Health care

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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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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