Friday, May 11, 2007

"Look for significant wind shifts and high damage potential in the final two weeks of the 80th session."

Walking the Lege

With two weeks left, the 80th runs into foul weather


The Austin Chronicle
Copyright 2007

If Monday night's hailstorm in the House can serve as a long-range forecast, look for significant wind shifts and high damage potential in the final two weeks of the 80th session. Although nearly every session enters a period of freak weather in the waning days, even jaded Capitol observers acknowledge that the 2007 session is not your garden-variety get-together. On top of that, there's no telling what the $150 billion state budget will look like in its final form, particularly given the unusual political challenges in play for the commanders in both chambers.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is eyeing a run for governor in 2010 and as a consequence has taken to calculating his every move, while drawing heat from those who just want to get their dang bills passed. "See Dewhurst Run," is how some folks have titled the session.

The House, meanwhile, is in a state of barely controlled chaos. The chamber reached a boiling point late Monday night as Speaker Tom Craddick was dealt a withering blow by his own members, who voted 87-50 to rein in his heavy-handedness. Specifically, they voted dramatically to override Craddick's rejection of a procedural motion; longtime Lege observers said they hadn't seen a similar override in a generation. The mutiny, which had been building over the past two weeks, cast doubt on Craddick's ability to lead the House henceforward. But the rebelliousness actually dates from the beginning of the session, when Craddick survived a GOP challenge to his leadership but vowed not to retaliate against the 68 members who effectively voted against his re-election by voting (and failing) to choose a new speaker by secret ballot.

But Craddick's old habits are apparently hard to break, and there's been much grumbling from Craddick opponents that their bills have been subject to various forms of procedural sabotage. In response, House members – particularly those who voted for Craddick – are starting to exert some independence.

It flowered Monday night. The breaking point came when Craddick summarily dismissed a point of order raised by Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson. The question concerned a local bill carried by Valley Democrat Ryan Guillen that mysteriously turned up on the major state calendar – a move not normally permitted under House rules, especially in a session when other members' local bills (the meat and potatoes of constituent service) have languished unheard for weeks. As the members saw it, the calendar switch clearly violated procedural bounds to help Guillen (a Craddick D) secure passage of his very important bill – to Zapata County exclusively. After Thompson was overruled on her objection, Republicans Robert Talton and Charlie Geren rose to challenge Craddick and urged all members to vote to uphold the House rules. Talton, an arch- but unpredictably maverick conservative from Pasadena, is enjoying his new prominence as the House point man on points of order – using the House rules to derail controversial bills. In addition to his inveterate contrariness, it's also his way of showing his displeasure with the speaker, the man he tried to oust at the beginning of the session.

Before casting his vote against the speaker, Georgetown rep and Craddick loyalist Dan Gattis bemoaned the political tension between members. "I think what got us here tonight is not a speaker not willing to follow the rules but how to deal with members who are at one another's throats. We're worn out. This has not been a fun session for me," he said, "and as I talk to other members, they say the same thing."

Earlier Monday, House Democratic leader Garnet Coleman said that while the House lacks leadership – "I don't call coercion leadership" – more Craddick soldiers are starting to emerge from the trenches. "Members who have not had the courage to vote their districts are now starting to do so," he said. On the downside, Craddick is still exercising pressure behind the scenes. "He's taken it underground," Coleman said. "His tone is better, but that doesn't change the process."

In previous sessions, when Craddick's authority (and large GOP majority) was unquestioned, complaints went not only unheard but unspoken – on penalty of political exile. This year's free-range squabbling is a double-edged sword. Quipped one longtime lobbyist (anonymous for obvious reasons): "When Saddam was head of Iraq, there was no freedom, but the government worked. When Craddick ruled with an iron hand, it was not democratic, but things got done."

And Mussolini made the trains run on time.

The Ledger

Setting aside the Dewhurst-Craddick dynamics (or under their imposing shadow) – what has the 80th managed to accomplish thus far?

Both chambers cheerfully passed two major rebukes of Gov. Rick Perry. They first overturned his mandate to vaccinate sixth-grade girls against human papillomavirus (a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer). Perry could have vetoed the bill but instead let it become law without his signature. In announcing his decision Tuesday, he acknowledged defeat and claimed victory. Perry lambasted legislators for caring more about asserting their power than about women's health care. "Banning widespread access to a vaccine that can prevent cancer is shortsighted policy," the guv declared.

The second impertinent bill, which arrived on Perry's desk this week, seeks to hobble his prized Trans-Texas Corridor initiative with a two-year moratorium on toll-road construction by private contractors. Perry has until May 18 to veto the bill – but the votes in both houses are apparently available to override him.

Toll-Road Turmoil: Of all of the policy proposals that Gov. Rick Perry has secured from the Legislature, none has been more aggressive, far-reaching, and controversial than his transportation policy. And private companies, particularly a megacontractor based in Spain (Cintra), are turning a tidy profit as a result.

Lawmakers looking down that long, winding road, however, decided to slam the brakes on selling off the state's assets to the highest foreign bidder. Seventy bills were filed this session to address the toll-road issue. At the end of the day, tweaking transportation policy proved to be too daunting, and nothing less than a moratorium would satisfy lawmakers.

Legislation passed in both the House and Senate (and certain to draw the governor's veto) would place a moratorium on concession contract agreements with private equity companies, deals that promise upfront payments to the state, measured against long-term profits on toll roads. In its final version, the bill ended up tagged on to another bill concerning Harris County's toll authority, which passed through the House County Affairs Committee, rather than the more logical House Transportation – chaired by Round Rock Rep. Mike Krusee, the House author of the original toll-road bill. Legislators figure they'll have enough time to override Perry's veto – something that hasn't happened since 1979 under then-Gov. Bill Clements.

TxDOT Flunking : At almost every turn on transportation, legislators requested a report.
  • First came a report in December from the Texas Transportation Institute, concluding that Texas could fund its road needs without toll roads.
  • Next came a 73-page audit of the Trans-Texas Corridor, which sparked a number of stormy meetings between committees in both chambers and Texas Department of Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson.
  • More recently, another auditor's report dramatically questioned TxDOT's calculations of its estimated $86 billion funding gap.
Overall, just as legislators anticipated, TxDOT made a poor showing in each of the reports – although the question remains whether the subsequent headlines will significantly affect policy.

Close to Home: Austin Sen. Kirk Watson carried three bills that dealt with how local municipalities along the State Highway 130 corridor will manage development. Senate Bill 1688, creating an infrastructure district for Austin to pay for utilities, passed the Senate and sits in House Transportation. The others were still sitting in the Senate Transportation & Homeland Security Committee as of Wednesday. --Kimberly Reeves

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