Sine Die: The Aftermath
Tue, 06/02/2009 - 11:01am
After finally (seemingly!) conquering our particularly ill-timed technical problems, we're back just in time to give you a run-down of what did and didn't happen this session -- and what may happen in a special session later this year.
When the 81st session has been one that, as Wayne Slater puts it, has little by which to remember it, it seems fitting that we talk first about what didn't happen this session.
- Voter ID
- Senate Republicans started the session off with voting in an unprecedented rules loophole to consider Voter ID legislation that otherwise could have never come up in the chamber. Considering it's a solution to a problem that doesn't exist (and Republicans have been looking for many years now), this came across as a power play to disenfranchise those for whom it is more difficult to get picture identification -- the elderly, college students, lower-income Texans, and other typically Democratic demographics. House Democrats showed what holding 74 seats in the chamber can accomplish by successfully blocking consideration of the Voter ID bill for the better part of a week.
- CHIP Expansion
Of course, House Republicans had to get their revenge. Democrats stopped their blockade to let a number of important, substantive bills that address real, identifiable issues that affect Texans be considered, and Republicans shot down pretty much every one in what can best be characterized as partisanship thinly covering spite. Chief among these was the CHIP expansion bill that would have provided health care for 80,000 children, partially making up for the 2003 Republican bill that cut 150,000 kids from the rolls. The Texas Senate got back at the House for their voter ID stonewall by killing the CHIP expansion -- and, adding a little insult to injury, the Senate afterward tried to take credit for trying to save it. Rick Casey at the Chron documents their weak attempt to try and fool Texas voters.
- Transportation Omnibus
- In an early (late?) birthday present to McBlogger (who had plenty to say about the issue), HB 300 died the death of many cuts, from Republicans hating the ten-cent "local option" gas tax provision in it, to Republican Sen. John Carona hating that the local option was taken out of the bill, to Democrats generally thinking that allowing nearly every major state highway into a toll road probably wasn't the smartest policy move to begin with. HB 300 was one of two attempts to save TxDOT, which received a scathing review from the Sunset Advisory Commission pointing to a number of fundamental changes that needed to be made for the department to operate effectively. The second was...
- The "Safety Net" Bill
- This bill was thrown in as a last-ditch stopgap at the end of the session to keep a number of agencies, including TxDOT and the Texas Department of Insurance, from having to shut their doors due to the legislation meant to continue them either not reaching the floor or not doing so well when it did (see HB 300 above). This bill didn't make it either -- it did pass the House at the last second, but wasn't taken up by the Senate. Many think this pretty much forces a special session to consider those two agencies in particular. More insiduous minds think that the whole TxDOT debacle was a scheme by Republicans to bring voter ID legislation back into consideration where Democrats couldn't blockade it with the same methods they used before. Seeing as they've proven themselves perfectly willing to bend Senate rules and throw out perfectly good legislation to get this phantom issue considered, I wouldn't put it past them.
- Other Losers
- The Texas Residential Construction Committee was one of those agencies that didn't make it, meaning John Coby got an early birthday present too. The TRCC was famous for being a vehicle for Bob Perry, protecting homebuilders' interests while pretty much completely ignoring homebuyers and their rights, and little else. Another commission recommended for scrapping by the Sunset Advisory Commission, but this one ain't comin' back. (At least, we're pretty sure...)
- The statewide smoking ban actually made it out of the Senate with some bipartisan support (and exemptions for cigar bars, restaurant/bar patios, and nursing homes, all of which were expected), but was one of the many bills not considered by the House.
- And speaking of public health, the needle exchange program also died an ugly death -- this one in the Senate, with the bill's Republican author (and medical doctor), Sen. Bob Deuell, accusing his party cohorts of being right wing extremists.
So what did pass this session, you ask?
- Windstorm Insurance
- The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which provides windstorm insurance to coastal counties that typical insurers won't cover due to risk, saw its funds effectively wiped out last year by hurricanes Ike and Dolly. Some quick bipartisan work gave the association a better financial footing, allowing it to use ten-year bonds to recuperate its losses after a major hurricane.
- Scaling Back the Top Ten Percent Rule
- After some negotiation, the House came up with a compromise bill that allowed the University of Texas to cap its incoming freshman class so that the number of students entering from the Top Ten Percent Rule (which guarantees admission to the Texas public school of their choice to the top ten percent of graduating high school students) to 75% of the class, by first allowing the top 1%, then 2%, and so forth until the cap is reached.
- State School Legislation
- State schools, which are residential and developmental facilities for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities and which have been historically grossly underfunded and mismanaged, leading to a few very unsavory recent appearances in the news and a Department of Justice investigation, are finally getting some attention from the state. (Amazing what a DoJ probe can do!) The $112 million, five-year plan to bring the state schools into compliance with the DoJ probe requirements (which sounds like a lot less when you consider that we're talking about 13 schools and nearly 5,000 residents, but hey, something's something, I guess) is touted to allow for the hiring of 1,000 new staff, as well as installations of security cameras in the facilities and an ombudsman to address complaints with the system. It also renames the facilities to "state supported living centers." (Senator Nelson, if you'll take some advice from a Democrat -- you should've stuck to your guns with the original, more accurate "state developmental centers.")
- Public School Funding
- Public school teachers will be getting a one-time $800 pay raise, and an additional $2 billion will be going to Texas public schools over the next two years. Additionally, third graders no longer have to pass the TAKS test to continue to the next grade, and high school seniors will have more elective hours in their curriculum.
- New Rules for Drivers
- Teenagers won't be allowed to use their cell phone (calling or texting) while driving, and road tests will now be required before they get their license. And if you had a child who was over five years old and exempt from the booster seat requirement, that requirement has now been raised to eight years of age or 4'9" tall.
Of course, many of those still require the governor's signature.
When the majority is set on something -- like killing the CHIP bill -- it's hard to overpower them. But outside of that heartbreak, Democrats had a pretty successful session. The successful Voter ID blockade was downright heroic. And there are plenty of other pet social-conservative bills we haven't even mentioned yet that we would've heard about in past sessions but didn't get a whit of consideration in this one: allowing concealed carry at one's workplace or on college campuses (congratulations to the Texas College Democrats for their lobbying efforts on that one), requirements that doctors providing abortions offer sonograms so that patients could see them, an attempt to ban stem-cell research in the state. For still having a minority in both houses, Democrats came out with more pluses than minuses and emerge as the David to the Republicans' Goliath in fighting back the power grabs and still getting some significant legislation passed.