Nothing ventured

Legislators had been in Austin barely long enough to break in their leather chairs when Comptroller Carole Rylander confirmed that the state was enjoying a robust budget surplus. Enough money would be available to pay for all current expenses with a couple or three billion dollars left over for good measure. With that much gravy on the table, there would be some haggling, but nothing so tantalizing as to capture the interests of average Texans or the imaginations of lawmakers themselves. This had the makings of a legislative session with no sense of urgency. It was in search of a purpose.

Gov. George W. Bush, who had been elected to a second term by an unprecedented two-thirds majority, provided that purpose. But the purpose was all about George. Buoyed by a voter mandate, the wildly popular chief executive could have invested his political capital to commandeer bold government reforms. He could have continued what he started in 1997, an ambitious and courageous effort to overhaul the state's regressive tax system and, by doing so, address the malodorous way the state finances its public schools.

Although legislators sunk his efforts at tax reform in 1997, Bush to this day maintains that major tax reform is necessary if Texas schools are to prosper in the next century. But instead of pushing for what he thinks is imperative for Texas' future, Bush backed off. He was a man more interested in the present.

Two weeks into the legislative session, Bush stood before legislators who had gathered on the House floor to hear his State of the State address. The first words out of his mouth were: "We begin this moment with a national spotlight on us. I have been asked about it. You have been asked about it. You didn't ask for it--but it's here anyway. And we can either view it as a distraction or seize it as an opportunity to show the world what limited and constructive government looks like."

Based on the past five months, limited and constructive government looks like whatever makes Bush look good on the presidential campaign trail. Instead of risking another bloodletting on tax reform, Bush helped guide the legislative agenda on sales tax cuts that one Republican legislator (and Bush backer) calls "hokey" and property tax cuts that a second Republican legislator (and Bush backer) thinks won't satisfy his suburban constituents. The sales tax cuts are on over-the-counter medicines, Internet service, and--should shoppers dare brave the malls during a special three-day sales tax "holiday"--clothes and shoes.

"Not everybody buys blue jeans," says Rep. Tony Goolsby, the Dallas Republican who called the cuts hokey. "We're targeting a select few, and I don't think that's fair and equitable."

The governor doesn't see it quite that way. "One of the things I've learned: It's important to be bold," Bush says, referring to the tax cuts combined with $3,000 across-the-board pay raises for public school teachers and librarians.

Bush sought $600 million in sales and business tax cuts; he came away with $506 million. He sought $2 billion in property tax cuts; he secured $1.35 billion. The governor may have fallen almost $750 million short of his goal, but on top of a $1 billion property tax cut from 1997, Bush can claim $2.85 billion in tax relief when voters inquire of his accomplishments.

Think how that number will sound in the hamlets of New Hampshire or Iowa. But to Rep. Jerry Madden of Richardson, this year's $1.7 billion tax cut means he's going to have some explaining to do. "I suspect that my constituents will have heard about nearly $2 billion in tax cuts, expect to see them, see nothing, and then come ask me, 'Where are my tax cuts?'" says Madden, who would have preferred more tangible savings, such as those created by an across-the-board sales tax cut.

It's not much different from 1997, when legislators gave Bush the $1 billion property tax cut as penance for killing tax reform. "That amounted to about $150 per homeowner in my district, and I'll tell you that I never got a single letter of thanks from a constituent," says Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat. He expects the same level of gratitude this time around. "You could say these tax breaks this session are important to Texans, but I'd say they're more important to the people of New Hampshire."

The people of New Hampshire also might find it important to assess what Bush did not do this legislative session. Democrats have criticized Bush for not taking a stand on key legislation, the most notable being laws against hate crimes.

Yet Bush always has been a governor with a focused agenda and a tendency to eschew anything too controversial. Although it's not new for him to decline taking a stand on something hot, his silence on the hate-crimes bill is--to some Democrats at least--the defining moment of this legislative session. The bill would have increased penalties for violent crimes against certain groups that are targeted because of bias or prejudice. It listed gays and lesbians as one of the groups, and that became the sticking point. Far-right Republicans on the national scene warned Bush against signing a bill with such a provision. Democrats figure Bush avoided the decision on whether to sign it by making sure it never reached his desk.

Coming on the heels of the savage killing of James Byrd Jr., the black East Texan dragged behind a truck in tiny Jasper, the bill was ripe for passage in Texas. Nothing proves that more than the fact that in the House, the bill won the support of Rep. Warren Chisum, a Republican from Pampa who just four years ago described his opposition by suggesting that some gay men provoked assaults by trying to pick up straight men in parks. Chisum had come a long way.

But the Senate, which passed a nearly identical bill in 1995, had regressed. Some of the senators who opposed the bill this time around voted in favor in 1995. Although Bush and Senate Republicans deny it, Democrats deduce that presidential politics motivated the stalemate that caused the Senate to literally shut down one day last month in a failed attempt to hammer out a compromise. To Democrats, the hate-crimes bill fiasco proves that the Legislature--Republican senators, specifically--was more interested in protecting Bush in his presidential bid than in doing what was right for Texas.

Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat from Houston, thinks the hate-crimes bill also illustrates how Bush's priorities this session seemed less geared toward Texans' best interests and more toward his own. "You can't worship two masters and expect to be effective at doing both," Dutton says.

In 1995 and 1997, Bush spoke in favor of legislation requiring physicians to notify a parent before performing an abortion on a minor. But only this year, with a Republican presidential primary in his near future, did the governor make signing the bill into law one of his top priorities. "Why was parental notification a 'have-to' this session?" Dutton asks.

Bush's hands-on role in getting the bill passed is not crystal-clear, however. Rep. Dianne White Delisi, a Republican from Temple who shepherded the parental-notification bill in the House, said that when the bill's delicate details needed to be negotiated, the governor left the bargaining to legislators. "I would hope for his sake that the governor was asleep that Mother's Day morning at 2 a.m. when we were hammering out those details," she says.

Bush led the parade of people at the Capitol who appeared obsessed over how the Legislature's every move would play on the national level. But at least one legislator suggests everyone's fixation was a figment of Texas ego. "Nobody across the country is all that interested in what we do here in Texas," Goolsby says in a bold expression of Lone Star sacrilege. "We love ourselves very much in this state. We're real good back-patters here. But I think the rest of the country is more interested in their own states."

Here are the outcomes of other issues the Dallas Observer tracked throughout the legislative session, which mercifully ended May 31:

* As predicted, legislators gave away the store to Southwestern Bell in exchange for the local phone monopolist agreeing to lower its long-distance access fee. Bell over AT&T (and consumers) by a knockout.

* Campaign finance reports of legislators are headed to a Web site near you in spite of arguments by some Democrats that were more disingenuous than ingenious. Fire up those modems!

* Without any opposition, legislators approved a far-reaching bill designed to help clear the morass that delays bringing water and wastewater services to the colonias.

* A bill designed to close a loophole that gave tax breaks to a Republican political consulting firm in Canton, financed by religious right holy father Jim Leininger, stalled in the Senate, where Leininger hired hand Lt. Gov. Rick Perry presides.

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Stuart Eskenazi

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