Thursday, March 09, 2006

House changes may needle session

I quote: "House Democratic Chairman Jim Dunnam of Waco said the election results should send a message to Republican members that they need to work more with education and parent groups." In viewing the election results, I have to agree with Dunnam. Education groups still have their muscle in Texas, counter-balancing special interests that pervade the legislative process. -Angela

March 8, 2006, 10:16PM


House changes may needle session
Primary election triumphs, defeats will affect debate on school finance

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN - Lingering hard feelings over primary election battles, lame ducks and a few new lawmakers will contribute to changing dynamics in the Texas House that could make it more difficult to overhaul school finance in a special session expected to begin next month.


"There's plenty of animosity out there," Austin political consultant Bill Miller said Wednesday, a day after the primaries. "It begs the question of, 'Where from here?' "

During last year's first special session on school finance, an education-funding bill passed in the House by seven votes, and a business and sales tax bill to pay for property tax cuts squeaked by with only one vote. In the second 30-day session, the House killed both bills.

Lawmakers are facing a June 1 deadline set by the Texas Supreme Court to resolve the problem. But several major changes have occurred in the House between last year and this week's elections.

Two Republican incumbents were knocked off in their primaries by candidates backed by public education supporters who thought too much emphasis was put on property tax cuts and not enough on funding education. One of those defeated was House Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington.

A third Republican incumbent ran second in his primary and was forced into a runoff.

All three will serve in the House during the special session. According to House rules, Grusendorf will keep his position as committee chairman, although House Speaker Tom Craddick could name a special committee to handle school finance legislation.

Also in Tuesday's primaries, three House Republicans survived major challenges mounted by wealthy school-voucher advocate Jim Leininger of San Antonio. Two other Republicans targeted by Leininger did not win re-election. But all five will be in the House for the special session.

Additionally, five House Republicans created tension by campaigning against state Reps. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Carter Casteel of New Braunfels. Geren won his GOP primary while Casteel lost hers.

Another change involves Craddick's power structure. At least five members of his leadership team are lame ducks who will be leaving the Legislature at the end of next year. They include Reps. Peggy Hamric and Joe Nixon of Houston, who lost races for the Texas Senate.

And two Democrats will join the school finance debate for the first time. Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, won election in December to the seat held by the late Rep. Joe Moreno, D-Houston.

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, won a special election last month to the seat held during last year's sessions by Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin. Baxter had been a sure vote on Craddick's team.

Miller, a consultant who is close to Craddick, said the success of the session will depend largely on whether legislators can set aside their differences over the elections.

"The whole business is built on relationships."

Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, did not have a primary opponent but does face a Democrat in the general election this fall.

"The leverage you have is November. Even more pressing is June 1," he said, referring to the court deadline.

On the positive side, legislators' job may be easier if Gov. Rick Perry limits the special session to paying for schools and drops some of the more controversial school changes pushed by Craddick, including November school board elections, a uniform school start date and teacher merit pay.

Leininger doesn't want the House to debate vouchers during the special session, said a spokesman for the physician and businessman.

"The plan is to do it in a regular legislative session. It's so important that no one wants to rush that debate," said Ken Hoagland.

"I hope they will come back and just focus on solving the problems of how to pay for our schools and reduce property taxes, and not get distracted by special interest legislation," said Carolyn Boyle, whose Texas Parent PAC helped defeat Grusendorf and Rep. Elvira Reyna, R-Mesquite.

House Democratic Chairman Jim Dunnam of Waco said the election results should send a message to Republican members that they need to work more with education and parent groups.

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