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Are “Democrats for Reform” for Real?

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In case you missed it, a group of Democrats led by Sylvester Turner and calling themselves “Democrats for Reform” had a press conference on Tuesday to announce their support for a far-reaching legislative agenda. They had one thing in common: All had supported Tom Craddick for speaker. The media treated this as a ho-hum story. The Chronicle played it as a split in the Democratic caucus. The Dallas Morning News said it was a call for unity over issues. The bloggers gave it little attention.

This is a much bigger story than people recognize. It is a bold move by the Craddick Ds to save themselves from joining Ron Wilson, Glenn Lewis, Al Edwards, and others on the list of Craddick’s former Democratic supporters who have been defeated in primaries by candidates recruited by the anti-Craddick Ds. But it is more than that. It is an attempt to break the hold of the Dunnam-Gallego-Coleman triumvirate on the Democratic caucus. But it is more than that. It is an effort to achieve policy successes for Democratic proposals. In past years, the Craddick Ds were rewarded with plum appointments for their support of Craddick, but they received little in the way of policy concessions. Now they are calling Craddick out. They are saying, You wouldn’t be speaker if it were not for our votes. We stuck out our necks for you, and we expect something more in return than appointments.

But anyone who understands politics knows that this is not a stickup. The Craddick Ds would not have acted without consulting the speaker. We can surmise (and it has been confirmed to me by folks who don’t want their name in print) that Democrats for Reform is the result of ongoing conversations with Craddick and his advisers. Therefore, the fact that Turner’s group went public can only mean that Craddick is on the program and has committed to make tangible policy concessions to DFR.

My hat is off to Turner and the Craddick Ds, a group that I haven’t had a lot of respect for–until now. The reason is that they “sold out” cheap, for status: a gavel for chairing an insignificant committee, a seat on Appropriations which they could parlay into pork. This is different. This time, they are going to get policy changes–and if they don’t, many of them won’t be back, and Craddick won’t be speaker next session. Craddick deserves credit too, although, as announcers like to say, please hold your applause until the end.

Here is the agenda that Turner laid out at the press conference:

Human Services
* Restore full funding of CHIP
* Reform Medicaid eligibility
* Increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for providers
* Provide an adequate personal needs allowance for seniors in nursing homes

Education
* Oppose school vouchers
* Keep the top 10% rule
* Restore the Texas Grants scholarship program
* Repeal tuition deregulation
* Continue public education reform

Criminal Justice
* Provide enhanced border security
* Support alternatives to new prison construction

Environment
* Support full funding of $109 million for state parks
* Increasing funding for the vehicular emissions retrofit program

Electricity
* Create safeguards against higher utility rates
* Restore the System Benefit Fund

Some of these are “born dead.” Craddick was the godfather of tuition deregulation. It is not going to be repealed. But it could be tweaked. The top 10% rule will almost surely be tweaked. Other items, like “public education reform,” are too vague to measure success or failure. Some proposals might not need the support of Turner’s group, such as full funding for state parks. Still, DFR has created a scoreboard against which their performance–and Craddick’s–can be measured.

The appearance of the DFR is one more indication of why politics is endlessly fascinating. Just look at all the things that have happened in the last year: a new business tax, a new school finance system, a bizarre four-way race for governor, a six-seat gain by House Democrats, a speakers’ race to start the session, and now, a gamble taken by the Craddick Ds that could affect the leadership and attitude of the Democratic caucus. Politics isn’t chess. There are no permanent checkmates. There is always–always–another move, and the game goes on.

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