The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: The Other House

Senators meet the 80th with anticipation

By Michael King, January 12, 2007, News

Frankly, said Sen. Jeff Wentworth with a laugh, "It's kinda boring." The Republican San Antonio/Austin state senator was describing the run-up to the opening day of the new legislative session, at least on the Capitol's Senate side. In contrast to the pitched battle that ensued over the House speakership – finally ending late Tuesday with the recoronation of incumbent Speaker Tom Craddick – the senators anticipated little controversy and fewer headlines. "We're much more collegial in the Senate," said Wentworth by phone Monday, adding that he's anticipating a quieter session overall, after the fireworks associated with the lengthy re-redistricting battles followed by the contentious, if temporary, resolution of the school finance debate with a new business tax that takes effect next year. Facing the relative luxury of a $14 billion "surplus" (i.e., previously unbudgeted revenue), "Our biggest task," said Wentworth, "is figuring out how best to spend it in a new budget." As former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby once said, quoted Wentworth, "After the budget is passed, all the rest is poetry."

All the Senate could provide in the way of drama Tuesday was the hapless rebellion of Houston freshman Dan Patrick, who declared his stalwart opposition to the chamber's two-thirds rule (a bill may be brought to the floor only if 21 of the 31 senators consent) and promptly lost 30-1. Capitol scribes have fond hopes that loudmouth talk-radio crank Patrick – nicely nailed by Mimi Swartz in this month's Texas Monthly – will provide plenty of Senate copy. Collegiality is all good and well for state policy wonks, but it doesn't blog worth a damn.

Wentworth says he expects to be filing 80 to 100 bills, as usual, but that he would trade the entire list for two items: an independent, bipartisan citizens' commission for congressional redistricting and full sales-price disclosure of real estate transactions, for appraisal purposes. He managed in 2005 to get both bills through the Senate, only to watch them die on the House side. (Both bills are perennial favorites of "good government" supporters, and both, consequently, face a precarious future.) Beyond that, Wentworth said he hopes the Lege will have the good sense to hang on to some of the surplus money, both for "rainy-day" reasons and because it will be some time before we know how well the new school finance system will work.

Busting Which Cap?

El Paso Democratic Sen. Eliot Shapleigh joins Wentworth in hoping that education and health care will be high on the list of needs addressed with the new budget. "In a surplus session," said Shapleigh, "we need to define clearly what investments Texas needs to succeed. For example, we need to restore the cuts made to CHIP [children's health insurance], the dramatic cuts to higher education, the Texas Tomorrow funds and Texas Grants funds that have all been badly dramatically affected by Republican cuts of 2003. All of those programs need to be restored, and we need to make a strong statement that education and health care are important.

"Second, immigration – we need to make a strong statement that our country needs a strong and comprehensive immigration framework and that that is a federal issue, not a state issue. We do not need to spend $100 million on a state border patrol, which is the proposal currently on the table [from Gov. Perry].

"Finally, the natural-resource issues of the future – water for example – have no leader. There is no glory, no immediate return for working on them, but they are so essential to the state's future. ... I don't believe there is a statewide leader willing to get out in front and say this is an issue we have to solve."

Shapleigh anticipates the most interesting legislative battles will take place over "busting the cap" – that is, raising the ceiling on spending because of the large surplus. "The Republicans are going to want to bust the cap to give even more 'tax relief,'" he said. "If those of us who care about these things have any guts at all, we will stop the vote on busting the cap until we get assurances that we're going to replace the money in CHIP, Texas Grants, and other programs that we think are important."

Alive With Possibilities

Shapleigh noted in passing that freshman Austin Sen. Kirk Watson is among those Dems he's hoping will help provide a progressive bulwark this session on difficult votes. Tuesday morning, Watson was just beginning to make himself at home in his low-pecking-order office in the Capitol Extension ("at least it's near the bathrooms") and looking forward to his latest official posting. Watson is no stranger to the Capitol, having spent time as a state agency head (of what is now named the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, under Gov. Richards) and representing local interests as Austin mayor. On swearing-in day, he was still a little starry-eyed ("It's pretty cool"), but his legislative priorities echoed those of Shapleigh, especially education and health care.

"We need to remind people that these are fundamentally economic development issues," he said. "Spending on higher education produces a return of something like 17 to 1. ... And on health care, we need to remember that every dollar spent on CHIP produces a guaranteed return [via federal funds] of $2.65 – that's our money, coming back to us. That's even before the humanitarian issue, which is just as important. As a cancer survivor, I know that without early, effective, and frequent health care, I wouldn't even be here. Everybody should have that same access, and yet 25 percent of the people in Central Texas have no health insurance."

There was a large group of well-wishers gathering outside the door, as Watson concluded. "I'm just real thankful for this next opportunity for public service. I've been very fortunate," he said, "and I want to thank the people of Central Texas." end story

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