August 01, 2003
Whole lotta nothin' going on

I think we're pretty safely past all of the excitement concerning the Democrats' flight to Albuquerque and are now firmly in the human-interest-story cycle. This fluffy front page Chron story about reaction of the locals to their unusual visitors is typical. (Time-saving executive summary: As long as the Texans are paying their own tab, nobody in ABQ cares one way or the other.)

At this point, it's pretty much a war of attrition and sound bites. I was going to do a more analytical piece about how this may play out, but frankly there's little that I can add to this Statesman article, which pretty much says it all.

[Veteran political consultant and lobbyist Chuck] McDonald suggested that both sides' strategies make sense politically.

"When you look at the state as a whole, they're going to vote 60 percent Republican, so for the Republican governor who has to run statewide to take this hard line, that's a winning decision," he said. "When . . . Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) comes from a Senate district that votes 70 percent Democrat, it's a winning decision for him to stay in New Mexico."

And that means more of the same, McDonald said:

"The most likely outcome is no outcome, no movement on either side."

In practical terms, that means the Dems will stay away until they've effectively run out the clock on any action in time for the 2004 elections, which may be October 6 or possibly mid-September. A wild card here is a bill by Phil King, the House redistricting bill sponsor, that would allow the Secretary of State to push back the deadlines to file for the March primaries in the event that a redistricting bill is not completed in a timely manner.

If there is any news to report in the short term, it will be because the Democrats have filed a lawsuit. There are two being discussed right now, one that would ask for an injunction prohibiting the sergeant-at-arms of either the House or Senate from arresting legislators who refuse to show up for a special session. That would allow the Dems to return home from New Mexico (and avoid expensive hotel bills) without being forced back to Austin. The other lawsuit would seek an injunction to force Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to uphold the 2/3 rule.

I must say, I don't care for this approach. I've already said that I think the two chambers should have some power within the state to compel wayward members to attend. The shoe may be on the other foot someday, after all. I also agree with Chuck McDonald, who says in the Statesman article that the Dems are in a better PR position in exile than they would be at home. As for a lawsuit to enforce a traditional rule, well, the less said the better. The time for a lawsuit is after a map has been passed, when harm can be demonstrated. I understand the Dems' desire to take action, but they'll be better off sitting tight and letting the calendar do the dirty work for them.

Meanwhile, Gov. Perry continues making bizarre and contradictory statements about how the Democratic walkout is costing the state money.

In his first public comments since Senators bolted, the governor said lawmakers need to be in Austin to authorize spending $167 million in new federal matching funds to boost Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospitals and doctors.

Democrats complained that Mr. Perry was introducing the issue of Medicaid funding as a diversion.

Tuesday's remarks appeared to be an about-face for Mr. Perry, who said three weeks ago there was no need for legislators to allocate the federal money for Medicaid or other social services.

"There are no plans to open the call to that issue," Mr. Perry's spokeswoman Kathy Walt said on July 11. "That's why there is budget execution authority, a practice that has been in place for many, many years."

Under budget execution authority, the governor and the Legislative Budget Board have the power to move money around within the budget when lawmakers are not in session.

Asked about the conflict, Ms. Walt said Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn had previously raised a question whether budget execution authority was appropriate for spending the federal money.

In a statement Thursday, Ms. Strayhorn said the governor was wrong.

"As the governor's staff is well aware, my staff has been working closely with the leadership's staff and we found a solution that grants authority for the governor and Legislative Budget Board to spend the money under budget execution when the Legislature has adjourned," she said.

She said she was pleased the governor and GOP leaders have agreed to spend the $167 million for Medicaid, but noted that Mr. Perry had yet to include that requirement on the call of the current special session.

Finally, Byron points to this deconstruction of the SurveyUSA poll, currently being touted by the state GOP, which claims that 53% of Texans oppose the Democratic walkout. I agree that S-USA has a weak reputation (Kos certainly derided them on a regular basis last year), though it should be mentioned that this survey does not necessarily contradict the previous poll which showed people opposing redistricting by a 45-30 margin. It is logically consistent for someone to believe that redistricting is wrong, but that the Democrats should have stayed in Austin to fight it. I think that's a silly position to take, since the removal of the blocker bill took away the Dems' main weapon, but I can understand how people might feel that way.


Not related to redistricting, but the Chron bashes Tom DeLay for his trip to the Middle East.

The Chron has an op-ed by State Rep. Joe Deshotel (D, Beaumont) which rebuts yesterday's piece by Lt. Gov. Dewhurst.

The DMN has an op-ed by Sen. Royce West, one of the boycotters, which calls for Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to reinstate the 2/3 rule, and an op-ed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R, San Antonio) which touts his own redistricting map. While Sen. Wentworth is no doubt correct that Democrats ran over any Republican input on redistricting in past sessions, someone ought to remind him that the barrier to adopting his map was the Judiciary Committee, chaired by his fellow Republican, Sen. Robert Duncan.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 01, 2003 to Killer D's | TrackBack

How could a bill be introduced to push back the deadline if there's no quorum? Or is the idea to introduce the bill after October 6th by which time the Dems will have returned and a quorum is obtained?

Posted by: phil on August 1, 2003 9:00 AM

The bill was introduced in the House, where there is (or at least was) a quorum. I presume the intent is to pass it in the House, so it will be ready for the Senate if/when a quorum is established there.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on August 1, 2003 10:34 AM