Show Them the Need
The great GOP wave breaks on the realities of the actual cost of government
By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 10, 2011
The Texas Legislature did not return (or rather, did not stay around) for the current special session because (as Gov. Perry would have it) Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered the school finance bill. In reality, the Lege had to come back (er, never left) because the GOP was beaten by the clock.
In hindsight, it seems ridiculous. With a 19-12 seat majority in the Senate, a 101-49 House supermajority, every significant committee chairmanship under its control, and every statewide office in its pocket, the GOP controlled the pace and face of the session. Nevertheless, those massive majorities – constructed through careful gerrymandering and reckless tea party pandering – have made the Republicans look like dogs chasing a car: Once they caught it, they seemed clueless about what to do with it.
That's not to underestimate how much damage the most arch-conservative wing of the GOP managed this session. With the House Democrats battered by last November's tea party landslide and consequent January defection wave, they were barely able to make a dent in the relentless fulfillment of the conservative agenda. They had to stand by as the GOP carved up the budget to the tea party drumbeat of cut, cut, and cut again, pushing the state of Texas closer than ever to Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist's declared dream of making government "small enough to drown in a bathtub."
Special session or not, the GOP has already garnered its biggest victory. After Gov. Rick Perry sent down his dual diktats of 1) no new taxes and 2) no tapping the Rainy Day Fund to cover future spending, the Lege adopted a budget with slashing cuts in just about every area of government. In that frenzy, however, it failed to change the way the budget distributes that cash. The budget inscribed in House Bill 1 makes the pie radically smaller but cuts it into the same size slices without regard for variations in need – meaning the state could (once again) run out of money before lawmakers return in 2013. The pressure in the special session is to pass the panoply of fixes, patches, reductions, and curlicued accounting tricks that on the whole eluded them in the regular session.
A Broken Process
The seeds of scheduling doom were sown when Perry set his emergency items, a shopping list of conservative red meat: first "sanctuary cities" and eminent domain, then voter ID and a balanced budget amendment (recommendation) to the U.S. Constitution, then abusive and intrusive ultrasound procedures for women seeking abortions. In legislative terms, the "emergency" designation lets lawmakers waive the constitutional restrictions on passing bills in the first 60 days of the session. So for Perry to add the "loser pays" (tort "reform") bill on in May, with less than 30 days remaining, made no sense – other than as political posturing.
As House Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, repeatedly told anyone that would listen, the only real emergency matters were the budget, health care, and school finance. However, passing Perry's base-pandering measures consumed the first half of the session, leaving lawmakers little time to work on real issues. When House Public Health Committee Chair Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, watched HB 5 die on the Senate floor – taking her Interstate Health Care Compact proposal with it – she railed that "the House does the work." The finger pointed the other way at the end of the session, when the school finance reforms in Senate Bill 1811 became a victim of the House calendar. Senate Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, blamed state reps, saying, "It hit late because the House didn't have a viable school plan."
Not that the Republican leadership was above suspending any and all rules to impose its agenda. During the rush to hammer through more tort reform, the normally unshakable Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, became so disgusted with the skewed process that he threw the House rule book in the air. The school finance reforms in SB 1811 became the poster child for the time-management disaster. It started off as one of the few good finance bills of the session. Ogden charged Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, with finding some extra cash. It was a one-time deal that mixed selling state assets with some precarious accounting tricks, and it may have been the sole outright admission from Republican leadership that the budget was in fact broken. Nevertheless, instead of helping fix – or at least patch over – the budget hole, it got hijacked in conference committee to become the school finance bill ... then died an unseemly death.
Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, summed up the situation when SB 1811 finally arrived on the floor: "Nobody in this chamber gave the conference committee the authority" to present this proposal, he told his fellow lawmakers. Normally a conference committee is for hashing out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the same bill, and it only happens after both chambers have voted on their competing versions. Yet neither of the two big school finance reform bills – HB 2721 by House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, and SB 22 by Senate Public Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano – ever got a floor debate. Instead, the two committee chairs just walked into the SB 1811 conference room with their own personal plans, closed the door, came out with their own deal, and handed both chambers an ultimatum: Take it or stay for a special. The House blinked and approved it, but the Democratic caucus was not alone in its opposition – tea partiers were surprised to find that a Real ID pilot program (black-hooded harbinger of the New World Order) had been stuck in the bill when no one was looking. As Turner tearfully told the chamber, "This whole process is wrong."
Easier Demagogued Than Done
Divided as the chambers indeed were, their conflicts were nothing compared to the sheer savagery of the political assault on women, minorities, and the needy. Before the session, House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, warned tea party activists that if the state cuts Medicaid "we will have to throw some people out in the street" (see "Medicaid and the Lege: Throw 'Em in the Street?," Dec. 10, 2010). His colleagues either didn't get the message or in the end didn't care: The Lege approved a 17.2% cut in Health and Human Services spending.
It's the same story when it comes to voting rights. Not only did the GOP shove through a hard-line voter ID bill, but then it also added to the project a fearsome redistricting effort that could become a new national low in gerrymandering. Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, has already written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. about minority underrepresentation in the state House maps, and the current congressional proposals seem likely to follow those to the courts.
Expect public school advocates to join them. Throughout the session, the question has been not if but when the state will get sued over education spending cuts and what the suit will look like. The consensus is that public school finance is crippled and that another misguided fix is not enough. In a step that Ogden conceded could mean political suicide, before the session he went so far as to suggest a statewide property tax as the only sensible way to fix the current malfunctioning system. Instead, the Lege decided to tweak the current incomprehensible process and in the bargain create new disparities. The latest "reforms" conjure the specter of the pivotal 1980s Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby school finance lawsuits, under which poor districts successfully fought the unconstitutionality of inequitable funding. To resolve that battle took three trips to the courts, and, as Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, told his fellow members, "Today what you're voting for is Edgewood Four."
And in the end, Republicans may come to regret their one big point of pride: the supposedly balanced budget. In 2009, the education budget was backfilled with federal stimulus funds. This year, the numbers are artificially inflated again by the one-time federal "EduJobs" money. Democrats propose using the special session to appropriate part of the $6 billion in the Rainy Day Fund for schools, but everyone around the Capitol knows that money has been quietly earmarked to pay off the debt the state is bound to accrue over the biennium in Medicaid and Medicare payments (just as the current biennium deficit was resolved with Rainy Day money). Lawmakers are working in the special session to cover that gap by restructuring payments to health care providers, but groups like disability rights advocates ADAPT of Texas have warned that will only drive up the total bill. By slashing in-home care budgets, the state will force more people into far costlier residential facilities. Similarly, cutting preventative care will force more people to depend on county hospitals, turning what is supposed to be the provider of last resort into the only hope for sick Texans.
Yet there remains one bright spark of hope at the bottom of this Pandora's box of policies. Throughout the regular session, first-term Republican Rep. Lanham Lyne from Wichita Falls was the near-definitional backbencher, introducing a handful of minor bills and following the party line. Yet before he voted for HB 1, the proud conservative told his fellow lawmakers that he was conflicted. He said: "It's easy to say, 'Cut government spending; cut the waste; cut the fat.' Show me where it is." His advice to his fellow freshmen was simple: Teach their constituents about the realities of need and cost in Texas. He warned, "I promise you they don't know what gets spent in our Texas Legislature or how it gets spent."
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.