Can’t Hardly Wait

We'll name our best and worst legislators next month, but with outrage and excess piling up, it's not too soon to drop a few hints.

June 2003By Comments

ONE DAY DURING A LEGISLATIVE session in the mid-eighties, a freshman lawmaker walked up to me on the House floor. Without bothering to introduce himself, he launched into what was on his mind: “Why do you enjoy being an assassin?” I knew he was referring to the article that I have written every session since 1975 (recently in collaboration with Patricia Kilday Hart), “The Best and the Worst Legislators,” and I was sure he wasn’t talking about the Best list. This turned out to be one of those rare occasions when I didn’t have to realize three hours later what I should have said. “The Worst list isn’t homicides,” I answered. “It’s suicides. I just report them.”

This anecdote comes to mind whenever I see lawmakers engage in self-inflicted harm, which seems to happen with increasing frequency these days. But the Seventy-eighth Legislature has added an unwelcome variation: Lawmakers as a body are heading pell-mell toward the abyss of massive cuts in the two most important areas of the budget: health care and education. And they haven’t done much otherwise to be proud of.

Normally, I withhold my comments about the Legislature until the Best and Worst article appears in the July issue. But to borrow from the title of a 1998 movie that my teenage sons rent all too often: can't hardly wait. The session that is now entering its final days has been filled more than most with ill will between Republicans and Democrats, ego battles among the leadership, and the failure to see beyond one's own political self-interest to a larger public good. Much has been made of the circumstances—Republican dominance for the first time in 130 years and the largest budget shortfall in Texas history—but twenty or thirty years from now, no one will care what crises this Legislature faced. All that will matter is whether lawmakers did the best they could do.

Here are some of the areas in which the Seventy-eighth Legislature has failed to live up to its responsibilities:

Trauma centers. The debate over health care for the poor typically goes like this. Democrats say that the poor should have broad access to health care through programs like CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) and Medicaid. Republicans say that the costs are enormous and look for ways to control them. Democrats say that Republicans have no heart. Republicans say that Democrats have no head. And so on.

In fact, the problem is not who receives health care; it's who provides it. Namely, the hospitals. Under federal law, hospitals must give treatment to anyone who shows up at an emergency room, whether the patient can pay for the services or not. The poor will get their health care, one way or another. But the hospitals won't necessarily get their money. State budget writers have proposed reducing the amount the state reimburses hospitals for Medicaid patients by about 10 percent.

The consequences are dire. Hospitals fortunate enough to be funded through a local taxing district (Parkland in Dallas, for example) will have to raise taxes. Hospitals without a tax base will lose money. A few, particularly in areas with a high percentage of Medicaid patients, may have to close. Santa Rosa, in downtown San Antonio, will be hit with a loss of at least four times its current operating margin. Houston's two public hospitals will find their combined budgets shrunk by 25 percent. These big urban institutions are the only places capable of handling trauma cases that result from serious injury or accident. If one or more has to close or cut services, people will die. The trauma hospitals are asking for state funding to offset the loss of Medicaid reimbursements. But their request has run up against the determination of Governor Rick Perry and Speaker Tom Craddick to make lower spending their top priority.

This is foolish and shortsighted. I'm not arguing for new taxes this session. The entire GOP leadership promised not to raise taxes. Politicians ought to hew to their promises. But Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn have proposed a number of ways of stretching the budget without new taxes (even if they don't like each other's ideas—or each other—very much). The trauma centers should be funded.

Tuition deregulation. The Texas Legislature is one of the great have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too organizations of all time. Nowhere is this trait more evident than in the funding—or lack thereof—of the state's flagship institutions, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. The Legislature has been cutting back on its support for the flagships for years. The solution championed by UT chancellor Mark Yudof is for the Legislature to give universities control of their own tuition. But lawmakers currently have control and don't have to pay for it. That's a mighty fine piece of cake.

The debate over deregulation in the House was one of the low points of the session. (The Senate decided to put off the issue for two years.) Lawmakers spoke piously about ensuring that students will be able to afford to attend UT and A&M—but what kind of education will they get once they are there? What happened to the idea, once widely accepted in the Legislature, that great universities are central to the state's future? They keep our brightest students at home. They import brains and federal research dollars. But today's lawmakers are interested in only three things about the flagships: keeping tuition low so that they don't have to listen to the complaints of their constituents, being able to use their influence to get their kids into UT or A&M, and getting free football tickets.

I have previously written favorably about tuition deregulation in this space, but I would find it equally acceptable for the Legislature to keep control of tuition and fund the flagships adequately. That isn't going to happen. Neither, sad to say, is deregulation.

Ethics. The last time the Legislature overhauled ethics laws was in 1991. At the time, the biggest ethical issue was lifestyle. Lobbyists wined and dined lawmakers at expensive restaurants during the session, and between sessions they hosted lavish hunting and golf excursions, frequently out of state. That was bad; today is worse. The issue isn't lifestyle but livelihood. Texas is supposed to have a citizen legislature, but more and more lawmakers are finding ways to use their positions to make money.

Speaker Craddick, who himself was criticized on ethical grounds during his campaign for the office he now holds, announced his support for an ethics bill early in the session. But when the bill's sponsor, Steve Wolens, a Democrat from Dallas, unveiled his proposals, some of Craddick's strongest supporters came out against it—not publicly, but in the back rooms and dark corners of the House chamber.

If you're one of those people who hate lawyers, you'll love what Wolens wanted to do about potential conflicts of interest or influence-peddling by lawyer-legislators (call them LLs). Wolens, who is himself a lawyer, proposed that LLs who work for a law firm that employs lobbyists should not vote on the measures being lobbied by their firm. Objection! The LLs hated it. Okay, how about just disclosing that you might have a conflict? Objection! That was unacceptable too. Wolens also tried to address a consistent area of abuse over the years, legislative continuances. By law, LLs can ask judges to put their cases on hold during a session, and judges are required to grant the request. Some litigants find it useful to hire LLs simply for the purpose of obtaining a delay. Legislators aren't supposed to charge clients for continuances (which are theoretically for their own benefit), but they often do. Wolens wanted to require them to disclose their continuances. More objections.

Another source of income comes from contracts with local governments. These contracts can involve anything from airport food concessions to collecting delinquent taxes. Legislators are well situated to lobby fiercely for their firms to get these contracts. Again, Wolens wanted these to be disclosed.

It will be a miracle if any of these provisions becomes law. Maybe the ultimate ethics bill is term limits. You can't profit if you aren't in office.

Abortion. Just about everybody has made up his or her mind about abortion, so I'll keep this one short. But not sweet. A bill to require the informed consent of the pregnant woman before an abortion can be performed showed just how polarized the abortion issue is. It would require the physician performing the procedure to inform the woman of a laundry list of medical risks, as well as social services available for single-mothers-to-be (in case she changes her mind, which, of course, is the idea). All of this must be done at least 24 hours before the abortion is performed, so in effect the bill requires a 24-hour waiting period.

I'm pro-choice, with reservations, but listening to the debate, I found myself thinking that the bill was reasonable, with a couple of small fixes. Along came one: an amendment by a Democrat to eliminate the requirement of informed consent (and therefore the waiting period) if the life of the woman is in danger, or in case of rape, incest, or fetal anomaly. The amendment was voted down. Overwhelmingly. Let the woman die. In my private legislature, I changed my vote on the bill to no.

The budget. Dewhurst has been getting most of the good press this session (since he has been providing most of the leadership), and Perry and Craddick don't like it a bit. The lieutenant governor's approach to the budget has been to do the least damage possible to the state's most important programs without raising taxes. Perry and Craddick have been more interested in showing how deeply they can cut—and in attacking Dewhurst's suggestions for ways to minimize the damage of the $10 billion budget shortfall—than in saving education and health care from the ax.

The new Republican leadership has the opportunity to produce a budget that reduces the total spending of tax dollars compared with the previous budget while still doing everything possible to address the state's needs and avoiding a tax increase. If they let egos get in the way . . . well, the Worst list is only a month away.

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