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EDITORIAL

 

Voter ID a Long, Slow Burn for Legislature

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Dave McNeely

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the Senate Republicans lit the fuse in January. The bomb went off in the House in May. In slow motion.

And so the Texas Legislature quit its 140-day session on Monday – at least for now – without passing the controversial voter identification bill that so divided Republicans and Democrats.

Gov. Rick Perry has until June 21 to decide which remaining bills that did pass to sign, veto, or let become law without his signature.

Dewhurst and the Senate Republicans started the partisan battle, by bypassing the Senate’s traditional two-thirds rule to bring a bill up on the floor – but only for the voter ID bill.

It would have required showing a picture ID or two other forms of identification in order to vote. Republicans said it would combat voter fraud.

Democrats said it was designed to keep from the polls would-be voters without drivers’ licenses or other forms of identification beyond a voter registration card.

When the Senate-passed bill was put on the House calendar for consideration ahead of bills to continue agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Insurance, the Democrats talked. And talked. And talked.

For five days. Republicans ignored Democratic offers to consider some of the important measures stacked up behind the voter ID bill. So the talkathon went right up to the deadline of midnight May 26.

Voter ID died. But so did dozens of other bills. Concerned legislators scrambled, naming a record number of House-Senate conference committees to salvage bills.

Some they saved. House members passed a “safety net” bill to continue agencies like the transportation and insurance departments. But Republican senators spurned it after the House quit for good late Monday afternoon, without authorizing $2 billion in transportation bonds.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, was livid two days before the final gavels fell, because the transportation bill conference committee report did not contain a local option for metro areas to vote to add a dime to the gasoline tax to help finance area transportation projects.

“If there is one prevailing theme of this session, it is an utter lack of leadership,” Carona said.

“We need elected officials all the way to the top – and I’m speaking of Gov. Perry and our top three leaders – who will come here and not only set an agenda, but also work to help us pass it.”

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said Carona’s local gas tax, which had been opposed by anti-tax groups, didn’t have majority support in the House.

On Monday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, requested Perry call a special legislative session to take care of sustaining the transportation agency and road bonds.

But on Tuesday, Perry said the agencies have until well into 2010 before they face problems, that they will continue business as usual, and said he hadn’t decided when or if he might call legislators back. But it won’t be this summer.

Perry, Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus all declared the session a success for business, education, and providing the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association with a funding mechanism.

“There are a lot of people in other states who are still dealing with record deficits and layoffs of employees, while here in Texas, we woke up this morning with a balanced budget and a Rainy Day fund that remains untouched,” Perry said.

In their statements, scant mention was made about the $12.1 billion in federal stimulus money sent to Texas by President Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress, that allowed the legislators to avoid big spending cuts while still keeping its $9.1 billion Rainy Day fund untapped.

The leaders of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses – Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio – issued a joint statement castigating Republican leaders and followers.

“It would be difficult to be more disappointed in the results of this ‘do nothing’ legislative session,” they said. “Once Texans understand what their legislature failed to do, they will be disappointed as well.”

The pair listed among things that didn’t get done a reform of high insurance rates, expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, fixing “a broken transportation agency key to future economic development and infrastructure,” and capping skyrocketing college tuition rates.

“Republicans are in charge of every stage of the legislative process,” the Democratic leaders said, “and had the leadership focused on addressing real priorities instead of playing politics, there would be no talk about special sessions today.”

Contact McNeely at davemcneely111@gmail.com

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