Three Blind Elephants

See how they run from responsibility? The Republican leadership has blown it—again—on school finance. If only there were consequences.

IF NOTHING ELSE, the second special session was a spectacle. Its only product was embarrassment, unless you count disaster metaphors: train wreck, meltdown, implosion. After two regular sessions and three special sessions, stretching over 32 months, Capitol wags were left to debate which film the school finance saga more nearly resembled: Groundhog Day (lawmakers are condemned to relive the same experiences over and over) or Weekend at Bernie’s (they drag around a corpse—in this case, another dead school finance bill—and act as if it’s alive).

The question raised by this fiasco ought to be familiar by now: Can the Republicans govern? You may be getting tired of reading it, and indeed I am getting tired of asking it. The GOP is firmly entrenched as the state’s majority party. The Democrats have no prospects of regaining control of either house of the Legislature in this decade; they are as likely to lose seats in the near future as gain them. Nor are they likely to win any statewide races in 2006, even against a governor as ineffectual as Rick Perry. So the future of the public schools—the most important element of governing—will be determined by the R’s. We need them to get it right.

And yet it’s been a pretty dreadful effort by Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Speaker Tom Craddick. The governor misjudged the situation entirely. Except in a few school districts, the public isn’t up in arms over property taxes; even in Republican strongholds, they want more money for their schools and their teachers. Dewhurst frittered away the goodwill he’d built up in the Senate during his first legislative session in 2003, and Craddick’s unyielding nature alienated not only Democrats but also an increasing number of Republicans.

These guys couldn’t agree that it’s hot in Houston in August. Craddick doesn’t want to tackle the issue at all until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the current system, probably this fall. Perry wants a minimalist fix that will provide him with political cover in his race for reelection in 2006. Dewhurst, the best motivated but least politically savvy of the trio, wants to be the hero, whether senators like his ideas or not. Midway through the first special session, I thought that Perry’s little fix would prevail and wrote that he deserved credit for trying—and got my comeuppance from the bloggers. House and Senate negotiators actually agreed on a school finance plan, only to have it killed by a filibuster in the Senate in the closing hours—and thank goodness, for it was stuffed with poison pills for the schools. Dewhurst had vowed that he had the votes to pass the compromise bill, but some folks think that the filibuster, by John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, saved the lieutenant governor the embarrassment of seeing the school finance bill get voted down on his watch.

Perry called a new session for the next day, expecting quick approval of the plan that had been stymied by the filibuster. It never happened. Lawmakers who had voted for previous versions of the bill contracted a severe case of buyer’s remorse once it was on the verge of becoming law. The “agreed upon” bill so overwhelmingly benefited a few rich suburban districts (which is where the bulk of GOP votes and campaign cash comes from) at the expense of everybody else that it’s a wonder it got as far as it did. And it included mandates that school officials everywhere hated: a uniform starting date after Labor Day, a November date for school board elections, and strings attached to what little new money was provided.

The only way to pass a bill that benefits the few at the expense of the many and has no support from the education community is by brute force. Both Craddick and Dewhurst turned up the heat on recalcitrant Republicans from poorer areas (older suburbs and the countryside) to get them to vote against their school districts’ interests. It might have worked, except for the filibuster. But in the second special session, with the deadline pressure off and criticism from school officials mounting, resistance to the education bill among Republicans who represented poorer school districts mushroomed to the point of mutiny.

For a lot of Capitol veterans, it was a sweet moment. “Democracy has broken out,” announced one lawmaker-turned-lobbyist. The new Legislature was acting like the old Legislature for the first time under GOP control, asserting its independence against the leadership. The Senate, in particular, had been docile. “When is the Senate going to start acting like the Senate?” everybody had been asking, having heard senators’ tales of how Dewhurst wouldn’t listen to anybody else’s ideas and took signs of independence personally. The back room where Dewhurst put on the pressure became known among senators as “Abu Ghraib.”

The train wreck/meltdown/implosion occurred over a 24-hour period spanning two afternoons in late July. The Senate was scheduled to approve the compromise from the first special session, and Dewhurst told reporters that he had the votes to pass it. But wait! The Senate caucused behind closed doors, breaking every open-meetings rule in the book. They wanted nothing to do with the compromise bill; they were enamored of a substitute “Get out of Dodge” plan: Raise teachers’ salaries, pay for new textbooks that were sitting in warehouses, and give property tax relief with an increased homestead exemption. Forget property tax cuts, forget killing Robin Hood, forget education reforms—let’s get outta here. Dewhurst would have none of it, of course, but he was stalemated. If he got the votes to bring the compromise bill to the floor, senators had the votes to override it with the Get out of Dodge plan.

Meanwhile, it was the House’s turn to try to pass the compromise bill. Right at the start, Craddick made a rare mistake: He allowed one of his henchmen to make a motion to bypass any amendments and force an immediate vote on the bill—the legislative equivalent of a “nuclear option.”

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