Skip to main content

Bombs From the Other Side of the Aisle

At the end of the last legislative session, people were complaining about the ability of the most conservative House members to disrupt that chamber's business. This session, the liberals have been in charge of the grenades, and they have found their own place as a spoiler in a system that historically likes to run on compromise and negotiation. As the Republicans have improved their ability to hold together a bloc of votes, the Democrats have slipped.

At the end of the last legislative session, people were complaining about the ability of the most conservative House members to disrupt that chamber's business. This session, the liberals have been in charge of the grenades, and they have found their own place as a spoiler in a system that historically likes to run on compromise and negotiation. As the Republicans have improved their ability to hold together a bloc of votes, the Democrats have slipped.

The Democrats in the House split several times on major issues at the end of the session, with the liberals peeling away from the rest of their colleagues on parental notification and on taxes, and leading a charge to redistribute some money while rewriting electric utility regulations.

The blame goes in every direction you care to point, but we hear two things more than any others: A handful of powerful Democratic committee chairs who until last session were around to help keep order in the ranks are now gone. And the increasing influence of Republicans on issues is presenting the House with more votes that separate the liberals from the rest of their party. Issues like parental notification, which have always split the Democrats into liberals and conservatives, are making it to the floor of the House for the first time, exposing some fault lines that have always been there.

When parental notification came to the floor of the House for the first time, Democrats presented an amendment that would have added to the list of people a teenager could notify in place of her parents. When it failed, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, called the point of order that killed the bill. Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, quickly pulled the bill back to his committee, cured the point of order and the measure was before the House again within 48 hours.

The handful of Democrats and Republicans who had been trying to get an agreement on the bill came to the floor a second time, with a second deal, and again, the liberal wing peeled off. That's why there were so many amendments and it also explains how Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, could look so nervous before a vote that ended up going so heavily her way.

We've written about Houston Democrat Kevin Bailey's change to the electricity deregulation bill, forcing some of the costs away from residential customers and onto business customers, but it's worth mentioning here as another example.

One Man, One Point of Order

And then there was that pesky tax bill. The bill arrived from the Senate with a clause that unconstitutionally directed the tax benefits to specific communities, a flaw that led to a point of order. That point got the liberals the leverage they needed to make some changes to the bill, and the resulting negotiations went on in a back room for hours. Some changes were made (changes that actually made the bill look more like what Gov. George. W. Bush had proposed in the first place), but the sponsors came back to the floor of the House with a shaky deal.

What made it shaky was Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who had said all along that he just didn't like the business tax bill and wouldn't go along with it for any price. He met privately with Bush. House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, pulled him aside at one point to urge him to get on board. But Turner called the point of order right before the House was going to vote on an amendment that would have fixed the flaw. The tax bill had to be rescued the next day in the Senate.

A side note: The Republicans in the House were so disorganized after a caucus over the tax bill that Democrats were hoping they'd kill the bill, giving the same result with a different set of villains.

The Regular Session in the Rearview Mirror

Way back in December and January, some folks predicted that this session would be remembered for train wrecks over education and taxes, or over utility regulations, or over partisan politics. But most were watching to see what effect a presidential campaign would have on the Texas Legislature.

Now we have the answer: It made it boring.

The huge budget surplus and the absence of a crisis of some kind in state government might have made this a quiet session anyway, but the attention to the political plans of the man in the middle of the Capitol seemed to suck the remaining life out of other matters.

Outside of Gov. George W. Bush's presidential aspirations and gyrations, few issues jumped up to capture the public's imagination during the regular session.

Legislative sessions usually produce something of unexpected popularity or of higher-than-expected interest, like concealed handguns or the lottery. This session won a couple of moments on television, but nothing rose to prominence and stayed there.

Likewise, no particular issue rose to the number one position and stayed there in the way that past struggles with school finance, tort reform, or tax reform have done. That place of prominence was occupied by Bush's "exploratory" presidential campaign.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

The House and the Senate took different approaches to legislation that spent money, and the Senate approach caused some problems in the final days of the session.

House members who wanted to spend money found their bills sent to and stalled in the Appropriations panel, where they were told they'd be considered along with other items on the spending wish list. Senators got a version of the same treatment, but instead of being stalled, some of their bills were passed after the addition of what's been called "the Ratliff amendment."

Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, fixed those bills by saying they would take effect if and only if the money they required was included in the appropriations bill. His intention was to let the legislation keep moving while making sure nobody slithered past him with a budget buster or with a spending plan that was out of the reach of his Senate Finance Committee.

But near the end of the session, after the amendment had been added to more than 60 bills, legislators discovered a flaw: The Ratliff amendment was going to kill some bills that nobody really intended to kill. The keepers of the rules raised questions about whether a bill had to be specifically mentioned in the appropriations act in order to survive, or whether it simply had to have the same subject as a line in the spending bill.

Bills that contained more than one item also came into the spotlight. Suppose a piece of legislation with the amendment attached had two programs in it and that only one of them was mentioned in the appropriations bill. Alternately, they were concerned over the fate of bills that won approval only to have unnoted spending items attached in the final days.

One other unintended consequence that could be of interest to the governor's office: The Ratliff amendment on some pieces of legislation would give Gov. Bush two cracks at a veto. The first would be the normal one, where he could take out his pen and kill a piece of legislation. But he also has the power of a line-item veto in the budget, making it possible to kill a bill with the Ratliff amendment by striking its supporting line from the budget.

At our deadline, with four days left in the session, legislators had worked up a list of bills with the amendment attached and were working on a fix. Among the legislative subjects without the needed mentions in appropriations: low-level radioactive waste, agricultural loans, local public health, defense readjustment zones, and sex offender registration.

The Ultimate Special Interest Group

House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, started the session off by saying he'd like to see some serious campaign finance reform, but by the time they were done, it was apparent that lawmakers in the House and Senate couldn't agree on how to regulate their own behavior during campaigns.

When the issue first came up in January, most people figured that Laney was taking a shot at Republicans who had raised a record amount of money to run against Democrats in their attempt to take control of the House in last year's elections. Everybody settled down for a while and actually looked like they had removed the partisan twang from the issue, but by the end of the session, there was as much Democrat vs. Republican and House vs. Senate rhetoric as there had been at the start.

The House blamed the Senate for messing up a couple of bills that had been massaged to the satisfaction of both political parties, and the Senate blamed the House for sending the bills too late in the session to get fair consideration. At our deadline, one bill was dead. One was alive.

The House was, in fact, slow, largely because of Democratic opposition at the committee level. Once the two bills made it to the Senate -- with just two weeks left -- they were a lot less spicy than what the House had first proposed, but they had been blessed by both the Democrats and Republicans in the House, and by the chairs of the Republican Party of Texas and the Democratic Party of Texas.

The Tale of Two Campaign Reform Bills

One bill -- the survivor -- would require most campaigns to file their contribution and expenditure reports in electronic form, allowing the Texas Ethics Commission to post the reports on the Internet. Republican Lt. Gov. Rick Perry endorsed the electronic filing bill and has said he would like to see campaign finance reports available instantly to voters on the Internet.

When that bill got to the Senate, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, changed it to prevent the ethics agency from immediately putting reports on its Internet site when one of the candidates in a race is slow to file his or her report. The argument was that a candidate who filed on time shouldn't have to disclose until the late opponent filed a report, or at least until a few days or weeks had passed.

But the Ellis amendment has a hole in it; the campaigns will have to file electronically regardless of what their opponents do, and once such reports are filed, they become public records. It's a relatively simple matter for a news organization or anyone else -- from a political campaign to a public interest group -- to pick up a copy of the electronic report and to then post it on a private Internet site.

The second bill died at the stroke of midnight on the Senate's last day to consider new legislation, with senators from both parties complaining that they had not had enough time to consider the bill and the dozen-and-a-half amendments that were proposed. Among other things, the bill would have required candidates to list the occupations of their contributors and would have regulated so-called soft money in state campaigns. It would have forced campaigns to report finances through one committee -- an attempt to end the fairly common practice of setting up several campaign committees for one candidate to make it more difficult to track campaign finances. One amendment that spooked the Democrats would have barred people with service contracts with the state -- say, for instance, trial lawyers hired by the AG to sue tobacco companies -- from contributing to campaigns.

Senators, including Houston Democrats John Whitmire and Mario Gallegos and Waco Republican David Sibley, also questioned why a bill so important to the Speaker didn't get consideration until 10 p.m. on the last night they could consider such business. Some blame should go to Laney and the House for holding the bill until mid-May before giving the Senate its first chance for a close look.

Some should go to Senate sponsor Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Perry, who set the schedule. The electronic filing bill, which passed, came to the Senate at the same time as the campaign reporting bill that died. The two bills were reported out of Shapiro's committee on the same day. But electronic filing made it to the floor of the Senate five days earlier than the campaign reporting bill. It also got considered on the first day that it was eligible; the other sat on the calendar for an extra day.

The Game We're Supposed to Ignore

It would be easier to ignore the presidential race if it wasn't the only story with some running legs, but now that we've brought it up: Gov. George W. Bush won the endorsement of New York Gov. George Pataki, who had been musing about (or at least waiting around while everyone around him mused) a presidential bid of his own.

Bush also edged past the halfway point with Republican members of Congress. More than half of the 222 U.S. Representatives from his party have signed on. Those kinds of endorsements prompted former Vice President Dan Qualye to complain about the Republican establishment's "rush to judgement." The counterpoint to that came from U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, who said the endorsements for Bush amount to "a kick in the gut" to the other candidates.

In the other primary, Vice President Al Gore Jr. has signed up most of the Texas Democrats in Congress. Two of the 17 Democrats were missing from his list: U.S. Reps. Ralph Hall, D-Rockwall, and Charles Stenholm, D-Stamford. Second Lady Tipper Gore was in Austin during the last week of the session for a fundraiser, and stopped to talk to the Texas House. That got a little rise out of some Republicans (and a couple of Democrats who had bills pending). Her appearance wore about an hour off of the clock on the last day that bills could be considered in the House.

Republicans in the Texas House walked into the big debate on the education package with a short list of bills they would stick together on, including two that Bush's aides had said were important to the governor. The first would have changed the formula used for increases in teacher salaries, but was easily defeated. The second would have forced school districts to hold automatic tax rollback elections if their tax rates rose more than four cents (the current rollback rate is eight cents). That vote was much closer; in fact, it led to a verification count where House members were individually asked to confirm their recorded votes. The amendment failed by one vote, and left Republicans fuming at one of their own: Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, a member of the Public Education Committee, voted with other GOP members on the first vote on that amendment, but wasn't on the floor for the final vote.

Medical Milieu, Mostly

We checked, and the regulars from the Texas AFL-CIO were not in the House gallery when it came time to vote on the so-called Doctors' Union bill. That fight, pitting HMOs and business groups on one side against doctors on the other, was one of the most hotly contested intramural feuds of the session. But when it came time to vote -- a vote some never expected, given the placement on the last days' calendar -- the doctors won with a lopsided tally of 119-20. Doctors wanted to be able to bargain in groups to increase their clout in negotiations with health plans. The Texas Association of Health Plans, the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce, and the Texas wing of the National Federation of Independent Business opposed the measure with fax and phone banks (as did the PAC run by Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson), saying it would drive up health care costs.

A kink in a $162 million indigent health care bill got ironed out with a little tobacco money. Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, originally wanted the counties that were getting the money to reimburse University of Texas medical schools for care they had provided to the indigent; state money will be used instead, and the counties and hospital districts are happy again.

We offer the following as proof that you should read conference committee reports instead of simply talking to the legislators involved. We said last week that the Children's Health Insurance Plan, or CHIP, compromise would create a preference for the Texas Healthy Kids program over the public sector or other private sector providers. That ain't exactly so. The decision is up to the state's Health and Human Services Commissioner, who is supposed to "maximize the use of private resources". Rep. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, believes that and a couple of other provisions will tip the scales to Healthy Kids, since that program is already up and running. On the Senate side, there were some fears that that new program isn't ready for the load. Senators led by Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, put in a list of standards that must be met before Healthy Kids can take over the program.

Ideas Whose Time Has Not Yet Come

Supporters of education vouchers -- using public money to pay for private school tuition -- had several openings during the last week, but pulled up each time. Amendments to the $3.8 billion school finance bill were yanked during the debate. Supporters offered various explanations, with some saying vouchers didn't have the votes to pass in the Texas House, and others saying they didn't want to risk the whole education bill on such a controversial issue. Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, made an emotional appeal for a voucher-like amendment to the telecommunications bill, but after baiting several members and failing to light any real arguments, he pulled the amendments down before a vote could be taken. And several amendments to a second education bill -- one that dealt with standardized testing -- were similarly pulled down. With just four days left in the session, the voucher spinners had switched from "There's still time" to "This thing has been dead for three weeks." Lt. Gov. Rick Perry probably came closest to getting a vote on vouchers, but also pulled up, saying one of his senators had flaked on a promise to give the lite guv a shot.

Among the dead bills were a couple that would have changed election law in Texas. One was the judicial selection measure that would have combined the Texas Supreme Court and the state's Court of Criminal Appeals. The last version of that would have created seven judicial districts; two judges would come from each of them. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, says he'll try again next session.

A bill that would have helped clean up voter rolls in the state died on the Senate's last day to hear legislation. Supporters of the bill claimed it would have hurt a Republican consulting firm -- Winning Strategies -- which is known for having a particularly clean list of voters. Cleaning up the public voter registries, the criticism goes, would bring competitors closer to Winning Strategies' level.

Finally, the early death toll includes legislation from the secretary of state's office aimed at cutting the number of elections by limiting the exceptions to the four-per-year rule.

Random Political and Legislative Notes

While Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, was busy making laws, three consultants who helped elect the current lieutenant governor were helping raise money for a Republican who will run against Nixon in the next election cycle. Les Tarrance, a Republican, claims to have raised $102,000 at an event in Montgomery County earlier this month. He's hired Jim Arnold as his campaign manager, David Weeks to handle media and Mike Baselice to do his polling.

Gov. Bush's staff bolsters his comments about Texas air getting cleaner during his term with a couple of numbers from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. Since 1994, they say, industrial emissions are down 10 percent, and since 1995, toxic releases are down 20 percent. They did that after the Sierra Club publicized ozone numbers, also from the TNRCC, that show increases in urban air pollution in Texas, especially during the last two years. They're both right -- based on the numbers they're using. And they're both wrong -- for using only part of the data available. We don't have a decent third-party opinion on it yet, but we're shopping.

Senate staffers ran a pool for the last two weeks of the session, the object of which was to guess how many times Sens. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi, and Steve Ogden, R-College Station, would interrupt a given day's calendar with questions... The loners on the final appropriations bill were Rep. John Shields, R-San Antonio and Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin. Everyone else in both chambers voted Aye... If you've got an Internet hookup and a little time to burn, take a look at this site, where someone's been doctoring movie posters with senators as the butts of the jokes: It features Lt. Gov. Rick Perry as Mike Myers in "Austin Powers: Man of Mystery and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, as Cameron Diaz in "Something about Flo"... We told you about the fight between Republican Reps. Tom Craddick of Midland and George "Buddy" West of Odessa. West killed a budget item for a Midland hospital, questioning the legality, among other things. Now Craddick fires back with a 1982 opinion from the Attorney General. That opinion said a similar budget item was legal. Who was the beneficiary 17 years ago? Odessa, Texas.

Political People and Their Moves

Texas Banking Commissioner Catherine Ghiglieri is leaving that post after seven years to start a consulting business. Her deputy, Randall James, will take the helm, at least temporarily, on July 1... Frederick "Rick" Smith, the chief executive at Community Bank & Trust in Waco, is the new president of the Texas Bankers Association... The State Commission on Judicial Conduct taps Margaret Reeves of San Antonio as its new director, replacing Robert Flowers, who retired after 16 years at the job. Reeves had been regional counsel for the State Bar of Texas... Kathryn Keller, the political director of the pro-voucher group Putting Children First, will be the new director of the non-profit Governor's Business Council, starting June 1... What were we thinking? Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams will indeed run for office in 2002 if he seeks reelection. We had that part right, but this part was left out: Since he's an appointee who hasn't been vetted by voters, he'll also be on the ballot in 2000... Melody Chatelle is opening her own public affairs and lobbying shop. She was an aide to then-Sen. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who is now a congressman, and to former House Speaker Bill Clayton... After two mistrials, federal prosecutors fold their cards, saying they won't seek new trials for Houston City Council members John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough and former member John Peavy Jr... Former Capitol reporter Suzanne Gamboa of the Austin American-Statesman returns reporting after a spell of temporary insanity moved her into the editing ranks... The Austin-based political media consultanting firm of Rindy/Miller expands, hiring Virginia's former secretary of state, Scott Bates, and opening an office in Washington, D.C. They're also changing their name to Rindy Miller Bates... Add Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, to the surprising number of legislators who had heart problems during the session: He is doing fine after a quadruple bypass operation during the final week.

Quotes of the Week

Former Rep. Allen Hightower of Huntsville, on not being stuck in the maelstrom of the closing days of the legislative session: "Yeah, I miss the stress. You can miss hemorrhoids, too. That doesn't mean you're not glad that you don't have them anymore."

Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, contending that an AT&T advertising blitz featuring a woman in front of a stormy sky prompted the Legislature to pass a telephone bill that the company was trying to kill: "I think the lady in the clouds flew into a thunderstorm and got hit by lightning."

Janie Briesemeister of Consumers Union, on the Capitol clout of that other phone company: "Southwestern Bell could pass The Communist Manifesto in the Texas Legislature."

Gov. George W. Bush, telling reporters what he thinks of the designer of an Internet site ( that parodies his own site ( "There's a lot of garbage in politics, and obviously, this guy is a garbage man."

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, on her first session chairing the State Affairs committee: "I need to learn to be more autocratic and I'm working on that. I need to learn to make decisions and stand by them and let my committee members know that it's not necessarily a democracy but a dictatorship, because I think that's the way you need to run a committee."

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, on whether police should stop using race as a basis for identifying potential criminal suspects: "We believe in abolishing racial profiling. Driving while black should not be a crime."

Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, on what he'd have done if Amtrak had not repaid its loans from the state: "I was working on a plan to convert railroad cars into prison beds."

House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, offering his opinion of the outcome of a House session that ended in a mess at midnight: "If I had my druthers, a lot of things would be different in this process."

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, announcing to senators that an end-of-session rumor of the wholesale death-by-retribution of their bills in the House was only a rumor: "Everyone chill."

Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 46, 31 May 1999. Copyright 1999 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

Wait! We need your help.


Explore related story topics