Saturday, May 30, 2009

Oh, the inanity! HB 300 goes down like the Hindenburg

Key GOP senator said Republican leaders aren't leading

HB 300


By Peggy Fikac and Gary Scharrer
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — Tempers flared on the legislative session's last weekend just as they did at its start, with a key GOP senator saying Saturday the session's central theme is “lack of leadership” by top leaders of his own party.

“If you look at this session, you've got two underlying problems: One is simply the lack of leadership in the top offices and the second is the lack of any clear, compelling agenda,” said Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, his anger triggered by the evident demise of a proposal to allow urban areas to raise gasoline taxes and some fees in their areas to pay for local transportation projects.

The proposal was stripped from a compromise bill to overhaul the Texas Department of Transportation, which was among several important measures hanging as the session neared its Monday finale.

Carona said he therefore would work to kill the entire TxDOT overhaul, which faces a final legislative vote. He noted that a filibuster — talking until time runs out in the session — is an option, although he said he wasn't actually threatening one.

Lawmakers also were toiling late Saturday on measures including windstorm insurance reform, an issue that GOP Gov. Rick Perry has said is so important that he could call lawmakers back into special session if they fail to address it.

GOP Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said lawmakers also were working to salvage an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program.

It was part of an effort mounted to save a slew of bills lost when Democrats stalled proceedings in the House to kill GOP-backed voter-identification legislation. Voter ID divided the Senate early this year, when Republicans angered Democrats by changing rules to push through the legislation.

In charging a lack of leadership, Carona referred to Perry's expected tough primary battle to keep his job against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, speculation that Dewhurst may run for U.S. Senate and GOP Speaker Joe Straus's newness as House leader.

“You can determine that perhaps that's because the state's top two leaders are considering their future political ambitions. You might consider that part of it is due to the fact we have a new speaker who has his own troubles,” Carona said. “The bottom line is you can't lead 181 members without strong personalities and a set and significant agenda.”

He particularly said Perry has failed to lead on the issue, saying the governor should have supported the local-option idea since money is running short to meet transportation needs.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said, “The senator is clearly sleep-deprived.”

Perry, who has backed other transportation avenues including toll roads, earlier in the day said of the local-option idea, “I think there are a lot of members of the Legislature that have problems with raising new taxes during a recession.”

Asked about the lack-of-leadership charge, Dewhurst said he tries to support all the senators.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, described the leadership as “fabulous.” House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said Straus has consistently allowed the will of the House to work, and that there wasn't enough House support to pass the local-option tax even though Carona suggested there was.

“There's a lot of members in here who don't want to vote if there isn't the will to do it, because they'll get beat up on the vote one way or the other,” Picket said. “And Carona knows that. Everybody in politics knows that.”

House Republican Caucus Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, disagreed with Carona's leadership assessment.

“We certainly had an agenda but with as close as the breakdown is between Republicans and Democrats (76-74 in the House), you don't get to do everything that you want to do,” Taylor said. “It's pretty simple math.”

For him, the solution is simple: “Give us more Republicans, and we can have more of an agenda.”

A number of San Antonio business organizations supported the local-option election as way of offering voters an opportunity to relieve congestion.

“Our people are suffering physically and financially. Our air is being polluted by the traffic and, financially, people are losing time and money in their cars,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, who helped push the local-option idea for Bexar County.

It often, however, takes more than one session to pass major issues, he said.

“Half of the work is writing policy solutions and the other half is building a coalition to advocate for the cause. We have made progress on both fronts,” Villarreal said.

Carona criticized Pickett and of Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, leader of the Senate negotiating team on TxDOT. Carona accused Hegar of being “unethical and deceitful” and working with House members behind senators' backs to remove the local-option tax.

Hegar said that he had worked with senators and House members, and that Carona had apologized to him. “I think that's a comment just made in haste,” Hegar said.

He said a phase-out of red-light cameras also was removed from the compromise TxDOT bill, although that's something he supports.

Overall, Carona said lawmakers should be addressing issues including water and the environment, but said, “We're talking about some of the most insignificant things, and it's an embarrassment, and candidly from a taxpayer's standpoint, it's a waste of time.”

Soon after he made his remarks, the House easily passed a “states' rights” resolution despite discomfort for some minority members.

“This is not about politics. It's about the principles of self-government,” said Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who believes that Congress should keep its nose out of Texas — especially when it makes states do something without sending the money.

The small but vocal states' rights movement grabbed headlines last month with protest tea parties across the nation. Perry made national headlines when he suggested Texas could secede if it so chose, although he later emphasized he wasn't advocating it.

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