Health care

The Session in a Nutshell

It's usually best to take your medicine fast, in one ugly gulp, like mom used to say. But House leaders, apparently confident they can pass a major tax bill and an ambitious rewriting of the state's school finance system, decided to let both measures sit unprotected over a long weekend.

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The Ides of March

Mention March 2006 to political people in Texas, and you'll trigger a conversation about the top of the ballot. But March 2006 — the month of the primaries and, in particular, the Republican primaries — is on the minds of a fair number of legislators who want to remain in office after this term.

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It Never Hurts to Ask

Can you remember a particular State of the State speech? That's not meant as a slap at Gov. Rick Perry — we're just noting the historical significance of the form. What's useful about these spiels is that they tell you what direction a governor hopes a Legislature will take. It's where Perry said he wanted a reexamination of some death penalty issues four years ago, for instance. This year, his list was devoid of surprises, but gave listeners a sense of his direction. Some highlights:

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It's Only Money

Two weeks ago, the smart guys were betting there'd be $1 billion to $2 billion in red ink in the state's starting budget. Instead, it's in the black, though it will probably swing from one inkwell to the other in the next few weeks.

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Easy as Pie

Piece number one fell into place Monday, when Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn announced the state's financial fortunes have improved over two years ago and the ugly budget fight that ensued then might be avoided this time around. Budgeteers, nervous about Strayhorn's steady political attacks on Gov. Rick Perry, were braced for worse news. Instead, her numbers were within a hair's breadth of their own predictions about state income.

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Your Money or Your Kids

State District Judge John Dietz, ruling on the heels of closing arguments, said the state's system of funding public schools is unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to fix it within a year. His detailed ruling won't be out for a couple of weeks, but if you do a quick calculation of what he said so far, it's easy to argue that the state will have to spend another $3 billion or so each year on public education. That's in addition to any money that would be used lowering local property taxes. (Click here for a copy of Dietz's bench ruling.)

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The Guns of August (and September)

Political journalists are often called fight promoters — people who'll try to start a contest where there isn't one — but the state's senior senator and the governor are making the job easy. They're even giving us facts to play with, and starting the fights without much prompting from the likes of us.

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Gloomy Numbers For Every Political Taste

The U.S. Bureau of the Census prefaced the Republican Party's national convention with a bummer of a report that says, among other things, that Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured people of any state and that the median income here dropped during the first years of this decade.

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A Special Case

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, is in a pretty safe district for a Democrat, as these things go. In the last election against his current opponent, Jeffrey Hibbs, Dunnam pulled 60.2 percent of the vote. And with the exception of Tony Sanchez Jr., who lost by a little in this House district while losing by a lot statewide, the Democrats running for statewide office in Dunnam's district swept in 2002.

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Money for Nothing

State auditors say managers of the Children's Health Insurance Program let about $20 million slip away in the form of "unnecessary or excessive payments to Clarendon National Insurance Co.," the company that had a provider contract for CHIP. The payments, the auditors wrote, "constitute an abuse of the commission's fiduciary responsibility to oversee and manage" the contract. CHIP is administered by the Health and Human Services Commission, which is in the midst of a massive reorganization and an investigation of lapses in protective services for adults and children.

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Party Crashers

Political parties always have shadow groups that more or less parallel their interests. Labor lines up with Democrats, mostly. Manufacturers line up with Republicans, for some of the same reasons, most of the time. That's just an example.

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Snake Eyes

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick were correct six weeks ago, and now the state has been treated to a live-action demonstration: The Texas Legislature is nowhere near a consensus on how to fix — or even whether to fix — school finance. Gov. Rick Perry's ambitious gamble fell flat when lawmakers decided the rewards weren't worth the risks.

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In with a Bang

Texas lawmakers returned to Austin for school finance, met as two large groups and then promptly adjourned for a week. That stifles legislative mischief while committees meet to talk about taxes and education and nothing else is going on. And it serves to get them out of the way of the nastiest comptroller-governor squabble since Mark White and Bob Bullock formed their mutual admiration society in the mid-1980s.

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Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock

Take a look at the clock: The next available date for a regular constitutional amendment in Texas is in November. Tax appraisal notices go out in late spring — May or so — and people pay their property taxes — or their mortgage companies pay and then send out escrow notices — in December and January. Most cities and counties and school districts set their property tax rates in mid- to late-summer. And then the cycle starts all over again.

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The Best Laid Plans

One way to torture public officials is to say or imply negative things about them while taking away their chance to respond. Travis County prosecutors are spreading the net on their investigation of campaign finance practice in the 2002 elections, adding five-dozen subpoenas to the half dozen revealed last week. They're working with a grand jury that will remain in business through the end of March. And lawyers frown when their clients spit at prosecutors while grand juries are in session.

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Outside Help

With Gov. Rick Perry out of the state and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on the scene to bridge the gap between lawmakers on either end of the Texas Capitol, Republicans finally ended their 10-month quest for a congressional redistricting map that's kinder to their candidates.

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Sue!

Everybody in the Pink Building is being sued for stuff they thought they were allowed to do.

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Not So Broke After All

If Texas lawmakers and budgeteers make the right dance steps in the next few weeks, they'll have $800 million available to add to next year's spending — without a tax or fee increase.

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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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