Thursday was to have been Teacher Appreciation Day in the Legislature under House Republican plans to bring up HB 400 to make it easier for school districts to furlough or fire teachers, while giving those who remain employed the opportunity to teach more children in larger classes. Only a House deadline postponed the love. Tuesday was Welcome to America and Mother’s Day as the House Republicans approved Gov. Rick Perry’s emergency “sanctuary city” bill and sent the governor the informed consent bill that requires women to have a sonogram before they can terminate a pregnancy. Monday was Texans for Lawsuit Reform Day as the House approved “loser pay” on a party line vote. It’s all been part of Texas Partisanship Week in the Legislature. Whatever policy merit these pieces of legislation may have had, they also had major political benefits for the Republicans. Let’s start with the teachers. Texas teachers lack collective bargaining rights, but two of the four teacher groups – Texas AFT and Texas State Teachers Association – are affiliated with national labor unions fighting against Republican efforts to break public unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey. Texas teachers don’t donate a lot of money, but they do give manpower to Democratic candidates, and Democrats are hoping the state budget debate goes into special session so that teachers can flood the Capitol as citizen lobbyists once school is out for the summer. House Republicans proposed HB 400 in the name of helping school districts balance their budgets, but it also would have diminished the organizational ability of some traditionally Democratic constituency groups. Teacher groups, with the help of Democratic lawmakers, had won delays of the bill three times in recent weeks. In one of the few Democratic victories of the past week, sponsor Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands) postponed debate on the bill Thursday so it wouldn’t kill the rest of the calendar on the House bill deadline day. Technically HB 400 is dead. It still may return as an amendment to a Senate bill. “Loser pay” was a campaign finance bill. The tort reforms of 2003 included a “loser pay” provision, and this legislation just made it more expensive. But if it passes, trial lawyers will have more difficulty finding clients and getting them to file suit. Reduce trial lawyer income and you reduce campaign contributions to Democrats. One of the Democrats biggest financial sugar daddies in 2008 was the late Dallas trial lawyer Fred Baron, who made a personal fortune in asbestos lawsuit cases. The latest Democratic financier family was Texas Trial Lawyers Association President Steve Mostyn and his wife, Amber, who donated $9.6 million in 2010, according to Texans for Public Justice, while TLR gave almost $6 million, mostly to Republican candidates. Strangle the money and you strangle the political machine. The sonogram and sanctuary city bills were red meat for the Republican base. I won’t belabor the sonogram anti-abortion bill because it was illegal immigration that was center stage this week. Anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric appeals to the Republican sense of law and order and for the cultural warriors it answers fears that the current wave of Hispanic immigrants, rather than being assimilated by Anglo American culture, are actually assimilating Anglos into a Latin-American culture. House Republicans pushed through a bill would prohibit local governments from halting law enforcement officers from asking people for their immigration status. As Paul Burka noted, the House also rejected an effort to remove public schools from the legislation. The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education sent out a letter on May 6 to the states warning of the possibility of federal lawsuits and lost federal funds if school districts violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and U.S. Supreme Court decisions requiring states to educate resident children regardless of immigration status. The letter said federal law would be violated by any attendance policy that “may chill or discourage the participation, or lead to the exclusion, of students based on their or their parents’ or guardians’ actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status.” Ultimately, Texas House Democrats, because of their numbers, were ineffective in influencing the state debate this past week. They could snarl and delay, but they got run over just like the Republicans did by the Democratic majority when I first started covering the Legislature in 1983. However, the Texas House Democrats, with personal stories and tearful testimonials, portrayed the sanctuary city legislation as racist. San Antonio Democrat Joaquin Castro called it the “ugly face of the Republican party.” Numerous surveys have shown a majority of Hispanics are concerned about illegal immigration, but they turn against Republicans on the issue if they believe it is about race. “There is no more moderate Republican party in Texas. It is a party dominated by the right wing. There is no middle left,” Castro said. That led me to ponder the question of whether the Republican party of Texas has moved so far right that moderates might flee it just as they had the liberalism of the Democratic party in the 1980s and ‘90s. So I decided to ask some of the men who oversaw the transition of Texas from Democratic to Republican. Tom Pauken, who was state GOP chairman from 1994-97, told me a major difference is there were clearly defined liberal and conservative wings in the one-party-state Democratic party. He said the Republicans now have moderates, fiscal conservatives, Evangelicals and libertarians, who sometimes pull in different directions. Pauken said the party needs a Ronald Reagan-type figure to bring the factions together. “You’ve got a tremendous amount of factionalism,” Pauken said. “You’ve got all these voices out there claiming to speak for conservatives, and there is just confusion as to what a conservative is.” George Strake was state chairman from 1983-1988. He also lamented the lack of a Reagan-like figure to lead the party nationally, but he said the Tea Party movement was one of the best things to happen to Republicans in years. “I don’t think politics is the art of compromise. I think politics is about standing for something and getting 51 percent of the people to go along with you.” Strake said he has no fear of moderates leaving the party because he said he believes Obama’s liberalism galvanizes voters to the point where they are afraid of what he would do with a second term. “The fear factor is higher than I’ve ever seen it, and by that I mean a fear of him.” Ernest Angelo of Midland was a co-chairman of Reagan’s 1976 campaign for president against incumbent Gerald Ford. Angelo told me he has no problem with the Republicans running over the Democrats in the House. “I’m a strong believer in partisanship,” Angelo said. If moderates pay attention to the issues, he said, they eventually pick sides. Much of the Republican legislative agenda is about keeping Democrats pinned to the mat, but there also was evidence this week that told me the more moderate business Republicans have not yet vanished. Early in the session, reporters and lobbyists talked about the “adult” Republicans protecting the state budget in the face of a $27 billion shortfall. It quickly became obvious that was not the case. The GOP Tea Party freshman and the long-time party conservatives would be the tail that wagged the dog. The House passed a current revenue budget. Then the Senate caved in on not using the rainy day fund. But when Speaker Joe Straus and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst named their conference committee, it was mostly “adult” Republicans with none from the Tea Party crowd in evidence. Then yesterday, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) admitted the budget is written to fund public schools through February 2013 and nursing homes through March of that year, but only if fiscal matters bills pass next week. It’s a budget that balances with the threat of a government shutdown if the next Legislature does not pass an emergency spending bill of about $13 billion as soon as it convenes in January 2013. It’s a budget that pushes possible tax increases to past next year’s primaries. The hard right may be in charge now, but the “adults” who represent Texas business apparently are hoping things change after the next election. And seeds also are planted on hot button issues like immigration. Business Republicans generally want immigration reform for the workforce. Senator Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) spoke for this wing of the GOP this week when freshman Senator Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) tried to strip in-state college tuition from about 16,000 undocumented immigrant children. Duncan noted the Texas version of the Dream Act was passed unanimously by Republicans and Democrats in 2003, and the law represented an investment in the future of Texas children. “This amendment doesn’t solve any problem,” Duncan told Birdwell. “It’s symbolic, and it’s not a symbol we would be proud of.” The Republican right has proved it has the power to do what it wants in this legislative session and probably without retribution from voters next year. That is unlikely to last, however, if they keep pushing away business conservatives and Hispanics. By R.G. RATCLIFFE
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