Sunday, May 27, 2007

80th Texas Legislature: 'The Tow-Truck Session'

'Tow-truck' session didn't give taxpayers their money's worth


Clay Robison
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — With today's adjournment deadline mercifully drawing near, this legislative session is being marked with the inevitable characterizations — some actually printable — from players inside and outside the chamber doors.

Angry and rudderless are popular one-word descriptions for the past 140 days at the state Capitol. But Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat, offered the best summation.

"This is the tow-truck session. Most of what we have been doing is pulling things out of ditches," he said.

The state budget, the one bill that lawmakers must pass to avoid a special session this summer, was going down to the wire. And House Speaker Tom Craddick, almost run off the road on the opening day in January, was refusing to give up the gavel despite growing dissension from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

And Hochberg was among those trying to nudge Craddick into a ditch, rather than hoist him from one.

Earlier, lawmakers had to rescue inmates from a sex abuse scandal at the long-ignored Texas Youth Commission and tried to rescue students from the latest round of financial and administrative problems at the historically troubled Texas Southern University.

Legislators, particularly those from small towns where anti-toll road sentiment runs high, also scrambled to undo or postpone part of a massive transportation overhaul they had granted Gov. Rick Perry a few years ago without reading the fine print.

And, of course, they overwhelmingly rebuked the governor over his legally questionable order to impose a cervical cancer vaccine on schoolgirls.

Even a tow truck couldn't rescue much of Perry's legislative program, offered in the wake of a 39 percent re-election showing that lawmakers, even the Republican majority, didn't mistake for a mandate.

Threatening a special session, Perry saved part of his long-range transportation plan, and budget negotiators approved $100 million worth of incentive funding, which he demanded, for universities.

Lawmakers also approved $3 billion in bond funding for cancer research, another Perry priority, subject to voter endorsement of a constitutional amendment in November. But the Legislature ignored the governor's proposal to sell the lottery, which could have raised even more money for the anti-cancer war.

And Perry's perennial "priority" to lower the cap on property reappraisals or impose new limits on property tax revenue for local governments also died without a fight or any noticeable lobbying by the governor.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's priorities were dictated by his plans to run for governor in 2010 and his solicitation of support from the conservatives who will dominate the Republican primary.

He won enactment of his main goal, a bill cracking down on people who assault children, but lost a partisan-charged fight over a bill to require voters to produce photo IDs.

Although Dewhurst's political agenda was transparent all session, even Republican senators had had enough when his office issued a partisan-charged, campaign-style letter (which Dewhurst disavowed) attacking Democratic senators for opposing the voter ID bill.

Dewhurst got a private tongue-lashing from both Democrats and Republicans — and a pointed reminder that the senators determine how much power a lieutenant governor can continue to enjoy.

Later today or tomorrow, the governor and legislative leaders may issue statements bragging about what the Legislature accomplished over the past five months. And, to be sure, hundreds of new laws were enacted that will affect millions of Texans in a variety of ways — and potentially enrich who knows how many special interests.

But there was no signature issue to make most taxpayers feel as though they got their money's worth. The session "lacked direction," said Southern Methodist University political science Professor Cal Jillson.

It kind of meandered, like a tow truck, trying to clean up messes but leaving behind debris of its own.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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