Sunday, May 20, 2007

"We've got to quit simply saluting because they are Republicans."

Texas Legislature's session winds down with agendas squelched

Many promises of GOP majority apparently won't happen this time

May 20, 2007

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — This legislative session has dished out to Texas' top political leaders repeated helpings of defeat and disgruntlement along with a fine dessert of humble pie.

The legislative agendas of Republicans Gov. Rick Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have either been swept away or diminished by recalcitrant lawmakers and explosive, unexpected issues such as the sale of TXU utilities or the scandals of the Texas Youth Commission.

Promises of things such as property tax appraisal reform apparently will not happen before the session ends May 28.

"The Republicans have squandered a majority," said former state GOP Chairman Tom Pauken, who headed Perry's task force on property tax appraisal reform last year. "We could have gotten a lot more done if we'd had strong Republican leadership. We've got to quit simply saluting because they are Republicans."

Perry received a legislative rebuff on building toll roads and selling the state lottery. He also saw his mandate that girls receive the HPV vaccine overturned.

Little has come of Perry's higher education reforms. And if Perry gets his cancer research fund, it will be paid for with $3 billion in debt interest payments that will be carried by Texas taxpayers for the next 20 years.

Three-term House Speaker Craddick began the session with a challenge to his re-election. But as he eased his dictatorial grip to appease his critics, the House became a rudderless ship. The past week began with legislative plots to throw Craddick out of office and ended with one of his top lieutenants challenging his re-election in 2009.

Dewhurst had greater success than the others pushing his priorities through, but critics say his agenda was small and geared more toward an expected 2010 run for governor than what's good for Texas overall. And then last week, he created bipartisan anger among senators with a ham-handed power play that failed to pass a voter identification bill.

Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody said it's too early to declare that Perry has had a bad legislative session.

"On May 29th, we're going to see the governor's agenda has been successful in many different venues," Moody said. "He laid out a wide array of health care initiatives, and many of them, if not all of them, have gained momentum in both chambers: Medicaid reform and a funding pool for the uninsured and nursing initiatives."

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, led the Senate's efforts to overturn Perry's executive order mandating vaccinations for girls against HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that causes most cervical cancers. Nelson said Perry's biggest problem early in the session was not consulting with lawmakers before acting.

She said that resulted in the legislation to overturn him on HPV, fights between lawmakers and Perry's transportation officials and the filing of a bill that would allow the Legislature to come back in brief special sessions for veto overrides. That bill is pending.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio said the legislative leadership and the session got "a tornado of acronyms: HPV, TXU, TYC , TSU."

"It sucked so much energy out of this Legislature and the whole working relationship," Van de Putte said. "We never really regained our timing and motion."

Dewhurst said he believes complaints about the session are misplaced. "From where I sit, the Senate and Legislature is having a good session."

Besides passing his agenda, Dewhurst said, the Legislature responded to the crisis at the TYC and has worked hard on water legislation and a transportation bill that will slow down the building of toll roads until further study.

The lieutenant governor has been pushing a rather simple agenda for this session: protecting children with steroid testing of high school athletes, requirements that school districts have heart defibrillators and passage of Jessica's Law, which would give the death sentence to repeat child rapists.

Royal Masset, former political director of the Republican Party of Texas, said those all may be good issues but they involve small numbers of people and not the greater good of Texas. He said Jessica's Law will not "bear the judgment of history. That was just going for the media."

Freshman Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said Dewhurst has been harmed this session by the appearance of being a 2010 candidate for governor.

"That has impacted our process and colored his decisions on a number of occasions. I can't imagine what 2009 is going to be like," Patrick said.

Dewhurst's biggest blowup occurred last week as he tried to ram a voter identification bill desired by Republicans through the Senate when a Democratic senator was out sick and could not vote to block debate. Dewhurst won on one procedural vote but then permitted a revote that allowed the Democrats to prevail. An angry exchange occurred during the voting.

The next day, Dewhurst's office put out a letter questioning the patriotism of Democrats for voting against the bill and accusing Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, of "gaming the system."

Dewhurst later disavowed the letter. But the original letter angered both Democratic and Republican senators, who saw it as pure politics.

"The Senate certainly wasn't at our best," Van de Putte said. "We're under intense stress and very little sleep and tensions get high."

Dewhurst said he never saw the letter before his staff sent it out. He also blamed the anger from all sides on end-of-session fatigue.

Patrick said if Dewhurst was going to pull a power play on the Democrats he should never have given them the opportunity to block the bill by recounting the vote.

"You don't get a mulligan or a redo on the Senate floor," Patrick said.

The biggest ongoing leadership story of the session has been Craddick's struggle to hold onto power.

Craddick fended off a re-election challenge in January. In an effort to calm ill will toward him, he became a nicer Tom Craddick. This emboldened his opponents and freed some of his allies. The result was that bills carried by his top lieutenants died on the House floor or had major amendments put on them.

The House voted to overturn one of Craddick's parliamentary rulings two weeks ago, leading to rumors of a legislative coup that would unseat him as speaker.

Then last week, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, announced he will run for speaker in 2009 and urged Craddick not to seek re-election. Craddick quickly announced his intentions to run again.

But none of that stopped rumors that an attempt will be made before the session ends to vote Craddick out of office with a motion to vacate the chair.

State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said Craddick hurt himself in past sessions by being too dictatorial. But he said the House has drifted this session as Craddick backed off.

"His style has been to centralize the power with the speaker, not with the team," Hilderbran said.

Craddick declined an interview request. One of his closest allies, State Affairs Chairman David Swinford, R-Dumas, said Craddick has tried to satisfy members by being a "kinder and gentler" leader this session.

Swinford said he does not blame Craddick for some of his heavy-handed tactics of the past. Swinford said cutting a $10 billion budget deficit in 2003 without taxes and then dealing with school finance reform and property tax cuts could not have happened without a strong leader.

Though the politics of the 80th Legislature have had a wicked edge to them, Patrick said there is not much that Republicans will be able to take to voters on the campaign trail next year.

"This has been a tough session for Republicans," Patrick said. "If, at the end of the day, we have the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the majority on both houses and we can't get the legislation passed that the people elected us to pass, that's a real problem."

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