Easy pickings

In the Legislature this year, lawmakers may find that it's better to give than receive

The governor wants to chip away at the budget surplus even further by spending $1 billion on teacher pay raises. Controversy will stir not so much over the amount, but over how the raises would be given. Some legislators back a statewide across-the-board pay increase, while Bush preaches the concept of local control. He prefers the money be given to individual school districts in the form of block grants, which they then could allocate as they see fit. The key thing to watch here is whether block grants would have so many stipulations attached to them that they really are nothing more than cleverly disguised state mandates. Watch Bush claim victory, though, even if that's the case.

Bush will have a new ally helping him in the Senate in Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. Bob Bullock, Perry's strong-willed predecessor, was fond of Bush and a big help to him, but he was never someone that Bush could bully. Bush could bully Perry, although it probably will never have to come to that. The legislative priorities of Bush and Perry are strikingly similar--perhaps because the same Republican political consultants dreamed them up.

Perry could be particularly helpful to the governor as he tries to carry out his campaign promise to end social promotion in schools, a proposal built around holding back third-graders until they can read at that grade level. The plan costs about $200 million, and some legislators think that kind of money is better spent on more tried-and-true methods of improving education. A good gauge on the extent to which the Legislature is looking out for Bush is whether it ends social promotion.

The governor won't be the only one with ideas on how to spend the billions. Chancellors from Texas' universities already are pushing for $1.2 billion in additional money for higher education so that Texas may have more "flagship" institutions. Currently, only the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University boast a flagship designation, which helps attract top faculty and students and more federal research dollars. Texas Tech University as well as several other state colleges would like to be considered top-tier too, but this idea already is in trouble.

Junell, a Tech graduate, said that everything he knows about flagships he has read in the newspaper. As of the end of the year, no higher-education officials had given Junell the courtesy of a briefing. That kind of slight, on top of the cold fact that higher education is not a legislative priority, can mean only one thing.

Flagships are sunk.
Beyond the grappling over the surplus, the spectator allures of this legislative session are in the usual arenas. Hard as nonconfrontational House Speaker Pete Laney tries to keep particularly controversial and downright stupid bills off the House floor, head-butting over school vouchers, abortion rights, and gay rights probably cannot be avoided this session.

Bush wants a program, experimental in nature and limited in scope, that would allow students in a few particularly rotten inner-city schools to obtain vouchers to attend the public, private, or religious school of their choice. Laney, who is of the mind that any school voucher plan is the beginning of the end for public schools, may have to step aside as a voucher bill that treads ever-so-lightly tiptoes toward passage.

A bill that would have required physicians to notify parents before performing abortions on minors died in the House in 1997, killed by parliamentary challenge to the way it was worded. Supporters were livid and are likely to be more careful this time. Smith said Bush considers passage of the parental notification bill a top priority.

Not so, however, with bills seeking to ban gay men and lesbians from adopting children or serving as foster parents.

"That is not our issue," Smith says plainly, "although I'm sure the governor would sign it if it passed."

Plenty of other meaty issues will consume the five-month session, including some interesting public-safety and law-enforcement topics to chew on. Legislators will debate whether to create a civil commitment process for dangerous sexual predators, unshroud the clemency process for death-row inmates, and lower the blood-alcohol threshold at which someone is considered legally intoxicated from .10 to .08.

If the legislative session sounds a bit too dry to care about, remember that plenty of prostitutes still roam the streets of Austin. They seek out legislators too, so the potential for something juicy is always there.

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