"Stop drinking the Kool-Aid... Start doing what you know is right."
Lawmakers reconsidering major initiatives on multiple fronts
March 18, 2007
By Laylan Copelin, Jason Embry
Four years ago, Gov. Rick Perry and the new GOP legislative majority embarked on groundbreaking changes: privatizing services, delegating tuition rates to college trustees and authorizing his vision of crossing the state with toll roads.
Halfway through this year's 140-day legislative session, many of those same lawmakers are beginning to second-guess some of their actions and suggest slowing down, if not changing course.
"There is a legislative revolt going on right now," said Austin lobbyist Terral Smith, a former Republican lawmaker and chief of staff for former Gov. George W. Bush.
There are calls for a moratorium on privately operated toll roads, limits on tuition increases and more state scrutiny of private contractors performing state services. Broad challenges to Perry's power also have sprouted.
Every legislative session brings heated debate, but lawmakers are particularly testy this year for several reasons.
First, the effects of major legislation that lawmakers approved in recent years have reached the public. Several policies either have been filled with problems, such as the privatization of social services, or have struck a nerve with voters, such as the Trans-Texas Corridor. Perry, meanwhile, has tried to move forward this year with more big ideas.
Second, there is unrest among Republicans because the 2006 election results showed that they are vulnerable to defeat from within their own party or against Democrats. While GOP state candidates trounced largely unknown Democrats in November's statewide elections, nine Republicans lost re-election bids in the primary or general election.
In addition to policy debates and electoral anxieties, a scandal erupting from allegations of sex abuse and cover-ups at the Texas Youth Commission has agitated lawmakers, who say the state agency, and the board that Perry put in charge of it, failed miserably.
When Republicans took the state House from Democrats after the 2002 elections, they assumed full control of the Capitol and unleashed a pent-up desire for major change. They steamrolled through the 2003 session intent on injecting free-market principles into state government.
That year, the Legislature paved the way for private companies to play a major role in constructing and operating toll roads and doling out public benefits. Lawmakers also gave public university regents the ability to set their own tuition rates.
Now those decisions are under scrutiny.
"Government is not a perfect science," said Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown. "More often than not, we have to revisit things that we did on a number of issues to look at what the ultimate effect of the legislation is, to look at what the unintended consequences are and to try to address those issues."
Perhaps no issue has caused Republicans to challenge Perry more than toll roads. A majority of House and Senate members have signed onto legislation that would put a two-year moratorium on private-public toll partnerships, a direct shot at the Trans-Texas Corridor, one of Perry's pet projects.
Sen. Tommy Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands who is a close ally of Perry's, supports the moratorium but says he doesn't think he's rebelling.
"I'm not trying to burn the barn down on anybody," Williams said. "I'm just trying to make sure that what we do, we get it to work. These are complex issues."
It's not just the Legislature that's revisiting 2003 decisions. The state's health and human services czar announced plans last week to cancel a contract with Accenture LLP, which had been hired to enroll Texans in public assistance programs.
Gattis, an early critic of Accenture's performance, blamed the failure on the company and said he supported ending the contract but said the state should have provided better oversight. He likened the private firm to a drunken driver and the state to the police officer who stops him.
"When he was rolling out of the bar's parking lot was when he should have been caught," Gattis said. "Not when he was 10 miles down the road and had run five other cars off the road."
Some lawmakers, including many Democrats, say they hope the state will resist future efforts to replace government workers with employees of private companies.
Gattis doesn't share that view.
"I still believe to this day that private vendors have a role to play in delivering government services," Gattis said. "My fear is that because of Accenture's failure and just incompetent execution, that it puts all privatization issues back five, 10, 20 years."
Coming into the 2007 session, Perry wasn't content to fine-tune policies he considered settled.
He wanted to do more.
He caught lawmakers offguard with his proposal to sell the lottery to finance research for cancer and help pay for medical insurance for the uninsured.
Lawmakers, Smith said, began tapping the brakes because they are still digesting other changes in state policy, such as toll roads, tuition deregulation and a business tax that he says is the most dramatic change to the tax code since the sales tax was first approved in 1960s.
"If you put it all together, it's a pretty compelling story," Smith said. "But change is hard, so you are getting a lot of pushback."
Smith said Perry didn't prepare lawmakers — or Texans — during the 2006 campaign.
"He knew he was going to win," Smith said. "That would have been a great opportunity to explain his vision."
Robert Black, a Perry spokesman, said that ideas for the lottery and cancer research weren't discussed in the campaign because those ideas were still being refined.
"Things in the policy shop weren't ripe yet," he said.
Last year's national election swept Republicans out of the majority in Congress and took President Bush to task for the war in Iraq. It also unnerved some state GOP incumbents.
"It just reminded people that winning re-election is not automatic," said Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, who in November got only 50 percent of the vote against an poorly financed challenges by a Democrat and a Libertarian. "It's important to be responsive."
Sen. Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican whose district includes Williamson County, said 2006 should be a wake-up call.
"People aren't too happy with Republican leadership," he said.
He said GOP lawmakers in Texas can't be comforted that they largely avoided the national backlash.
"We were the only choice they had" in many races, said Ogden, who got 61 percent of the vote against two little-known challengers.
Ogden said the message he took from the election was: "Stop drinking the Kool-Aid. Stop just voting for someone else's idea. Start doing what you know is right."
Although they agree the election is driving the legislative debates, Ogden and Krusee, co-authors of Perry's 2003 transportation bill, are going opposite directions on the issue this session.
Reacting to constituents who oppose Perry's plan to criss-cross the state with toll roads, Ogden supports the moratorium and has characterized the Texas Department of Transportation as an agency out of control.
Krusee is a defender of the transportation policy.
Although hundreds of protesters jammed a Capitol hearing on the Trans-Texas Corridor this month, Krusee noted, 4,500 people attended the opening of a toll road in Williamson County just two days later.
Black predicted that Perry's toll road initiatives, including long-term deals with private companies such as Spain's Cintra, will survive the session.
"Don't mistake loud for large," Black said of reports of a groundswell of opposition.
By the end of the session, Black said, lawmakers seeking re-election will want to pass legislation they can run on: "Does the Legislature want to go home and say, 'We stopped road construction for two years'?"
Ogden said that is a false argument because the Legislature is not halting road construction.
"We'll go home," Ogden said, "and tell the folks, 'We stopped selling our roads to a company in Spain.' "
The points of contention don't stop with roads.
Since 2001, Perry has issued 65 executive orders mandating action by state agencies or creating task forces, mostly without question.
But his order to fast-track the approval of coal plants angered a coalition of environmentalists and business leaders.
Legislation was introduced to slow down the approval of 13 coal plants, and then a Travis County judge temporarily set aside the governor's order, saying he had overstepped his authority.
Perry's early-session mandate that schoolgirls receive the HPV vaccine angered many lawmakers. Some supporters and opponents of his policy felt that his executive order sidestepped the legislative process. They considered it an insult, and last week the House repudiated it, 118-23. The Senate is expected to follow suit.
For once, the governor was caught off-guard.
"You'd thought we'd set the Capitol on fire," Black said. "We had talked about it before, and no one batted an eye."
In addition, the Legislature has asserted itself with several other measures to limit the governor's reach: a constitutional amendment allowing lawmakers to reconvene to override gubernatorial vetoes signed in their absence, a bill limiting the service of the governor's appointees instead of letting them stay beyond their terms and a provision making executive mandates subject to approval by legislative leaders.
In trying to rein in executive orders, Smith said, some Republican lawmakers are thinking, "If he can do that (mandate vaccinations), think what happens when the Democrats elect someone."
Additionally, the explosive allegations of sex abuse and cover-ups at the Texas Youth Commission forced another confrontation between the Legislature and Perry.
For weeks, the Senate has been demanding that the governor clean house, replace the commission or put the agency under a conservatorship, the radical step of putting an independent overseer in charge.
Perry forced out top agency administrators but resisted replacing the agency's board.
The Senate, having shown all year that it wouldn't just go along to get along, kept the pressure on.
On Friday, the board members resigned.
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