Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Legislator: The Official Texas State Invertebrate

An Uprising Squelched and a Budget in Place, Texas Legislators Head Home to Recover

May 30, 2007

The New York Times
Copyright 2007

HOUSTON, May 29 — Bidding farewell to a raucous legislative session he branded “the good, the bad and the ugly,” Gov. Rick Perry commended Texas lawmakers in Austin on Tuesday for passing a last-minute budget that cut school property taxes and expanded financing for health care, education and border security.

But Mr. Perry, a Republican, added, “I’m glad the legislators are leaving town so that there is time for wounds to heal.”

Despite the strife, lawmakers reached agreement on a number of issues, beyond passage of the two-year $153 billion budget.

They mandated random steroid testing for high school athletes. They strengthened the right of Texans to carry handguns, without a license, in their vehicles.

They gave a final failing grade to the little-loved statewide high school exams known as TAKS, phasing them out starting in 2011. They refused to tinker with the formula that guarantees college entry to the top 10 percent of each high school’s graduates, which began as an equal opportunity measure but is opposed by some educators as tying the hands of admissions officers.

And they declared the blind salamander the official state amphibian.

Ending their 140-day odd-year occupation of the capital, members of the State Senate and the House of Representatives, both controlled by Republicans, began streaming home with emotions raw from an unusual effort to unseat Speaker Tom Craddick, Republican of Midland, over complaints of autocratic abuses.

Late Friday, lawmakers rushed the podium in an effort to force Mr. Craddick out of office.

Representative Garnet F. Coleman, Democrat of Houston, said Monday that the events had historical implications. “It sends the message,” Mr. Coleman said, “that in a representative democracy, the people have a voice through their representatives, and no one individual has absolute power.”

Mr. Craddick dismissed the uprising by dissidents in both parties as a coup attempt, and vowed to remain in office. He prevailed early Saturday after refusing to recognize members seeking a vote on his removal, prompting the House parliamentarian to quit. But members stormed out in protest again on Monday.

Another fight erupted over efforts to require prospective voters to show a photo ID, which Republicans promoted as a way to curb election fraud, and Democrats resisted as a burden intended to suppress the Democratic vote.

As the rancor grew, the office of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, released an open letter insulting the dean of the Senate, John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat (and a hunting buddy of Mr. Dewhurst.) Later, quipping that he feared going out with an armed foe, Mr. Dewhurst said his staff members had put out the letter in error. He reissued it minus the offending references.

Soon after, the voter ID measure was blocked in the Senate when a Houston Democrat, Mario Gallegos Jr., recovering from a liver transplant, moved his hospital bed into a Senate antechamber to be on hand for crucial votes.

Among the more noteworthy actions of the session was the overwhelming vote to thwart Mr. Perry’s executive order requiring vaccinations of sixth-grade girls against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. Although the order included an opt-out clause for parents, lawmakers condemned the governor’s action as an overstepping of executive authority.

But lawmakers authorized a $3 billion bond measure, to be presented to voters in November, to finance grants of $300 million a year for 10 years to Texas institutions for cancer research.

They also voted to restore coverage to 127,000 low-income children under the state health insurance program. The measure also eliminated a 90-day waiting period, allowed parents to register for a year at a time instead of six months and eased other restrictions.

“This was a step in the right direction and a hard-fought victory for Texas children,” said Renee Wizig-Barrios, lead organizer in Houston for the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing group.

Reflecting growing unease over Mr. Perry’s proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, a vast toll road and rail link from Oklahoma to Mexico, legislators imposed a two-year moratorium on other toll-road contracts.

The governor could veto some of the bills.

In measures against crime, legislators added $200 million for more law enforcement officers and toughened the law against sexual predators of children, adding a death penalty for second offenders.

Environmental groups praised the lawmakers’ measures to encourage energy efficiency but denounced missed chances to control coal plant emissions.

“While there was some progress on energy efficiency and renewable energy,” said Cyrus Reed, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, “the Legislature left the plan in place for industry to increase tons of pollutants into the Texas air in coming years.”

Some measures sailed through. A concurrent resolution of the House declared Athens, Tex., “the original home of one of the nation’s favorite foods, the hamburger.” (But don’t try putting that up for a vote in Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Conn., which makes the same claim.)

Staci Semrad contributed reporting from Austin, Tex.

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