Top 10 State Stories
Our state leaders bumble through the year
1) The Tomstown Scandal: "Tom" is for U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who set the scandal in motion by moving his corporate fundraising operation into Texas for the 2002 legislative elections; and "Tom" is for Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, who was a conduit (he says unwitting) for freewheeling corporate cash while he set the electoral stage for the GOP House takeover and his own ascension to the speakership. In the current episode, Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle handed down a brace of felony indictments personal and corporate for everything from illegal corporate donations to money-laundering. A couple of corporations have made deals with the DA, and the question for the new year is: Who's the next domino?
2) The TRMPAC Lawsuit: It's a scam so juicy, it takes up two Top 10s! Four defeated Democratic House candidates sued the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC for illegal use of corporate campaign cash in the 2002 election. The resulting depositions (and initial legal hearings) have yielded a host of curious coincidences, along with evidence of possible collusion between TRMPAC and the corporate campaign for the Lege of the Texas Association of Business. The lawsuit is temporarily on hold pending the reverberations of the district attorney's criminal indictments. But the TRMPAC two-step promises more revelations in 2005, as we wait to discover whether the story will stop with the minor PAC and corporate players, or begin to move upward and outward.
3) School Finance on Trial: Texas school districts rich, poor, and in-between brought suit against the state to demand more resources, greater equity, and an end to the desperate reliance on capped local property taxes for the bulk of school support. It was hardly the first such lawsuit they stretch back into the Eighties but for the first time most districts began to see their predicament as a common one in defense of the constitutional requirement for a fair and equitable system. Year's end brought a landmark decision by Judge John Dietz and an opinion calling on the Lege to find more resources, a fairer tax system, and a method to address century-old inequities. The state has appealed to the Supreme Court and in the meantime, the new Lege is charged with trying to find another way out.
4) Session Not-So-Special: Judging from the recent record, we shouldn't expect too much from the 79th lege session about to convene next week. Gov. Perry called in essentially the same group last April to address public-school finance although he undermined the effort from the outset by making property-tax cuts and ending recapture ("Robin Hood") the priorities instead of adequate funding. After weeks of dithering, hallmarked by hapless proposals of topless bar taxes ("Tits for Tots") and a very public House rejection (126-0) of Perry's own plan, the session faded into futility and despite numerous rumors and threats, never convened again. Welcome back.
5) Still Re-Redistricting: Although we may think of this as last year's news, the federal court decision upholding the post-2002 congressional re-redistricting (the ultimate reason for TRMPAC, see above) only came down last Jan. 6. It seemed to dash the Democrats' last hope and cement the hold of the GOP on the U.S. House until the U.S. Supremes kicked it back to the lower court with the message "You can do better than this." It's not at all clear what happens next a new decision, a new opinion, or more dithering on all sides (we'd bet the latter). In any event, millions of Texas voters (especially minority voters) have been told, "Your votes are not needed better luck next decade." The political and social aftereffects will roll on for years.
6) Chipping Away at CHIP: The 2003 Lege reregulated the children's health-insurance program, cutting back coverage, raising co-payments, tightening registration, and generally making it more difficult for working parents to insure their kids. The result? Thus far, 150,000 more kids are doing without threatening their educations, crowding emergency rooms, and increasing the already too-large burdens on local taxpayers. Conservatives respond that more kids are being covered by Medicaid only confirming that the bottom is falling out of the safety net, and programs designed to build community security are being steadily undercut, nationally and locally. All sides are promising a fix in the new year but nobody is saying where the money will come from.
7) Children at Risk: While we were all watching children's health insurance plummet, even more vulnerable children filled the headlines with the consequences of the crisis at Child Protective Services neglect, lack of oversight, beatings, deaths. Overloaded caseworkers threw up their hands, turnover became epidemic, and the governor insisted something must be done we'll get new administrators, might even spend some more money. Since Adult Protective Services is in similar shape, and (by the way) the schools, CHIP, Medicaid, etc., etc., all need help it looks like a Neverending Story ...
8) Slashing State Employees: Although it's happening slowly and therefore largely beneath the radar, the Health and Human Services "reorganization," mandated under 2003's HB 2292, proceeds and what is billed as "re-org" inevitably becomes "slashing jobs." Several thousand positions, many of them in Austin, are at risk, while state leaders simultaneously shed crocodile tears over the understaffing at CPS and related agencies. The job cuts are a double whammy, because not only do they diminish services to the most vulnerable, they create a whole new group of at-risk folks newly laid off professionals cut loose in a still-weak economy.
9) Ballots? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Ballots!: Election challenges, even in close races, are rare, as most politicians are content to ask for a recount and abide by the results. Not Houston Republican Talmadge Heflin, nor his GOP colleagues, Karnes City's Eric Opiela and Austin's Jack Stick each of whom decided the Texas House should determine whether the people's vote really counted. (At press time, Stick had withdrawn his challenge.) This is a very fine note on which to end a contentious election season, and to begin a legislative one. Then again, what would the Lege be without imperial egos, avaricious pols, and sore losers? The circus is back in town.
10) Rick & Kay & Carole & ...: The undeclared war for the next gubernatorial election thus far an entirely Republican affair features an incumbent fixated on tax cuts and poured concrete, a senator considered simultaneously more popular than the incumbent and too "moderate" for hard-core GOP voters, and a comptroller whose ability to ride the political waves rivals that of a porpoise. No one has established a definitive advantage, but the new year promises wrestling, posturing, and mud-throwing galore amongst Perry vs. Hutchison vs. Strayhorn. We can only hope the political maneuvering brings some policy windfalls to ordinary Texans.