Debbie Riddle responds
Mon June 8, 2009 11:12 am

The following is a release from Representative Debbie Riddle, concerning her appearance on the Ten Worst list. I will reserve my remarks until the end. Some responses have been updated with clarifying information.

Dear Mr. Burka,

Being named one of your Ten Worst Legislators has become a perennial cornerstone of my reelection campaign, but I prefer to receive this honor on my own merits and not as a result of shabby research and irresponsible reporting on the part of you and your staff. I would appreciate it if you would give me a chance to correct several errors you made in your story.

To begin, I think it is well documented that the now infamous “Pit of Hell” monologue I delivered to the El Paso Times in 2003 was never a comment on the concept of free public education for citizens and legal residents, although the insistent prejudice of columnists like yourself who parrot rumors and innuendo rather than unbiased fact has certainly established it as such. Rather, that quote was a reaction to testimony from the Texas Department of Health regarding the cost of health care along the border as the result of illegal immigration. The comment was clearly applied only to those who were here illegally.

That same session, in order to combat soaring costs to his local school districts, an El Paso representative filed legislation to deal with the fact that Mexican citizens were sending their children across the border every day to attend public schools in Texas. I do not recall your magazine placing him on the worst list then or even six years later. I also do not recall your magazine ever running an additional quote from me that was part of the same story in the Times:

"In a perfect world, I think it would be wonderful to open our doors to any and all, young and old, for health care. But this isn't a perfect world. We have got to decide if we are going to just open our borders for any and all that come through for health care, education, and services.”

Proper context is always difficult to achieve more than a half-decade after the fact. In the future, you might consider evaluating legislators based on things they said and did in their most recent session rather than relying on a spotty long-term memory.

On second thought, given the fact that you were unable to accurately report on the events that took place this session, perhaps your long-term memory is not the issue. One of the reasons you rate me as among the ten worst legislators in the state is because you claim I shifted money from incarceration diversion programs to programs that “weren’t requested, such as $20 million for new cars for the Department of Public Safety.”

If you disagree with the funding decision to give DPS the tools they need to do their job, that is a legitimate political viewpoint. However, there are two major errors in your claim.

First, the funds for the cars were not shifted away from any program. The money my subcommittee spent on this item was a one-time expense from freed-up general revenue as a result of the federal stimulus money. It was one of the last things we funded, and even then only after we fully funded the diversion programs (the same ones you claim I shortchanged) at the levels they were appropriated last session. However, the more glaring error on your part is that those black-and-whites actually were requested by the DPS. In fact, it was one of their top exceptional items, and they backed this up in public testimony on more than one occasion.

That leaves just two issues outstanding, one of which was my criticism of the journalist shield law. I cannot imagine why you, a member of the media, would be in favor of a measure that gives you a privilege that exceeds the privilege for attorneys, doctors, clergy, and spouses. All kidding aside, I expect the “giggling” of my colleagues regarding the shield law and the Pope was due to the absurdity of the fact that we would afford journalists more protection than we would his Holiness. Giggles or no, it is now a law in Texas.

Finally, I am once again one of the Ten Worst Legislators in Texas because my vision is no longer sharp enough to differentiate between two colleagues who are consistently mistaken for one another from more than 100 feet away. I take it from this pettiness that you have no physical attributes yourself anyone has ever taken advantage of. I will make a mental note to myself in the future that eyesight is now synonymous with legislative ability.

You and your colleagues should be congratulated for your magazine’s success and what it has accomplished as an entertainment periodical. If you wish to claim that you are true journalists, however, I suggest you consider holding yourself to the same standards of excellence to which you claim you hold the legislature. Partisanship and mean-spiritedness are two criterions you have always claimed to weigh against lawmakers. You might add “hypocrisy” to the list as well, if the irony is not too much to overcome.

Sincerely,

[My comments appear below]

Representative Riddle is correct that her comment in 2003 involved a hearing in El Paso that dealt with primarily with public health issues and her concern about providing services to noncitizens. [Readers may refer to a Wikipedia entry on Riddle and the quote that links to an El Paso Times story.] However, in her actual quote -- "Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever?" -- "education" comes ahead of health care, which is why I thought it was more appropriate to use "public schools" than "health care." We actually had a lively discussion about this on the night that we finished work on the story.

The $20 million for new cars were requested by DPS as an "exceptional item" -- that is, a budget request outside of recurring expenditures. The request for the cars was #11 on the list of exceptional items, not even a top-ten priority. Does DPS need new cars? Of course. Are new cars more important than addressing an overcrowding crisis through innovative programs to reduce the prison population? When I interviewed Jerry Madden, he said, "I didn't see what they were going to be able to use [the full $20 million] for. I think that diversionary programs are far more critical than a lot of new cars." Sylvester Turner pointed out in debate that her subcommittee gave DPS $60 million more than LBB recommended.

Regarding her confusion over the representatives, I think in retrospect that I should not have written about it. It doesn't pass the "Would your mother have approved?" test. I have trouble picking out faces in the weird glare of the House chamber myself. But it did happen and it is characteristic. What I feel personally is different from what I feel professionally.

Concerning the shield law and her "more rights than the pope" quote, Representative Riddle says, "I cannot imagine why you, a member of the media, would be in favor of a measure that gives you a privilege that exceeds the privilege for attorneys, doctors, clergy, and spouses." I realize that she is being ironic, but the fact is, I couldn't have cared less whether the shield law passed or not. I didn't follow the bill's progress at all.

In any event, members do not get on the Ten Worst list because they say something silly or have trouble identifying their colleagues. These anecdotes are descriptive material used to flesh out the pesonalities involved. Members get on the Ten Worst list because they do public harm. Debbie Riddle writes that the DPS cars were funded "only after we fully funded the diversion programs (the same ones you claim I shortchanged) at the levels they were appropriated last session." But fully funding them at the same level as last session was not the same as fully funding them at the level TDCJ requested.

The Legislature's best minds on criminal justice--Sylvester Turner, Jerry Madden, Jim McReynolds, and John Whitmire--have worked very hard to establish programs in the prisons that are designed to reduce recidivism and alleviate the necessity for building yet more prisons. Turner explained that TDCJ releases 70,000 inmates a year, and these programs are aimed at helping these inmates with reentry to life on the outside. They range from substance abuse treatment to adjustments such as job counseling. I interviewed both Madden and Turner about this. Both said that these re-entry programs are the best tool we have to reduce recidivism, and that they appear to be working.

Turner offered an amendment to move money from information resources--he said that Riddle had given TDCJ $12 million more than the LBB recommended in this area--to re-entry programs. TDCJ had specifically asked for it, he said. [Readers may view the tape on the Appropriations debate for amendment 119.] Madden supported him. Riddle moved to table. The House rarely votes against a subcommittee chair in such instances, but the motion to table failed with 57 ayes and 78 nos, and the funding to the programs was restored. Another Turner amendment took away $15 million of the $20 million for DPS cars and shifted it to the diversionary programs backed by Turner and Madden. Riddle wanted to move the $15 million to a wish list, where it was likely to die, and keep full funding for the cars. McReynolds, standing behind her at the back microphone, is seen on videotape shaking his head vehemently.

The problem here is that Riddle gave new cars a higher priority than the policy of using reentry programs to avoid building new prisons -- at a cost of $600M per prison. I don't think for a moment that she is malicious. But she is prideful, and that led her to substitute her judgment for the judgment of the best minds in the Legislature on criminal justice issues. The moment that Turner, Madden, and McReynolds were aligned against her, she should have realized that she was on the wrong track and should work with them to fix the problems she had created.

Readers can watch the viodeotape archives for the SB 1 debate, amendments 119-122.

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