the last of 24 inmates to die in 2003 -- nine lethal injections short of last year's 33, and the 313th since Texas resumed executions in 1982. For those of you keeping score, Texas remains at the top of the heap on capital punishment. The late December executions of three other inmates were held up over legal questions concerning whether the weird mix of chemicals -- no longer used for euthanizing animals -- takes lethal injections to cruel and unusual heights.