You Can Win If You Don't Play?
At the Capitol, 'yea' can easily mean 'nay' – and the most meaningful votes may not be votes at all
On April 1, as the House began dragging through the 317 proposed amendments to the state budget bill, House Bill 1, the pressing question was simple: Which amendments were serious attempts to restructure the draft state budget, and which were political land mines intended to trap liberals in an impossible funding conundrum? Austin Democrat Donna Howard called these the Sophie's Choice votes, referring to the book and film in which a mother is forced to choose which of her two children she will let die in a concentration camp. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider that the $23 billion projected shortfall in education, social services, and health care will punch yet more holes in Texas' already shredded safety net.
The nadir may have been amendment 49, Houston Republican Dwayne Bohac's measure taking nearly $15 million from family-planning services to cover cuts in mental health services for kids. Either cut was morally repugnant to most House Democrats, so 44 simply stepped back and let the lights on the voting board remain white to indicate "present, not voting." (For more, see "Family Planning Torn Asunder.")
But not every absence is deliberate. Take the final passage of HB 1 out of the House Appropriations Committee on March 23. Within five minutes of gaveling in, Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, had voted it out to the full floor. Apparently this had to be done in such a rush that Pitts could not wait for two Democratic members of the committee – Galveston's Craig Eiland and Austin's Dawnna Dukes – to register their votes. San Antonio's Ruth Jones McClendon only got to voice her opposition because she walked in midvote. That left Dukes fuming, not surprisingly. After all, her support of ex-Speaker Tom Craddick in previous sessions put her on the outs with many in her own party, and a seeming no-show on such a vital vote could add fuel to a primary challenge. Cut out of the vote, she said, "I went straight to the press conference." Only a small victory, but at least she was visible in her opposition.
Not so for Texas Association of Businesses President Bill Hammond and Texas State Rifle Association Executive Director Steve Hall. Last month, both had agreed to appear publicly with traditional enemies – Hammond with education unions, and Hall with environmentalists – to oppose budget cuts. Both no-showed. Hall simply sent a "prior commitments" apology, while Hammond had a literally lame excuse, texting organizers of the Save Texas Schools rally that he had sprained his ankle. No awkward liberal-hugging photo op for them.
The fear of electoral embarrassment can tie lawmakers in knots. Rep. James White, R-Hilister, voted against principle and his party line on March 31 when he backed Democratic amendments to HB 4 and HB 275, two measures backfilling the $4.2 billion hole in the current budget. He accused Dems of playing games with their proposals, trying to establish a voting record to use against him in election mailers. White perhaps thought he had uncovered some grand and previously unseen conspiracy, but he had actually found the oldest play in the book: Put up fake flag votes designed to fuel hit-piece campaign ads down the road. In recent years, the strategy has actually been a Republican trademark, meaning many smart Democrats in marginal seats are conveniently absent for conservative-baiting bills about guns or flags or religion.
The core problem remains that, in its constitutional limitation of sitting for only 140 days every two years, the Texas Legislature itself is the entity that's really absent. When it is in session, there will always be Sophie's Choice moments, because the pressure-cooker environment lends itself to toxic trick votes and missed opportunities. So let's swallow the old conservative analogy that government should be run like a business. If Dell's management were part-time, shareholders would call for their resignation. If ExxonMobil's accountants only looked at the books every other year, the firm would go bankrupt. Of course, that said, if Southwest Airlines' executives spent most of the biennium getting re-elected to their jobs, they might not get much done either.
Of course, the real absentee landlords of this state are the 62% of registered voters who didn't even bother to show up last November.
For more on the state budget and other train wrecks, see austinchronicle.com/legeland.