Small Victories

The Travis Co. Lege delegation closed shop with a few achievements

When Democrats ruled the House, Austin Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Glen Maxey – two of the chamber's most prolific filers of health and human services legislation – were old hands at moving bills through the process, of finding incremental but significant ways to improve conditions for the state's most vulnerable citizens. "We were always in competition to pass more bills than the other members," Naishtat recalled of his and his former colleague's headier days under the dome.

The veteran lawmaker hasn't lost his momentum – he authored or co-authored more than 100 bills this session – but Naishtat has seen his influence diminish since Republicans took control in 2003. Still, he says this 79th Legislature was "slightly more compassionate" than two years ago, when poor and disabled people bore the brunt of the state's $10 billion shortfall.

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, recalled 2003's re-redistricting fiasco and offered a backhanded appreciation of this year: "This session was a little better – there wasn't the immediate rancor of Republicans wanting to fine us $5,000 a day, and they didn't put orange barrels in our parking spaces, or call us disloyal traitors." Barrientos believes that the Republicans have yet to get the hang of leadership. "The 2003 and 2005 sessions have been the worst in all my years in the Legislature – and I've been here since 1975." Barrientos pointed to the GOP's most striking failure, its inability to pass a school finance bill – but he doesn't begrudge Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst a little credit. "I will say this: He did try hard."

Taking Stock

Here's a brief recap of what the Austin and Travis County delegation accomplished this session.

District 14 Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos: He spent the session playing defense, most notably against a property-rights bill that would have forced Austin to choose between enforcing the Save Our Springs Ordinance or subsidizing landowners under the state's "takings" law. Barrientos was prepared to filibuster the bill, but it died on its own. "It committed suicide," he corrected. He played a lead role in killing a bill capping (or scuttling altogether) the Top Ten Percent rule for college admissions (he was the bill's 1997 Senate sponsor). He expects the bill's return in the event of a special session. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Barrientos fought (with some success) to restore the 2003 cuts to health and human services.

District 49 Rep. Elliott Naishtat: Despite losing his chair then his vice chair on Health and Human Services, Naishtat was called into action to overhaul the troubled Child Protective Services division. It was a high-priority item on Gov. Rick Perry's agenda, and Perry wanted – needed – the support of Democrats with interests in social services. Naishtat won passage of two substantial amendments to SB 6. One reversed an immediate statewide rollout of privatizing CPS case management services; Naishtat achieved incremental implementation over two to four years, along with performance reviews by three independent consultants. The other amendment establishes far-reaching "informed consent" requirements before foster children are prescribed powerful psychotropic drugs.

District 47 Terry Keel: Even as a key member of Speaker Tom Craddick's inner circle, the chairman of the powerful Criminal Jurisprudence Committee has one of the most unpredictable voting records (not to mention temperaments) in the Lege. He voted for school finance reform, but against the property tax bill, and against private school vouchers. He supported Naishtat's medical marijuana bill (which died), but helped kill a bipartisan campaign finance bill that he co-sponsored; he voted "yes" to ban gay marriage, but "no" to prohibit gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents. The list could continue – see "Keel's Firestorm," p.18.

District 46 Rep. Dawnna Dukes – She was among the first Democrats to support Craddick's nomination and re-election as speaker – his ascension was inevitable anyway, she reasons – but this "Craddick D" has by and large re-mained true to strengthening social services, and also defending gay rights. On House Appropriations, Dukes worked to replenish funds to health and human services. She also saw the passage of her bill that seeks to strengthen child abuse prevention by creating an interagency "Council for Building Healthy Families." Dukes was the only Travis Co. Democrat to vote with the GOP (and Craddick) against an attempt to liberate a campaign finance bill out of committee for a vote on the House floor.

District 48 Rep. Todd Baxter: How does Baxter remain a Craddick team player without alienating his swing-district constituents? He walks a tight rope, but his voting record points to a stronger allegiance to the speaker – particularly on issues like school finance, the tax bill, voter ID, vouchers, and a ban on gay and lesbian foster parents (all eventually defeated). One House Democrat defended Baxter's votes on vouchers, noting that the sophomore rep was poised to introduce an amendment – apparently approved by the speaker – to rescue Austin ISD from the school districts targeted for the "pilot" program. But the entire voucher proposal went down before Baxter had a chance to play what was supposed to be his ace in the hole – and perhaps rehabilitate his previous pro-voucher votes during the five-hour floor drama.

District 51 Rep. Eddie Rodriguez: The sophomore hit his stride this session, despite casting the lone "present but not voting" vote on the re-election of Speaker Craddick. After a one-on-one meeting with Craddick to explain his nonvote (he was protesting 2003 budget cuts that hit his East Austin constituents especially hard), the speaker granted Rodriguez two of his requested committee assignments, on Urban Affairs and Pensions & Investments. Those aren't high-profile committees by any stretch, but Rodriguez wanted to help ensure passage of his affordable housing bill (it passed) and to have a hand in pension issues affecting retired teachers in his district (this bill ultimately failed). Rodriguez also gained some rare exposure in the Statesman this session after twice derailing the much-maligned "takings" bill on technical errors.

District 50 Rep. Mark Strama: As a freshman, Strama knew his limitations this session from the bottom rung of the ladder, so he directed his efforts outside the Capitol – and scored big at City Hall. Strama helped bring about a compromise on a long-simmering feud between the city and the Canyon Creek subdivision, home to about 1,000 of his constituents, over who should pay off an aging water and wastewater debt. Strama enlisted the help of a friend well versed in water and wastewater law and recruited "some very reasonable and well-connected" people from the subdivision to work with city staff on hammering out a resolution. Strama's political future may in fact ride on this achievement, given that it contributed to the defeat of his opponent in 2004 – GOP incumbent Jack Stick, who had failed to deliver on a promise to resolve the controversy. "That was the best thing I did for my district," Strama said.

Outside Austin

Central Texas House members from outside of liberal Austin know the added value of voting with their conservative districts: It keeps them in good stead with Speaker Craddick. The Senate, on the other hand, operates on a set of standards better suited to the occasionally unpredictable voting record of San Antonio Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who represents parts of southeast Travis Co. Here are a few notable points on area delegates' record this session:

District 25 Sen. Wentworth: He went from bashing Austin in 2003 (on behalf of Lowe's efforts to plant a big box over the aquifer) to bashing Willie Nelson in '05, in response to Barrientos' bid to name part of Texas 130 after the legendary singer. Seems Wentworth didn't favor Nelson's choice of Dennis Kucinich for president. On land-use issues, Wentworth pulled out stops to create a special taxing district for Lumbermen's Investment Corp.'s PGA golf resort project atop the Edwards Aquifer. The measure died in the House, but the senator managed to resurrect it as an amendment to another bill. And as a champion of open records laws, Wentworth won praise from daily newspapers for his bill requiring public officials to bone up on said laws. But his colleagues openly mocked the proposal, and then killed it.

District 51 Rep. Mike Krusee: As chair of the House Transportation Committee, the Round Rock Republican put in extra miles on toll-road-related issues, and shepherded his massive cleanup transportation bill through the Lege, one of the last measures to pass in the session. His proposed gas tax bill, which would have allowed for adjustable inflation increases, had the support of the speaker and a well-rounded mix of special interest groups – everyone, it seemed, except a House majority. After winning passage in committee, Krusee delayed taking it to a floor vote with the idea that the chamber's decidedly anti-tax climate would blow over soon enough. It didn't, so Krusee voluntarily ditched the measure.

District 20 Rep. Dan Gattis: This tall, lean Georgetown Republican is the party's newest rising star, thanks to his strong fiscal conservative sensibilities. The sophomore's popularity is further evidenced by his coveted committee seats on State Affairs and Appropriations. During budget-writing negotiations between the House and Senate, Gattis stunned several Democrats when he protested putting more money into the state's safety-net programs.

District 45 Rep. Patrick Rose: Despite his Democratic ID, the Dripping Springs rep was promoted to vice chair of the Civil Services Committee this session, presumably as a reward for his 2003 "yes" votes on Craddick's pet tort reform bill and the much-derided budget. Rose's actions riled Democrats and cost him support from trial lawyers in his 2004 re-election run. Still, he doesn't share Craddick's affection for the insurance lobby. Two of his amendments to the major property tax bill (which ultimately died) would have held insurance companies accountable for paying their share of the tax load. And another bill, which had the support of doctors and families, would have required insurance companies to cover treatment of eating disorders in their health benefits plans. The bill died, however.

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