The Austin Chronicle

Local Reps and Their Committees

By Richard Whittaker, February 20, 2009, News

If Speaker Joe Straus had waited any longer to make his House committee appointments, the assignments to legislators would have served as Valentine's Day presents. Now local Democrats have unwrapped his Feb. 12 announcement and are separating the bow on top from the strings attached.

In the last two sessions, former Speaker Tom Craddick made his picks from a heavily Republican membership in late January, but with the House now split 76-74 and with a redesigned committee structure, Straus faced a tougher balancing act. In the new order of things, the other 10 members of his "Gang of 11" – the GOP rebels who put the speaker's gavel in Straus' hands – have become a power block. Each gets a major committee chairmanship, and as a whole, the gang has a strong presence on the three supercommittees: Appropriations, Calen­dars, and State Affairs.

Straus lived up to his promise for a more bipartisan split of appointments, handing Democrats 16 of the 34 committee chairs. But numbers aren't everything, as common expectations about particular committee appointments were not met. There was broad expectation that Garnet Coleman, D-Hous­ton, would head up Public Health, but that went instead to Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. Similarly, 17-term legislator and former speaker candidate Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, leads the relatively low-octane Local & Consent Calendars.

Yet for all the changes, there are constants: Austin's Dawnna Dukes kept her seat on Appropriations. During the struggle to remove Craddick, Dukes drew criticism for staying outside the fray; her defense was that she was not prepared to lose a voice for her district in the budget-building process. Even in the current shake-up, she wasn't going to sacrifice that seat. "I've always had to make a decision of going for a committee chair or sitting on Appropriations," she said. Having sat on the committee since the last big budget shortfall in 2003 is a big plus in a recession, she said, because "you need to have experience and historical knowledge of funding mechanisms and revenue streams."

The other big winner from Travis County is Mark Strama, who chairs the new Technol­ogy, Economic Development & Workforce Committee – quickly nicknamed the green-collar jobs committee. With its mix of applied research and environmentalism, he argues, it's timely for Austin ("It's right in our sweet spot," he said) and the state. As fossil fuel gives way to renewable energy, Strama said: "Texas can lead, or Texas can fight that evolution. If we lead, we could see even more prosperity in the future than we've enjoyed over the last hundred years. If we fight it, we could see it go somewhere else, and that's 15 percent of our GDP at stake."

Donna Howard kept all her appointments from the 80th session and picked up a promotion to vice chair of Culture, Recreation, & Tourism. She applauded the nod to party parity, but with only seven female chairs and five vice chairs, she said, "We could do a better job of getting women in those leadership positions."

For Valinda Bolton, the biggest gain for the Travis Co. delegation is a chance to end knee-jerk Austin-bashing under the dome. "It's the opposite of Austin-bashing," she said. "We're at the table in leadership positions." By staying on County Affairs and adding a seat on Land & Resource Man­age­ment, she can concentrate on rebalancing planning needs – a big issue in her southwest Travis Co. district. "The days of most people living in a rural area are long gone, and those days have been over for a lot longer than urban and suburban issues have been highlighted in the legislative process," she said.

Nevertheless, Dukes warns against Demo­crats getting too optimistic. "For the measures and issues that are important to us," she said, "we will have to be hard workers and very savvy."

What Travis Co. Got

Valinda Bolton: County Affairs, Land & Resource Management, Local & Consent Calendars

Dawnna Dukes: Appropriations; Culture, Recreation, & Tourism

Donna Howard: Culture, Recreation, & Tourism (vice chair); Higher Education; House Administration

Elliott Naishtat: Human Services, Public Health (vice chair)

Eddie Rodriguez: Public Safety; Technology, Economic Development & Workforce

Mark Strama: Technology, Economic Develop­ment & Workforce (chair); Energy Resources

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.