The Austin Chronicle

Sniffing Sine Die

Taking stock of the 81st Lege

By Michael King, May 8, 2009, News

The final day – June 1 – is only three weeks away, the wave of legislation has crested and logjammed, and talk of an inevitable special session has diminished ... somewhat. We thought it a good moment to take stock, see what the 81st Lege has accomplished thus far (not an overwhelming prospect), and speculate on just what might still get done. As Richard Whittaker notes, if they manage to write a budget – even with a huge handout from Washington, D.C. – they can go home and persuade themselves they've done their constitutional duty.

As things got rolling back in January, the headline story was the Calamitous Fall of House Speaker Tom Craddick, the surprising new pick was relative unknown San Antonio Rep. Joe Straus, and we pondered, "As the House attempts to recover from its extended leadership struggle, it will presumably be a more affable – or at least less hostile – place to work for members and at least potentially a more bipartisan atmosphere for getting things accomplished." Once the dust settled, those speculations were indeed borne out. The new comity was most visibly demonstrated in the House floor budget debate, before which the Republican and Democratic leadership got together and mutually decided to avoid pointless fights over symbolic amendments that weren't going to survive in any case – pointless fights that were standard operating procedure under Crad­dick. Straus and the new regime are certainly to be credited for the change. Craddick has been reduced to a wandering backbencher, and the same folks who brokered the new speakership are now able to work together with more consensus and less acrimony.

One other visible sign of the new dispensation is the warehousing of the recently purchased fingerprint voting machines. These were supposedly intended to respond to the phony media controversy over "ghost voting" by reps (that is, reps collegially punching vote buttons for desk mates who have momentarily stepped away). It was a wasteful and time-consuming response to a nonsubstantive problem – and it's simply rational that the whole nonsense has been silently ignored away.

We wish we could say the same about the notorious "voter ID" debate, a national GOP priority that fouled the Senate air at session opening and now looms over the House. While voter ID deserves the same fate as the ghost-voting foolishness, it is instead likely to raise one more hysterical cloud over the House floor – and in the bargain deprive some Texans of their franchise. Nonsense remains nonsense, and the Lege still devotes far too much time to the political equivalent of professional wrestling.

Also in January, we acknowledged: "While it's a given that the new Lege will be more 'Democratic' than its immediate predecessors, it's still a GOP Legislature, and it will be a while before we know how that greater political balance will translate into policy. The Capitol governs from the right on public policy, with occasional nods to the center. Progressives, whatever the issue, can expect to spend much of their time playing defense."

As these updates by Chronicle reporters confirm, the truly progressive caucus at the Capitol remains much smaller than the bipartisan majority, and spirited and inventive defense against institutional follies – especially in areas such as criminal justice, reproductive rights, environmental protection, and education – remains the order of the day. We've found a few glimmers in the darkness, but overall our leaders do not want a state government that does what's necessary for the modern state of Texas, and they especially don't want to pay for it. So the rest of us will.

It makes a strange spectacle, yet good reading. Enjoy this penultimate sampling from the onrushing flood that is the biennial Texas legislative adventure. We'll continue reporting weekly as it rolls and be back next month to pick up the rest of the pieces.

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