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Altered State

The joys of Oklahoma tourism aside, what we learned this legislative session is that Texas politics will never be the same again.

By July 2003Comments

EVERY LEGISLATIVE SESSION IS DIFFERENT; every legislative session is the same. I have seen . . . oh, my goodness, can it really be twenty of them? T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons. I count mine in points of order and sine dies. Governors come and governors go, but the rites of every-other-spring endure. Schoolchildren file in and out of the gallery. Lobbyists huddle outside the House and Senate chambers, cell phones sprouting from their ears. Grassroots groups arrive by the busload from South Texas, clad in matching T-shirts with slogans like “Save Our Schools.” On the front steps of the Capitol, demonstrators rally to their causes: Stop abortions! Stop executions!

More difficult to observe but just as obvious to participants is the shift in the mass psychology of the Capitol, from relaxed to urgent to frantic, as the time remaining in the 140-day session squeezes down from weeks to days to hours. Tempers flare. Threats fly. Skulduggery and mischief are afoot. Desperate lobbyists and lawmakers maneuver in dark corners and secret passageways to resuscitate their dead bills. This is the point in the session when the old-timers appear in the gallery—former members and long-retired lobbyists and staffers, soaking up the atmosphere and reliving old times. One night a man introduced himself to me as Jimmy Turman. I recognized the name: Speaker of the House, 1961.

But the commonalities shared by the Seventy-eighth Legislature and those that came before are not nearly as significant as the differences. The Legislature validated the election results of November 2002: This was the first session of the Republican era in Texas, and no one who lived through it will ever forget it. For 130 years Republicans had been slaves in the land of Egypt, and now they were masters; for Democrats, the roles were reversed. There was no way that the transition could be smooth, and it wasn’t. The heroes, the villains, the accomplishments, and the failures of the session are chronicled in “The Best and the Worst Legislators.” We have compiled such a list for sixteen consecutive sessions dating back to 1973, our initial year of publication. Yet to focus on the present session alone would miss the full import of the Seventy-eighth: It represents a tectonic shift in the underlying assumptions of Texas politics. Here’s what the immediate future looks like.

The governor’s power will increase at the expense of the Legislature’s. In 1874 an armed band of Democrats, led by future U.S. senator Richard Coke, marched up to the old Capitol, bent on deposing Republican governor, Edmund J. Davis, and ending Reconstruction. Davis was reviled for his expansion of executive power, most notably the establishment of a state police force. He barricaded himself in his office, hoping to be rescued by federal troops, but when President Ulysses S. Grant declined to intervene, Davis fled and Texas became a Democratic state. Two years later it adopted the present state constitution, which provided for a weak governor and a strong legislature. Well, you just can’t take your eyes off those Republicans for a minute. Or 130 years. Here they are, back in power, and what’s the first thing they do? Expand the power of the executive.

The willingness of the Seventy-eighth Legislature to surrender power to the governor was the most striking, and perhaps the farthest-reaching, development of the session. Rick Perry’s staff was deeply involved in the crafting of the final budget for the first time; as recently as two years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the Legislature to surrender even a scintilla of its power of the purse. A sweeping reorganization of health and human services agencies will be overseen by a single commissioner appointed by the governor. The state department of transportation will enjoy greatly enhanced powers, namely the authority to issue its own bonds for new construction. Perry asked for a $295 million “Texas Enterprise Fund” to be used for economic development, and despite resistance from Senate budget writers and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, he got every penny. That is a huge pot of money, especially in a session that faced a $9.9 billion budget deficit. Only the last-minute demise of a hastily thrown together government reorganization bill prevented still more power from flowing away from the Legislature to the executive, but already there is talk of a special session on government reorganization.

Is it time for Texas to move toward a cabinet form of government? I’m not sold on the idea myself. Concentrations of power worry me; I believe in the wisdom of checks and balances. But one thing we should agree on: The transformation of the governor from symbolic leader to CEO of state government ought not be done in piecemeal fashion, without public input. Perry should appoint a citizen-led panel to consider the issue. I have just the name for it: the Edmund J. Davis Memorial Committee.

Democrats are irrelevant—for now. Republicans hold an 88­62 edge in the House, a shift of sixteen seats from the 78­72 edge Democrats enjoyed two years ago. They needed Democratic help on only one issue all session, and that was a constitutional amendment—which requires one hundred votes—to place a ceiling on noneconomic damages (for, say, pain and suffering) in personal-injury lawsuits. All of the major bills were carried by Republicans or, occasionally, one of the handful of Hispanic and black Democrats who joined Speaker Tom Craddick’s team. The remaining fifty or so D’s fought hard, spoke eloquently, and frequently won the rhetorical battle but to no substantive effect. Next session, Democrats are likely to have even fewer seats, as disgusted veterans leave and Republicans challenge rural, white Democrats who went to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to block congressional redistricting. The Democrats’ sole consolation is that demographic change will sooner or later restore them to power—and right now, later looks more likely than sooner.

Democrats had a greater role in the Senate, despite being outnumbered 19­12, thanks to longstanding practices that allow a third of the senators to block legislation. Republicans could usually count on a couple of Democrats to defect, but they chose instead to negotiate behind the scenes and maintain the Senate’s tradition of collegiality in public. As a result, Democrats did have some impact on the budget and on consumer bills involving insurance and disputes between homebuilders and buyers. The one-third rule is the last vestige of Democratic strength in all of state government; it survives not because Republican senators get goose bumps over bipartisanship but because it empowers all senators.

We’re going to have to get used to being fiftieth. No issue so divides Republicans and Democrats as their differing perceptions of the state budget. Texas is, and always has been, a low-tax, low-service state. Little room exists for frills in a budget that allocates 83 percent of the money to the basic services of education, health care, and law enforcement. Democrats cite those familiar, oh-so-embarrassing statistics showing that Texas ranks near the bottom of states in per capita spending. But Republicans aren’t embarrassed. The hard-line viewpoint was expressed by Perry in his inaugural address: “Much has been made of our so-called revenue shortfall, but that is a term that resonates only in Austin, where even $100 billion budgets are called insufficient.” That’s because they are insufficient: The final spending level adopted by the GOP-controlled Legislature for 2004­2005 is $117 billion, about the same as the current two-year budget.

The Republicans took over believing that they could save a lot of money just by looking at the budget with a fresh eye. They found some efficiencies that the Democrats had overlooked—for example, by requiring Medicaid patients to buy drugs from pharmaceutical companies that offer the state a rebate for buying in bulk. But you can’t fill a $9.9 billion budget hole with efficiencies. In the end, Republicans balanced the budget with across-the-board budget cuts, with some luck (a $1.2 billion infusion from the feds), with some hocus-pocus (deferring some payments into the next budget cycle), and with some additional revenue from the few (lottery players, college students who pay state tuition, state employees and retired teachers who pay for health insurance, bad drivers who get ticketed, and some Medicaid recipients) rather than from the many (taxpayers). For all their talk about cutting the fat, the Republicans did little to prove that their view of the budget was correct.

Republican unity is a myth. When I first came to the Capitol, all the battles were between Democrats: conservatives versus liberals. For the past quarter century, the battles have been between Democrats and Republicans. Starting with this session, the battles that matter will pit Republican against Republican. The first one featured Perry and Craddick aligned against Dewhurst, and it revealed the fault line of GOP politics: ideological leadership on one side, practical leadership on the other. Perry and Craddick believed that they had been elected to undertake a mission of reshaping and downsizing state government, and if it took confrontational, Washington-style politics to get there, so be it. They are President George W. Bush Republicans, not Governor George W. Bush Republicans. Dewhurst believed that he had been elected to see that the state continued to meet its obligations to all its citizens. Perry and Craddick and the House Republican majority moved in lockstep. They wanted to rule. Dewhurst took a more bipartisan path. He wanted to govern. That is the substantive and stylistic confrontation that will engulf the Republican party for the next twenty years.

Every legislative session is the same; every legislative session is different. Schoolchildren file into the gallery. Cell phones sprout from the lobbyists’ ears. Grassroots groups arrive by the busloads. But after the Seventy-eighth Legislature, Texas politics will never be the same again.

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