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.

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Stuart Eskenazi