The Best Show in Town
If the legislators can lay aside their tendency to farce, this session could have some dramatic roles to play.
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In 1866 a New York judge explained a fine legal point by noting that “no man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” Well, citizens, lock your doors, bar your windows, tie down your property: the Texas Legislature will soon be at it again. The framers of the Constitution of 1876, in what is politely referred to as their wisdom, required that this event take place biennially. The legislature now meets every two years for 140 days, although it has been suggested that we’d all be better off if it convened every 140 years for two days.
Despite the levity that often surrounds the Capitol’s hallowed halls, the legislature is serious business. Although it labors in relative obscurity compared to the U.S. Congress, it probably considers more issues that directly affect most Texans. The 1975 session will be no exception; lawmakers face tough decisions on critical issues like education, health care, and environmental quality. They also have to decide what to do with a treasury surplus of more than $1 billion, although education reform alone could wipe that out—leaving nothing for state employee salary increases, mental health facilities, and a thousand other things that need to be done.
In many ways, the biggest issue will be the legislature itself. What will be the fate of the reforms implemented in the House of Representatives two years ago by retiring Speaker Price Daniel, Jr.? Will the apparent victory in the Speaker’s race by West Texas conservative Bill Clayton—who was a committee chairman under Ben Barnes and Gus Mutscher—mean a return to the old ways of doing business? Will all the reform legislation that was passed in the wake of the Sharpstown scandal survive?
Texas Monthly will be watching. And when it’s all over at midnight on June 2, we’ll be prepared to tell you what happened and why, who did good work and who didn’t. Meanwhile, here’s what all the noise will be about between now and then:
You know about energy issues, don’t you? They’re what we used to call environmental issues. The legislature would dearly like to do something about the energy crisis, particularly something that would let Texas keep all that lovely oil and gas to itself, but before that can happen, either Texas will have to secede or someone will have to repeal the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Neither alternative seems very likely just now, so legislators will have to be content with more modest proposals.
One issue certain to arise is compulsory unitization, one of those complex intra-fraternity arguments that big oil companies always seem to be having with independent operators. The majors want to force small leaseholders in a field to participate in secondary recovery operations which would increase production. The independents don’t like the idea. This will be a rematch; two years ago the independents killed the bill, winning an upset victory by producing the best lobbyist you can have: a member of the Senate. His name is Peyton McKnight, an independent oil operator from Flint, and he’s back. McKnight may find that this is the wrong year to tangle with the oil companies.
So may environmentalists, although for them there has not yet been a right year. The legislature may have to decide what to do about a super-port: the oil companies want to build one offshore without state help or interference. Environmentalists are concerned about offshore oil leaks; they are even more concerned by ports like Galveston and Corpus Christi, both of which want an inland terminal despite the environmental risks. Another proposal facing an uncertain fate is one which would force companies responsible for oil spills to pay for damage to fish, wildlife, and wildlife habitat. Plans to regulate power plant siting, ocean dumping, and strip mining will also run up against the energy lobby.
When last summer’s constitutional convention mercifully ran out of time three votes short of agreement, it was in serious danger of accomplishing the impossible: proposing a new state constitution even worse than the present one. The major virtue of the new constitution was its greatly-reduced length; most other positive proposals had long since been emasculated by one pressure group or another.
The perpetrators of that near-feat, you will recall, were none other than the members of the Texas Legislature. After spending six months and $3.5 million in a futile effort to produce a revised constitution, the legislature finally realized what everyone else had known all along: professional politicians who can’t see beyond the next election have no business writing a constitution that may be around for a hundred years. Unfortunately, it is now beyond the next election, and the lessons of last summer have been forgotten.
A few legislators favor resurrecting the compromise proposal which died in the final hour of the convention, although none of them can find much good to say about the package. Other legislators can be counted upon to offer their own pet versions, and still others will carve individual proposals out of the proposed constitution and offer them as amendments to the present one—as if 212 amendments weren’t already enough. Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, who had nothing to do with the convention, favors the course everyone favored last summer—a citizen’s convention. One much-discussed version of a citizen’s convention includes three or five delegates elected from each of the 31 senatorial districts; elected politicians ineligible. None of the citizen’s convention plans may get very far: the legislature doesn’t trust the people. The feeling is mutual.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand this. No one else does either. One school finance expert guesses that no more than ten people in the state really understand this incredibly byzantine issue—and that, he says, may be giving three or four of them more credit than they deserve.
This is the problem: picture a hypothetical school district named Alphaville. The district includes many industries and even some oil producing land. The property tax rate is low, but because the property is so valuable, tax revenues are high. The district offers teacher salaries far above the state minimum. The school buildings are air-conditioned and carpeted. All in all, a pleasant place to get an education.
A nearby district, Betaville, is not so fortunate. There are no industries or oil wells. There are only unpretentious houses. The tax rate is painfully high, but because the property is worth so little, tax revenues are low. Teacher salaries are at the state minimum. The school buildings are old and unsafe.
Obviously a child is better off if he or she goes to school in Alphaville. Yet, the State of Texas gives as much—or more—state educational aid to Alphaville as to Betaville. What’s more, the citizens of Alphaville can supplement that state aid far more easily than the overburdened taxpayers of Betaville.
School finance reform is an effort to equalize educational opportunity between rich and poor districts. Everyone agrees that the current system is hopeless, and at least eight plans have been put forward to redress the imbalances which exist. The teachers have their plan; the Texas Education Agency has its plan; the Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations has a plan; even the governor’s office has a plan, which is rare indeed. Prepared by Richard Hooker, a refugee from the Texas Association of School Boards, the governor’s plan would eliminate most of the inequities in the present system. But the Hooker approach has received a lukewarm reception from the educational establishment, which includes everything from the Texas State Teachers Association to the Parent-Teachers Association, as well as the state education agency. Education groups fear Hooker’s distribution scheme, which eliminates state-guaranteed teacher positions and salary scales and instead substitutes bloc grants to school districts based on the needs of pupils rather than teachers.
Even if the details of school finance reform can be worked out, there remains the matter of teacher salary increases. At first, teachers were willing to settle for raising their salaries to the national average. Now they want salaries at $500 above the national average, which would cost more than $1 billion and guarantee a tax bill in 1977. Some teachers are asking for a $10,000 starting salary, and that would necessitate that legislative bête noir, a personal income tax. School finance may be complicated, but this is one aspect that even the legislature can understand.
Point One: Texas is the only state which does not regulate public utilities.
Point Two: Texas utility companies have been accused of some pretty shady dealings recently.
A number of legislators are suggesting that these two points are more than casually related. As a result, public utilities regulation—long a major legislative issue—for the first time appears not only possible, but likely. If it happens, the companies have no one to blame but themselves. First, Coastal States Gas brought the energy crisis home to Texas by curtailing natural gas deliveries to more than four million Texans (while continuing to report record earnings). Then Southwestern Bell was hit with a $29 million lawsuit alleging among other things that the company maintains secret slush funds to buy off politicians. This is not a good year for a legislator to vote against utilities regulation.
In fact, the move for regulation is gathering such momentum that the real fight may be over how, rather than whether, to regulate. Proponents of regulation, like Garland Senator Ron Clower, want to prohibit members of a utilities regulatory commission from having any dealings with utility companies. No former employee of a utility company could serve on the commission. Commissioners would not be able to own utility stock, nor could they receive gifts of more than $100 from utility companies. This is, to put it mildly, a departure from the traditional approach to regulation in Texas, which usually consists of putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse. And the Number One fox these days is the Railroad Commission, which among its other responsibilities is supposed to regulate gas utilities. Clower wants to take Coastal States and other gas companies away from the Railroad Commission and put them under the utilities commission; but the gas utilities want to stay right where they are.
Dolph Briscoe is concerned about illegal wiretapping. His solution: make it legal.
Briscoe turned to the Southern Governors’ Conference last summer for support; Southern governors, he reasoned, do not exactly have reputations as bleeding hearts and coddlers of criminals. The vote on Briscoe’s resolution was 11-2. Against.
Undaunted, the governor has declared his intention to submit his proposal for legalized wiretapping to the legislature, which he hopes will receive it more favorably. He may be in for yet another disappointment. A number of legislators, alarmed by reports that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) has been conducting extensive surveillance of ordinary citizens, are preparing for a major battle over the right to privacy.
Directly in the path of Briscoe’s wiretapping plan is the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, which has some ideas of its own. The committee has been studying invasions of privacy for the past eighteen months, and committee chairman A. R. Schwartz of Galveston plans to introduce legislation which would allow citizens to inspect their files and purge them of inaccurate information collected by the DPS. Another influential committee member, Oscar Mauzy of Dallas, is enraged by heavy-handed tactics used by state intelligence officers, and wants to restrict intelligence-gathering activities.
The Jurisprudence Committee will be the graveyard for Briscoe’s wiretapping scheme, but the governor may get the last laugh: even if the legislature passes a bill to protect privacy—which is far from certain—the bill needs Briscoe’s signature before it can become law.