Three Blind Elephants

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

September 2005By Comments

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.” But the parliamentary gambit lost 63—80, with 18 Republicans joining all 62 Democrats in opposition. The first amendment, by Democrat Scott Hochberg, of Houston, was a House version of Get out of Dodge: less property tax relief for rich districts, more money for poor districts. Elvira Reyna, of Mesquite, a Republican committee chair, went to the microphone to ask Kent Grusendorf, the sponsor of the bill, “How can I vote against an amendment that gives my school district twenty-two million more dollars?” With the support of prominent Republicans like Jim Pitts, of Waxahachie, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, the Hochberg amendment won approval by nine votes, gutting the compromise bill. Rather than suffer a series of defeats on upcoming amendments, Grusendorf accepted the rest of them, without debate. Then he joined the House in voting down his own bill.

The vultures were circling now. Next came the tax bill—the governor’s plan to pay for the property tax cuts. Jim Dunnam, of Waco, the chair of the Democratic caucus, spoke against it. No surprise there. But what happened next was stupefying. The Republican sponsor of the tax bill, Jim Keffer, of Eastland, told the House, “I agree with Mr. Dunnam. Show me voting no on House Bill 3.” The Perry plan went down by a vote of 8—124. Carnage! With the session in ruins, Dewhurst got the Senate to pass a face-saving, scaled-down school finance plan, which Craddick kept alive only long enough to take potshots at, then pronounced dead.

Whether the leadership pays a price for its failure to do the number one thing on the GOP agenda remains to be seen. Consequences start at the ballot box, but fortunately for Perry, the personification of his consequences will be running for reelection to the U.S. Senate. The conventional wisdom is that neither Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Perry’s only announced Republican primary opponent, nor John Sharp, the best known of the likely Democratic challengers, can beat him. Nor is it likely that a serious opponent will emerge on the right to challenge Dewhurst and his nine-figure fortune in the Republican primary, though that has been buzzed about. His vulnerability is more likely to be in the Senate. By treating senators as employees instead of colleagues, and by supporting the compromise bill that many of them loathed, he lost a lot of trust and respect, among Republicans as well as Democrats. To be an effective leader of the Senate, he is going to have to behave less like the CEO he was before entering politics and more like a kind and wise old uncle. I’m not sure he has it in him.

Craddick’s situation is the most intriguing. With increasing frequency, 10 to 20 Republicans voted with the Democrats on education issues. There might be as many as 20 to 25 Republicans who, in a secret ballot, would be willing to join the 62 Democrats in replacing Craddick with a new Republican Speaker. But grumbling—and there is plenty of that—is one thing; action is another. The 10 or so D’s who have backed Craddick all along hold chairmanships and other key positions. They have nothing to gain and everything to lose from a change in Speakers, and the apostate R’s would face intense pressure from inside and outside the Capitol to support Craddick.

Still, a challenge to his speakership is something he has to worry about. There are two things he could do. One is to take a more bipartisan approach in the hope of enlarging his coalition. (Note to Craddick: “Bipartisan” doesn’t mean Republicans and Libertarians. It means making nice with Dem—oh, forget it.) The other one, about a jillion times more likely, is for him to back Republican challengers of vulnerable Democrats in swing seats, of which there are at least five or six, while his allies in the Republican establishment try to purge GOP mavericks who voted with the Democrats.

The absence of consequences is terrible for politics. It removes accountability for failure. The answer to the question, Can the Republicans govern? may be yes. But not these three Republicans.

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