Craddick Commits Committees

Some Central Texas Reps feel a sting for opposing the GOP leadership

As someone who has spent the better part of his political career championing the sick and the poor, Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat was understandably angry when that segment of the Texas population was shortchanged in the Legislature's 2003 budget-making process. Especially on the long night of the budget vote, Naishtat exhorted his colleagues to defend the needs of the state's most vulnerable citizens.

Two years later, hindsight tells Naishtat that his outspokenness cost him his seat on the House Public Health Committee, even though the veteran lawmaker had selected it as his No. 1 committee preference in his request to House Speaker Tom Craddick. Naishtat was also demoted from his vice chairman's seat on Human Services, which he chaired under the old Democratic regime.

Naishtat says he is taking his demotion in stride, but there's no mistaking his anger over losing a seat on the Public Health Committee although more than half the legislation he's filed pertains to health care. "I suppose I was too outspoken in my criticism of the governor and the legislative leadership," said Naishtat, who was the 2003 Lege point man for the proposed Travis Co. Hospital District. "It makes no sense for the speaker not to reappoint me to that committee when everyone in the Capitol complex knows that my focus is on health and human services." Ironically, the budget cuts that drew Naishtat's ire have since become a pet project for lawmakers from both parties who support restoring all or part of the funding slashed from Medicaid and children's health insurance.

The restoration, if any, will be accomplished under Republican chairs. On Human Services, hard-right Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, replaces Chairman Carlos Uresti – the San Antonio Democrat who raised hell over the state's poor job of protecting abused children and the elderly – while suburban Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, assumes Naishtat's vice chairmanship. Hupp and Eissler are apparently better suited to carry out the GOP's "reforms," which call for more privatizing of human services – a project that most Democrats are expected to resist. Presumably, Rep. Dianne Delisi, R-Temple, will execute a similar agenda as the new chair of Public Health.

The instant assessments of Craddick's assignments ran the gamut in the Capitol corridors last week, as House members and their aides tried to sort out who's "in" and who's "out" in the eyes of the speaker. The disappointments crossed party lines – a couple of Republican members were said to be so dismayed by what they didn't get, they cut out early for a long wound-licking weekend. The Senate, meanwhile, remained calm, with few shake-ups in Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's standing committee appointments.

Reading the Cards

To a degree, Craddick did make his appointments based on the committee-preference cards submitted by members. Lawmakers can draw on their seniority for one choice, followed by their order of preference. Naishtat used his seniority status to retain his seat on Human Services, and then named Public Health as his first committee preference, followed by Juvenile Justice & Family Issues, and then State Affairs. He didn't ask for County Affairs, but that's where Craddick put him, along with a couple of other Democratic outcasts – former Speaker Pete Laney of Hale Center, and Houston's Garnet Coleman. "I'll be in good company," Naishtat said.

Otherwise, the Central Texas delegation – or at least those members not known for their lack of cooperation with the GOP agenda – fared reasonably well. (See box, above right.) Sophomore Reps. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, and Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, each moved up the House food chain – Rose as vice chair of Civil Practices and Gattis to a coveted seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Rose also secured seats on Higher Education and the all-powerful Calendars Committee, which decides when (or if) bills hit the House floor. Craddick tapped Austin Democratic Rep. Dawnna Dukes as vice chair of the Local & Consent Calendars Committee. She and Rose were among the first Democrats to pledge their votes to Craddick's re-election.

Curiously, Republican Rep. Todd Baxter also supported Craddick but got no leadership reward, keeping his seats on Local & Consent Calendars and Regulated Industries. Rep. Terry Keel kept his chairmanship of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, and Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, stayed put as chair of Transportation. Freshman Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, landed on Juvenile Justice & Family Issues and Civil Affairs. Strama said he requested committee seats on Public Education, Economic Development, and Land & Resource Management, but knew that his freshman status limited his possibilities. Nevertheless, he says he'll follow Krusee's advice and seek permission to audit the education committee meetings.

The wildest card turned out to be Austin Democrat Eddie Rodriguez, who secured a seat on his committee of choice – Pensions & Investments – despite abstaining from voting on Craddick's re-election as speaker. "I was somewhat surprised," Rodriguez said, "but I had spoken with the speaker after my vote [to explain his abstention], and he said, 'Let me know what you want.'" Rodriguez refrained from voting either yea or nay for Craddick in response to last session's budget cuts, which hurt many people living in his district. He said his new assignment gives him an opportunity to affect policy on retirement issues affecting state employees. "There are a lot of retirees, especially school teachers, in my district," he said, "so this is where I can actually make a difference."

Collateral Damage

Elsewhere, two of the four Democrats who voted against Craddick ended up on the Agriculture and Livestock Committee – a reappointment for Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth (who landed here after casting the only dissenting vote against Craddick in 2003) and a first for Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston. Former speaker Laney was denied his request for a reassignment to Transportation – perhaps because he had questioned the leadership's massive road-building ambitions. And Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, a vocal critic of budget cuts and a Dem warrior on congressional re-redistricting, lost the Appropriations Committee seat he's held for six years.

Craddick also slighted some Republican members who didn't toe the line. Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, lost his chairmanship of Corrections (presumably for dragging his heels on privatization, but insiders say there may be personal factors at work as well), and Toby Goodman – who briefly considered running for speaker against Craddick – was denied a promotion from his vice chairmanship on Juvenile Justice & Family Issues, and transferred from State Affairs to Human Services.

There were a few hopeful signs. At least one progressive lobbyist – Randall Ellis, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas – says he is cautiously optimistic about the new makeup of the State Affairs Committee, the likely gatekeeper for the "marriage amendment" bill, which seeks to constitutionally ban gay marriage in Texas. Ellis said that LGRL can count "three solid friends" on the committee – Houstonian Farrar and San Antonio Democrats Mike Villarreal and Trey Martinez Fischer. Said Ellis, "Those are people who will fight tooth and nail" against the amendment.

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