TEXAS POLITICS: still more entertaining than any other kindergarten.
Last week offered the following festive events: A.R. "Tony" Sanchez, Democratic nominee-presumptive for governor next year, receives a threatening letter that he hands over to his lawyer, Tony Canales, the former U.S. attorney in Houston.
Canales hires two former FBI agents, now private eyes, to investigate from whence cometh the letter, and they say it comes from Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar, who is supposed to be a Democrat but was appointed to his job by Republican Gov. Rick "Good-hair" Perry.
While we are digesting the possibility that our secretary of state spends his spare time penning nasty missives to others in public life, three of Cuellar's friends report that the PIs told them Cuellar is gay and asked them if he's been involved in group sex. All this winds up in the Houston Chronicle. Now Republicans are demanding to see the threatening letter and are saying it's all a smear job.
I believe I can straighten this all out for you. They call it "Laredo Rules;" it means that in Laredo, there are no rules in politics. This art form -- we might think of it as Extreme Politics -- is best appreciated as a Punch and Judy Show crossed with pit-bull fighting. We can look forward to more thrilling episodes in the same vein. Think how boring it must be to live in Nebraska.
Meanwhile, back at the state zoo, we still have an agenda dominated by George W. Bush, but it's Bush-in-reverse. Pretty much whatever George W. stood for, the Legislature is now undoing as fast as it can, and whatever he was against is now getting done. It's a striking symmetry.
The first problem, of course, is money. Bush successfully pushed for tax cuts in 1997 and 1999 that set up his run for the presidency nicely but left Texas without a nickel to spare. It turns out that one of his parting gifts was to bury that we could only pay for 23 of the 24 months of Medicaid for nursing homes.
Sen. Eddie Lucio proposed cutting off the '99 property tax cut. More startling, Republican Sen. Chris Harris of Arlington (who is having quite a peppy session) proposed a constitutional amendment to roll back the 1997 property tax cut.
The state has a potential shortfall of $700 million just two years after Bush's last $1.8 billion cut. The Lege is not likely to be forced to raise taxes until next session, but the Senate budget passed last week includes $6 billion worth of unfunded items, including making it easier for children to enroll in Medicaid, helping school districts with building bonds, finally getting mandatory kindergarten statewide and almost $1 billion worth of highway construction that has to be postponed. We are also unable to cover teachers' health insurance or a raise for state employees.
Texas' performance, or lack of it, on Medicaid is already the subject of one federal court order and is likely to attract another as we continue to lag in providing health insurance for poor kids.
According to the Legislative Budget Board, the state share of public-school funding this year is 44 percent, the lowest level since Texas began education reform in 1984, despite the pledge that Bush ran on to make it 60 percent.
On other old Bush battles, Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston is finally about to get a statewide indigent defense system. Bush vetoed the Ellis bill two years ago, but the publicity that Bush's own campaign brought to the weakness of the state's criminal justice system has helped make this a fairly easy sell.
There is still a possibility that the Lege will act on executing the retarded (another bill opposed by Bush) and providing life-without-parole as an alternative to the death penalty. The public supports both reforms already, according to state pollsters.
A more surprising vote was the House's decision to put a two-year moratorium on one of Bush's signature issues: charter schools. Bush was red-hot on charter schools and pushed them through the Lege willy-nilly. It was the willy-nilly part, the lack of state supervision, that proved to be the problem.
According to an interim study, 163 of the 192 schools chartered so far have severe problems. One-fourth of the charter schools are rated "unacceptable" by the state education agency, and only 59 percent of the charter students passed their Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests in '99, compared with 78.4 percent statewide.
Bush, you recall, was fond of touting charter schools and "ending social promotion" as the keys to educational success. The House education committee voted to delay Bush's plan to "end social promotion." The new bill would allow factors other than test scores to be considered in promotion decisions, a position advocated by many educators
Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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