Thursday, July 21, 2005

Thursday, July 21, 2005 / AUSTIN AM-STATESMAN

In this episode of "Behind Closed Doors," we remind you that state legislators closed out a 30-day special session on Wednesday with late tussling mostly taking place out of public view.

A tourist like Jim Huang of Ottawa, Ontario, might expect all the action to happen in the House or Senate chambers, where Huang snapped photos of shiny vacant desks the other day.

Why take a picture of an empty room?

"Good question," Huang told an inquisitor. "Who are you?"

Why, we're the folks with notepads, tape recorders and TV cameras. We try to divine whassup — which is not always easy, pretty or dramatic.

Flash back to Sunday outside the second-floor Governor's Press Conference Room, which has frosted glass-and-wood doors etched with the state seal. The room this day is expected to host House-Senate negotiations on changes in education and school finance law. So reporters loiter outside.

1 p.m.: A door opens, revealing an aide to House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, seated solo at a large rectangular table. He looks a little like he's watching for a helicopter with a rope ladder.

1:15 p.m.: Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, shows up without a school deal in hand. Grusendorf, referring to Craddick, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, gibes: "I'm about to go whip all three of the big three."

Out of "stupid" tradition, Grusendorf says, only two of five House negotiators can join such compromise talks at a time, evidently in the spirit of the state's open-meetings law, which bars a quorum of a governing body from acting privately on public business.

But the Senate (which claims it is bound by legislative rules and not state open meetings laws) lets its negotiators pile in. "Puts us at a competitive disadvantage," Grusendorf says. (Denise Davis, House parliamentarian, said later that the House tradition might be revisited between legislative sessions.)

2:25 p.m.: The governor's chief of staff walks past the press pack and enters the room with a one-page document. Unfortunately, your correspondent can't read upside down that fast.

2:50 p.m.: Craddick and an aide stride toward Perry's nearby office; the pack converges.

Reporter: "What's it look like?"

Craddick: "Looks like it may rain."

3:45 p.m.: An aide says Craddick has departed, though Dewhurst and Senate negotiators are now chatting with Perry. No word (ever) on what anyone is saying.

4:15 p.m.: Lobbyists outside the nearby House chamber lack school news but jaw vigorously over who first recorded the 1970 hit "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." Bill Withers? No. The Hollies? Yes, as confirmed by a reporter checking by phone with her pa.

Over the rest of the inconclusive day, negotiators scarcely return to the room, though reporters keep their watch. Members drift instead to other Capitol haunts with frosted-glass doors. A few continue huddling as reporters leave the building toward 11 p.m., trusting there is more to come.; 445-3644

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