Health care

Let's Make a Deal

Anything could go wrong or go unexpectedly well at this point in a legislative session. It could have been the budget, or insurance, clean air, or a government reorganization bill. The first mess involved the tort reformers, who went down to the wire with their impasse showing.

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Springtime in Austin

Every remaining day of the legislative session is a deadline for something and at the end of Wednesday, May 28, every bill that hasn't won approval in some form in both chambers is dead. The mop-up that follows will reconcile differences in the bills–or not–and it'll all be over a week from Monday, maybe for a while and maybe not.

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What Will You Say When You Get Home?

Imagine you're a House member and the Senate has handed you a chance to vote to cut school property taxes in half, to replace them with a penny-and-a-half addition to the state sales tax and an expansion of that tax to a bunch of stuff that's not taxed now, and to kill the Robin Hood system of finance that's so unpopular with voters. Fast-forward to a town hall meeting after the session. Somebody asks why you didn't fix school finance while you were in Austin. The senator says she voted to kill it and halve property taxes, and then hands the microphone to you.

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Scarce Resources, Abundant Discord

Budgets are unhappy things, even when oodles of money are available: They're designed to put a collar and a leash on spending. It's worse when there is no money, because you can't feed the dog on the other end of the leash. Even if you don't like dogs, that is unpleasant business.

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Feeding the Bears

And now, a non-surprise: If you keep doing things that are interesting to prosecutors, prosecutors will stick around. If prosecutors are hanging around, people will begin to talk about it, and start noticing things that might be interesting to prosecutors. The same dynamics drive good soap operas. You soon have an environment where everything looks like it might be a piece of the puzzle and where everybody is lurking about, talking to each other, trying to fit pieces together.

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Sinking the Titanic

A rules-breaking private meeting upended a massive rewrite of Texas' tort laws, leaving supporters of the effort scrambling to get back on schedule. The bill was well on its way to passage in the House. But after two days of debate, Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, called a point of order to say that bill was fatally flawed by a secret meeting after a committee hearing. The bill was discussed out of public hearing by more than half of the committee. After two hours of private consultation, House Speaker Tom Craddick announced he would leave the decision to a vote of the House. But after more confused consultation and some speechifying by members, he decided to sustain Dunnam's objection.

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Chicken Little Economics

The details are always tougher than the general idea of budget-cutting when you're talking about government programs that have a direct effect on people's lives. That's why discussions about health care in any form–Medicaid, CHIP, whatever–eventually come to fit the headline above.

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Get 'em While They're Hot

You can't keep weeds out of buffalo grass. Beer and soda pop taste better when cold. Somebody prominent always gets arrested when the Legislature is in Austin. And if the state deregulates college tuition, it'll go up.

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Bumps on the Fast Track

The newest obstacle to medical malpractice liability legislation is this question: Would limits on liability increase the availability and number of abortions done in Texas every year?

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Dark Clouds Over Sherwood Forest

Gov. Rick Perry has said on several occasions that he thinks school finance ought to be rebuilt during his administration, which lasts four years, but that he doesn't think the Legislature has either enough experience or enough time to do it during this legislative session.

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The Other Kind of Political Fundraising

The three guys at the top of Texas government are all sworn in and official, and they are scratching around for cash. The state's current budget is flowing red, and the next budget mismatches declining revenues with increasing costs. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Speaker Tom Craddick started off with a letter to state agencies asking for the equivalent of 7 percent of their current year budgets. Some programs won't be touched: public school funding, acute care Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and debt service (which can't be cut without defaulting).

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Stacking the Deck

Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst waited until the Senate had voted on its rules—maintaining the powers of the Lite Guv—but not for his inauguration to name committees and their memberships. Unlike his predecessor, who led a Senate with a one-vote Republican majority, Dewhurst fronts a Senate with a 19-12 GOP advantage, and he tilted the table strongly in their favor. Democrats will chair six of the 15 committees in the Senate, but only one of those panels—Veterans Affairs and Military Installations—will have a Democratic majority. The major committees will have solid GOP majorities: Finance, 10-5; Business and Commerce, 6-3; Education, which gets school finance, 6-3; and Health and Human Services, where budget cuts could be focused, 6-3. State Affairs, which typically gets a range of major legislation, also has a 6-3 Republican majority.

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All About the Money

No matter what you thought you heard during the election season, in the session starting on Tuesday, everything will be a sideshow to the main act: The state budget.

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Texas Democrats' Circular Firing Squad

Some Texas Democrats, stung by the results of last month's elections and left with only a short list of candidates who might make a strong statewide ticket four years from now, are circling the party headquarters in a bid to replace Molly Beth Malcolm as chairwoman of the party.

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Spending His Children's Inheritance

Democrat Tony Sanchez has spent enough money trying to become governor of Texas that he's made the contest a national news item. In the latest financial reports, Sanchez reported spending $26.2 million, a three-month bender that brings his overall total to $57.5 million. Republican Rick Perry spent a measly $10.5 million during the past three months–that's under $120,000 a day, for crying out loud–bringing his total to date to $17.2 million. The national news? Spending in the Texas governor's race has already topped $75 million, putting the contest here on the scale of the California gubernatorial contests that hold most of the records.

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How Big is the Dump Truck?

With state agencies filing budget requests for the next Legislature, all attention is on the growing demands on state spending. The Austin American-Statesman led the pack, reporting that the differences between available money and spending needs has swollen dramatically, to $7 billion and beyond.

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A Sea Change in the Senate?

Several Senate races are tight, or at least loud and vicious and interesting to watch. And if the political winds blow in a particular direction in the primaries and again in the general election, a handful of conservative Republicans could take seats in the upper chamber and quickly change the philosophical compass there. A group that includes Gary Polland of Houston, Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, Bob Deuell of Greenville, Ed Harrison of Waxahachie and John Shields of San Antonio is knocking hard on the door. That's a collection that would make the Senate a great deal more conservative than it is now. Deuell's race is in November, against Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas; the five others are in primaries that are likely–because of the way the districts are drawn–to determine who'll win in November. Those districts all lean to the GOP.

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Perhaps a $5 Billion Problem, Perhaps Not

State candidates from the bottom of the ballot to the top are talking about the budget mess they expect to confront a year from now. But the budget people who actually work on this stuff are still sorting through the numbers, attempting to get a picture of the train wreck the candidates fear.

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Plan 9 From Outer Space

The United States Department of Justice ducked behind the hedgerow, telling the federal judges in charge of Texas redistricting matters that the Bush Administration won't have anything to say about the state's maps for the Texas House of Representatives until the end of November.

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Out of the Closet

The year-old campaign of A.R. "Tony" Sanchez Jr. is finally going public with a two-day flyaround that will start in Laredo and make stops in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston. That two-day announcement will be followed by a series of regional bus tours in different parts of Texas. The first will be held in South Texas, with stops including Corpus Christi and Brownsville.

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