Friday, August 19, 2005

Top Texas leaders flunk their legislative achievement tests

EDITORIAL / Houston Chronicle / Aug. 19, 2005, 1:23AM


Top Texas leaders flunk their legislative achievement tests as second special session draws to a close.

The only people with reason to smile as the clock runs out on the second special session of the dismal 79th Texas Legislature are lobbyists who fought new business taxes and delivered a tasty telecom bill opening the cable TV market for SBC and Verizon. The Legislature also took care of its own, approving a judicial pay raise that also boosted lawmakers' pensions.

Left in the lurch are the state's students. The House and Senate deadlocked on adopting an adequate system for funding public education and failed to pass tuition revenue bonds to expand facilities at state universities. The first issue awaits a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, which is hearing the state's appeal of a district judge's ruling that the so-called Robin Hood method of financing public schools is inadequate and unconstitutional.

As former state GOP Chairman Tom Pauken lamented to the Chronicle's R.G. Ratcliffe, the state Capitol is adrift in "a total lack of leadership ... Lobbyists are driving the train rather than having a philosophically driven, policy-driven plan."

So off the track was the legislative train in the final days that many lawmakers scattered across the country before adjournment, some to a conference in Seattle and others for vacations in the closing weeks of summer.

For once, partisanship can't be blamed for this debacle. All members of the state's triad leadership are Republican. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick come away from this session looking less like statesmen and more like Larry, Curley and Moe. Since taking control of the Legislature in 2002, for the first time in modern Texas politics, the main achievement of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate was the congressional redistricting battle of 2003.

Early this year, it became apparent that Perry lacked the clout to push his education finance plan. As the regular session spilled into two special sessions, the Dewhurst-led Senate and the Craddick-led House failed to compromise. In an unusual display of political finger-pointing, Craddick took to the airwaves with ads blaming Dewhurst and the Senate for scuttling property tax cuts. Craddick failed to mention that the tax reduction plan he championed in the House would have increased the tax burden on everyone except the top 20 percent of income earners in the state.

At least Dewhurst tried to broaden business taxes to spread the burden of paying for public schools. He quickly found that was a no-go with the House majority, which bent to Craddick's will and ignored the needs of education.

In a final display of pettiness, Dewhurst and Craddick refused to be the first to adjourn his chamber, resulting in a continuation of the doomed special session to its mandated end, at a cost to taxpayers of $23,000 a day. Had they planned to dramatize the triumph of personal politics over public service in this lost legislative season, the state's top three leaders couldn't have come up with a more fitting ending.

Next year Texas voters will have the opportunity to grade the performance of their leaders at the polls. After leaving their major legislative assignment unfinished, officials from the governor on down have a lot of explaining to do as to why they deserve re-election.

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