Watching paint dry
Fri May 22, 2009 3:15 am

How else to describe the pace of House debate? I can't recall another session when the default option was for both parties to chub every bill. The debate over the unemployment insurance bill was particularly dilatory. Why is this bill even being debated? Rick Perry has drawn his line in the dirt. He is not going to have an epiphany and take the UI money. Either the bill will die in some legislative limbo, or he will veto it. The only purpose debate can serve at this point is to let the Democrats poke a stick in the governor's ribs. Or, should I say, another stick? They seem to have an inexhaustible supply.

Phil King did come up with a clever sunset amendment. At the point in the future that the changes to worker eligibility result in a cost to employers that exceeds the amount of UI money received from the federal government, the law reverts to the law in effect immediately before the UI bill takes effect (which will never happen). This would undo the expansion of eligibility required by the feds and remove Perry's objection to the bill. Alas, it was impaled on a point of order.

The low point of this debate was the Legler amendment: "Each individual who files a claim for benefits or receives benefits under this subtitle must submit to drug testing...." This is just another indication of how far Republicans have strayed from their libertarian roots. There is no justification for this policy. It's just an attempt to curry favor with the far right and maybe ensnare a conscience-stricken member or two into voting against drug testing. The amendment requires the workforce commission to oversee the tests. It does not say who will pay for the drug testing -- the people who lost their jobs and have no money, or the state? If the latter, where does the money come from?

Meanwhile, the paint was drying. There was an amendment to the amendment. Then there was a motion to reconsider the vote by which the amendment was adopted. Then we verified. Then we verified some more. Then Strama moved to postpone the bill.

The postponement allowed the Top Ten Percent bill to be debated. Branch tried to make the point that this isn't just a UT issue, that the day is coming when A&M and UT-Dallas will have freshman classes comprised mostly of students who must be automatically admitted under a law providing automatic admission to students who finish in the the top ten percent of their high school class. To no avail. He ran into heavy opposition from the start, mostly from minority Democrats, but also from members of both parties who represent rural districts. The problem UT faces in changing the law is that its argument is fundamentally elitist -- the university wants to have the freedom to choose the best applicants to improve its national reputation -- and the Legislature is fundamentally anti-elitist. In particular, UT doesn't want to grant automatic admission to white students from rural high schools who may not be prepared to succeed at UT and whose grades may be impressive but whose SAT scores are not. The university does want to admit the best Hispanic and African-American students, but minority legislators remain suspicious about the university's intentions.

One other aspect of the day's deliberations is worth mentioning. In ruling against a point of order regarding a flawed bill analysis -- provisions in the Senate version of a bill were missing from the House version -- Straus found himself in deep water. He said: The bill analysis is a summary analysis which is permitted under the rules. House precedent is clear that a summary analysis is not required to reference each element of the bill and may omit sections or articles and still comply with the rules. The provision at issue was not specifically stated in the bill analysis but is fairly covered by the statements that were made in the analysis. As such, the chair finds that the language at issue in this instance is not materially or substantially misleading and in compliance with the House Rules.

Dutton used parliamentary inquiries to ask Straus what a "summary bill analysis" is and how it differs from an ordinary bill analysis. Dutton insisted that the House rules make no mention of a "summary bill analysis." He implied that Straus was making the distinction to give himself wiggle room to sustain or overrule points of order as he saw fit. The speaker was clearly uncomfortable about Dutton's questions. In the end, he answered that "the chair finds that the language at issue in this instance is not materially or substantially misleading and in compliance with the House Rules." He was well within his rights to make this ruling. But I don't think that he can maintain that there are two types of bill analyses -- summary and regular -- and then exploit that ambiguity to reach whatever ruling he wants to.

On Friday we will see whether the House will beat its own record of passing zero bills on second reading ten days before adjournment. Then Voter I.D. on Saturday, with State Board of Insurance sunset and Windstorm Insurance still awaiting action. Bring plenty of Sherwin Williams along.

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