Easy pickings

Every other January, 181 state legislators, supposedly representative of Texas and supposedly armed with good intentions, come to Austin and instantly become the most sought-after people in town.

For every legislator, there are at least eight lobbyists--about 1,500 type A personalities paid to troll the halls in search of something of value. They mob the entrances to the House and Senate chambers, hoping to nab legislators before they walk onto the sacred floor--sacred because it is one place where lobbyists are not allowed. The scene, at its worst, is reminiscent of the commotion outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before the Academy Awards. Star-struck lobbyists wait patiently outside for that brief moment when they can fawn over legislators and tell them how important they are.

Legislators hear it so many times that some start believing it. It is within this climate of causeless conceit that the Texas Legislature does its work. It begs the question: If legislators are so important, why do they meet for only five months every two years?

From January to May this year, egos of legislators will be abundantly massaged by swarms of lobbyists representing power companies like Enron, Texas Utilities, and Houston Lighting & Power. The big battle among big business--the issue that, if nothing else, will help lobbyists make their Land Rover payments on time--is electric utility deregulation. The state is poised to open the electric utility market to competition. The question is how to accomplish it. Answering that question will take up a good amount of lobbyists' (and therefore legislators') time this session.

But the debate is one of subtlety and nuance, and thus is destined to remain subterranean. Horribly technical and hopelessly boring, the outcome undoubtedly affects consumers greatly, but no one can really explain how. Without knowing which side to root for, no one really cares who wins.

The real electricity this session will arise out of a multibillion-dollar state budget surplus. Lawmakers ought to bow down and give thanks. They find themselves in an enviable position this session: They can focus more on how to spend money than on how to save it.

Former Comptroller John Sharp's estimate last fall of a $6.3 billion budget surplus sent tongues wagging in Austin. The figure represents an estimated $3.7 billion left over from the current two-year budget period and $2.6 billion in revenue growth projected for the next two years. Rep. Rob Junell, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that works the budget, is already warning his legislative colleagues to quit salivating. When a constitutional spending limit is taken into account, along with budget increases needed to keep current programs (such as education and corrections) operating at existing levels, Junell figures the amount of money legislators actually will have to spend on fun, new stuff will be about $2 billion.

What a party pooper.
Junell's call for restraint has not tamed Gov. George W. Bush, however. The governor has plenty of big ideas on how to spend a big surplus.

Midway through the session, Bush is expected to announce whether he will run for president in 2000. Almost every legislator, Republican and Democrat, is a wide-eyed fan of the governor. As a group, the Legislature will try to provide Bush momentum for his campaign, meaning the governor's proposals for the surplus provide a decent blueprint for what ultimately could pass in 1999.

"There is no element in the Legislature that wants to try to embarrass Governor Bush or have him lose some big issue in order to hurt his chances of running for president," said Terral Smith, the governor's liaison to the Legislature.

Austin-based lobbyist and political consultant Bill Miller goes one step further. He says he thinks once Bush announces he's running for president, the session will detour away from anything too controversial.

"The old rule is that you can't be criticized for doing nothing," Miller said. "I think the Legislature will say, 'Let's wrap this up and put a bow on it. Let's give money back to the taxpayers and go home.'"

For Bush, that would be just groovy, because giving money back to the taxpayers would enhance his standing in a presidential run. In the 1997 legislative session, Bush took a risk by pushing for major tax reform, calling for huge property-tax cuts that, unfortunately for him, had to be offset through new sales and business taxes. When the session ended, he got no tax reform and only a compromise property-tax cut, which was much skimpier than what he had originally sought.

This time around, Bush is being more pragmatic. He simply is seeking tax cuts.

At last, a Bush has figured out the political benefits of "no new taxes."
The governor wants local school district property taxes cut by an ambitious $2 billion, which would mean the state would have to spend an additional $2 billion out of its own budget for public education. Legislators may love the guy, but Bush can expect them to be only so magnanimous on his behalf.

"Honestly, I think it's going to be hard to get the $2 billion," Smith said, "but I do think we can get a good chunk of it."

The governor also wants tax breaks to benefit small businesses and Texas companies involved in research and development. He wants to eliminate sales taxes on family-value personal items like back-to-school clothes, diapers, and over-the-counter medicines. Those of us who buy new outfits in months other than August, Calvin Klein underwear, and St. John's Wort are snubbed by the Bush tax-reduction plan, which totals $700 million.

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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