On the Lege: Itty Bitty Steps

Minority Dems savor a few budget victories

A funny thing happened on the way to passing a $150 billion state budget last week. House Democrats, who are more accustomed to losing than winning on issues relating to public education and health care, scored big on both counts during the marathon debate that started Thursday morning and ended in the wee hours on Friday. The unheralded achievement, helped along by some Republican derring-do, reflects the overall sentiment of Texas voters, who last year booted out several incumbents with stingy voting records on schools and social services.

As everyone is quick to point out, the Democrats' major amendments will be nipped and tucked to death in the remaining weeks of the budget-churning process. Nevertheless, the symbolic victory energized the Ds and provided a liberating moment for those Rs who defied Speaker Tom Craddick to vote with their districts. Of course, many Republicans simply used their votes as political cover – evidenced by the amendment that produced a 127-8 trouncing of vouchers, which otherwise still would have lost but not in such landslide.

The House moved through the budget bill, House Bill 1, at an agonizing crawl, before finally passing the biennial octopus 129-14. Apart from spurts of punchy debate, the showstopping moments arrived late, with Houston Democrat Rick Noriega's proposal to scrap a teacher incentive-pay program and replace it with an across-the-board pay hike for teachers this fall. The measure passed 90-56. Members topped that off with the anti-voucher amendment, which would prohibit the state from spending public dollars on private-school-tuition vouchers. The very loud statement from the House comes at a time when Senate leaders are trying to build support for a new privatization proposal – this one disguised as a kinder, gentler program that would directly benefit students with autism.

The anti-voucher action from the House also carried a bit of poetic justice for former Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat who lost his leadership post to Craddick at the start of the 2003 session. The successor to Laney's seat – freshman Democrat Joe Heflin of Crosbyton – had the honor of carrying the amendment just four months after winning a tough race against an opponent favored by Craddick and heavily funded by millionaire voucher activist James Leininger.

Despite those overwhelming rejections, Craddick's allies still tried to persuade members to reverse their votes. They apparently forgot that the political makeup of the House had shifted in November, leaving them short of the preliminary support needed to bring the amendments back for reconsideration. "That shows a change in the membership but not a change in the speaker and how the speaker operates," said Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democratic leader and outspoken critic of how Republicans have stiffed public schools and social-services programs since winning control of the House.

"It was way too easy," Coleman said of his own amendments that passed with little debate – calling for shoring up the hobbled Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program with more funding and fewer roadblocks. "The leadership did a good job of appearing moderate to get through a bad budget," he said, "because they've been defeated by looking too far to the right and being draconian and evil." The budget process now moves to the Senate and then on to conference committee for final negotiations. The amendments "will be stripped off in conference," Coleman predicted. "Then they'll bring the conference report back and dare people to vote against the budget."

Not all of the right-wing members have agreed to tone it down for the viewing public. When Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, introduced an amendment that would have bumped 16,000 legal immigrants from the Children's Health Insurance Program rolls, bipartisan eyes rolled. Austin's Dawnna Dukes offered an amendment to kill the Harper-Brown proposal, and, getting hammered from all sides, Harper-Brown tried to withdraw her amendment. Dukes refused to pull her own amendment down, effectively allowing members to take a final whack in defeating Harper-Brown's proposal.

A priceless exchange occurred between Harper-Brown cohort Jodie Laubenberg of Rockwall and Dallas Dem Rafael Anchía. Laubenberg proposed to enforce a three-month waiting period before expectant mothers could begin receiving prenatal and perinatal care under CHIP. Anchía pointed out that the eligibility change would kick nearly 100,000 children out of the CHIP program. "That is absolutely untrue!" Laubenberg shot back, proving her point by waving a sheet of paper. Then again, "That is absolutely untrue!"

"You know," Anchía replied, "I can hear you yelling, but just because you yelled, it doesn't make it true." Anchía pointed out the consequences of denying health care to the unborn. "You do know, don't you, that these are U.S. citizens?"

"But they're not born yet," Laubenberg, a "family values" conservative, retorted. Dukes, standing behind Anchía at the back mic, whipped her head around in a shocked double take. Anchía, smelling blood, observed, "You have an anti-life amendment," which set Laubenberg off on a loud tirade in which she claimed to be the most pro-life member of the House. It was an ugly spectacle, yet it provided Democrats with another nugget to savor in looking ahead to the next election cycle. Given the budget-slashing of the 2003 and 2005 sessions, the Dems this time are taking "itty bitty steps," as Coleman calls them, toward getting the bread-and-butter programs back on track.

"I like having the victories," Coleman said, "but the reality is that they're symbolic victories. Of course, we're not going to sit back and wait to see what happens. We'll keep working to keep our amendments in the budget."

Capitol Briefs

• Although their efforts were, ultimately, tabled by a majority vote of the House, state Reps. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, and Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, did their best to shift $5 million earmarked for the questionable Alternatives to Abortion program to more mainstream services – specifically for child-abuse prevention (Naishtat) or family planning (Villarreal) – during the marathon budget debate on the House floor March 29. The Alternatives program is, in essence, a way to defund traditional women's health providers such as Planned Parenthood, which social conservatives, despite evidence to the contrary, insist is nothing more than an evil cabal hell-bent on forcing naive women into abortions. That sort of brain-dead rhetoric was alive and well during budget debates last week, as GOP lawmakers took to the podiums to lambaste Naishtat and Villarreal for even suggesting such a "wonderful program" – as Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, called it – be eliminated. Sure, the protestations of the Republican lawmakers were scripted, but that didn't make them any less creepy – indeed, Davis and Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, were practically giddy as they praised one another for their insightful comments about the fledgling program. The program offers counseling (albeit by unlicensed counselors) and support and diapers, etc., for women facing unplanned pregnancies – what could be better? Well, in the estimation of Naishtat, Villarreal, and several others – notably, Austin Democrats Valinda Bolton and Dawnna Dukes and Houston's Jessica Farrar – the money would be better spent on programs that have a track record and that might actually provide real medical services – like gynecological exams, cancer screenings, and access to contraceptives, for example, which are offered to low-income and uninsured women via the family-planning budget as part of an effort to actually reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and, consequently, the incidence of abortion. How silly of them. (For more on this, see "No Real Alternative," Jan. 26.) – Jordan Smith

• Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, passed the second of his package of bills on Tuesday intended to undo the sin of passing the toll-road bill, House Bill 3588, two sessions ago as chair of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. Senate Bill 718, which passed with nary a comment from Ogden's colleagues, would designate the state's highway trunk system, whenever possible, as the preferred route for the Trans-Texas Corridor. Ogden already has passed SB 1795, which doubles the cap on bonds that TxDOT can issue to fund highway projects, up to $6 billion. His other bills include limiting tolls on a TxDOT-owned project to simply cover the cost and maintenance of that project and ending private concession deals on toll roads. Ogden said leasing or selling a state highway should be a last resort for the state. – Kimberly Reeves

• While events at the Texas Youth Commission have dominated headlines, hearings have begun about a new scandal involving another state agency and its facilities in West Texas. Last Thursday the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services heard about the 2005 death of a patient at the Lubbock State School. The school, a residential facility for people with severe educational and physical disabilities run by the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, is the subject of a damning U.S. Department of Justice report. The resident died after being restrained by three staff members, two of whom had received no restraint training while the third reportedly slept through the training. All three have since been terminated, and files have been handed to prosecutors. The DOJ report found that failures to tend to basic medical and nutritional needs of residents, as well as the inappropriate use of sedatives and physical restraints, may be connected to several other deaths. Commissioner Adelaide Horn told the committee that an improvement plan has been developed, but while she was giving her testimony, DADS announced that three more employees, this time at the Mexia State School, had been fired over their role in the death of a 15-year-old on Jan. 15. – R.W.

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Texas Legislature, Tom Craddick, Garnet Coleman, Pete Laney, Joe Heflin, Children's Health Insurance Program, Jodie Laubenberg, Linda Harper-Brown, Rick Noriega, HB 1, Medicaid, Rick Perry, Jay Kimbrough, Texas Youth Commission, Eliot Shapleigh, Elliott Naishtat, Planned Parenthood, Mike Villarreal, Alternatives to Abortion, Tommy Williams

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