On the Lege

In Search of Silver Linings

First the good news: Tomball Republican Debbie Riddle is not running for speaker of the House. Not that anyone would believe Riddle could mount a serious campaign to replace Tom Craddick, but we thought we'd toss her name out there as a grim reminder that things could always be worse.

How's that for openers? The session is entering its final, frantic hours, the state budget has yet to be unveiled, and the House is under siege. But we're stuck in a Riddle rumination rut, unfortunately, because we can't bring ourselves to move past her provocative hate rant on the floor this week. For whatever reason, Riddle is unnerved by a proposal to "arm" foster children with a written copy of their rights – the same rights set out in federal law and a host of state codes. San Antonio Democrat Mike Villarreal offered the "bill of rights" as an amendment to Senate Bill 758, a sweeping measure expanding needed reforms in the state's foster care system. The bill passed, minus Villarreal's amendment.

For the second time in two weeks, Riddle, a horse breeder, whinnied and kicked in protest over the proposed bill of rights, calling it "outrageous," an invitation to "create chaos in the homes of foster parents," and "the worst bill [she has] ever seen." Apparently letting foster children know about the laws protecting them is beyond the pale in the Houston suburbs.

The House sponsor of the larger Senate reform bill, Health and Human Services Chair Patrick Rose, made the first move to table the rights amendment, but he vowed to work for its passage as a separate item – SB 805 on the House calendar. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and was on deck to return to the House floor this week after getting temporarily sidelined by a technical error. At it turned out, the bill ultimately died at the stroke of midnight Tuesday, the deadline for passing Senate bills out of the House. Unless it's able to hitch an 11th-hour ride onto the larger foster care measure, a foster children bill of rights will be history this session.

Despite Riddle's wild assertions that the proposal would create a new class of spoiled-rotten foster children, the proposal merely seeks to inform hard-luck kids of their right to enjoy pretty basic stuff – to live in a safe and healthy home environment; to be free of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; and to be able to wear clothing comparable to what other kids are wearing. Similar measures have been enacted in Kansas, Alabama, and California.

Riddle, a former foster parent, might have gotten her death wish for the "worst bill" she has ever seen, but it's worth noting that precious few of her own horrifying bills – anti-immigrant measures and the like – even escaped committee. The ones that did survive were pure political fluff. Riddle was the House sponsor of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's "Jessica's Law," the lite gov's campaign especial that seeks the death penalty for (mostly imaginary) habitual pedophiles. Her personal claim to fame was to secure the inclusion of "under God" in the Texas pledge of allegiance. Yet she drew the line on "liberty and justice for all," refusing requests from the floor to add those few egalitarian words to her God bill. (Don't want to give people the wrong idea.)

In the end, Riddle's sideshow was a tiny blip in this week's House events, which saw an unusual display of unity and strength in numbers on two politically significant issues. The headliner, of course, was and is the ongoing struggle to oust Craddick from the speaker's chair – possibly before the session ends on Monday. Craddick insists he's not leaving his post and has vowed to run for re-election in 2009. But his trademark poker face is showing signs of mutiny-related stress, as a crop of veteran Republicans has lined up to run for his seat. As of midweek, the hopefuls included Ways and Means Chair Jim Keffer; former Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts (making his second attempt); Brian McCall, who early this year pulled out of the speaker's race to support Pitts; and local-government champion Fred Hill.

The simmering discontent audibly surfaced Monday night, in a personal privilege speech by otherwise low-profile Corsicana Republican Byron Cook. Cook, a rancher who chairs the House Civil Practices Committee, boldly asserted that members are fed up with Craddick's frequent use of "intimidation, retaliation, and character assassination" to keep his authority in check, and he accused Craddick of deliberately slowing the budget process, either as punishment or to wrest (i.e., bribe) favor from one member or another. "Release us and submit to the will of the House," Cook implored. He concluded his remarks with the oft-referenced, night-before-combat "band of brothers" speech from Shakespeare's Henry V.

After Cook finished, Craddick broke the silence that followed, calmly announcing the layout of the next bill.

The second noteworthy House event, which actually preceded Cook's speech, found liberal Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman praising conservative Republican Dianne Delisi for her work on a far-reaching bill designed to upgrade and expand Medicaid coverage for the uninsured. The GOP-led legislation, SB 10, passed easily after lengthy consideration over a number of amendments. As Delisi happily pointed out, the bill was endorsed by a diverse group of 16 stakeholders with varying ideological interests. Indeed, it's rare when the Texas Conservative Coalition at one end of the spectrum and the Center for Public Policy Priorities at the other find common ground on a public policy initiative. "We were happy to see the consumer protection amendments added," said the CPPP's Anne Dunkelberg. "We feel comfortable that the core [Medicaid] program is protected." But she cautioned that time will tell if the bill is all it's described to be. "It's written so broadly that it may create some potential for concern," she said.

On a related front, the final passage of a Children's Health Insurance Program bill was a mixed blessing. The Senate watered down a key provision in the House version of House Bill 109, largely because Dewhurst refused to budge from his opposition to allowing families 12 months of uninterrupted CHIP coverage. In the end, Senate leaders settled for what Kip Averitt, R-McGregor, called an "excellent compromise" – requiring electronic "income reviews" every six months, while still providing families continuing CHIP coverage. In practice that means that 33,351 fewer children would be covered, pending agreement in conference. As with the Medicaid bill, Dunkelberg is willing to accept the Senate's compromise on CHIP, considering how far the Lege has come since its near-fatal evisceration of the program in 2003. On the whole, she reasoned, "It's a vast improvement over the current policy, even though it's not as good as the House bill."

In other words, things could always be worse. end story

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Texas Legislature, Tom Craddick, Byron Cook, Jim Keffer, Jim Pitts, Fred Hill, Brian McCall, Debbie Riddle, Children's Health Insurance Program, CPPP, David Dewhurst, Medicaid, Dianne Delisi, Garnet Coleman, Kip Averitt, David Dewhurst, SB 920, SB 785, Florence Shapiro, Dan Patrick

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