Governor utters the “S” word

Governor Perry has declared his intent to call a special legislative session, but not for any of the issues (budget, school finance, redistricting) that have been anticipated so far. He’s vowed to keep legislators in Austin until they pass a tort reform bill that’s to his liking.

House and Senate leaders have been in a standoff over the proposal, House Bill 4, for days. The Senate favors a more flexible cap that would allow up to $750,000 in damages for pain, suffering, disfigurement and loss of companionship, but Perry and Speaker Tom Craddick back the $250,000 cap in the House version.

Craddick said Perry has been saying for weeks that he would immediately call a special session if the $250,000 cap was not written into law.

Rep. Joe Nixon, the bill’s author, said Wednesday that Perry told him on the House floor Monday that he would call a special session on the issue after the regular session ends Monday if the bill isn’t passed.

“He told me to tell everybody, `Don’t pack your bags,’ ” said Nixon, R-Houston.

“That is an appropriate recollection of the conversation,” Perry said hours later, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t know why we would want to go home.

“We’re trying to limit litigation here,” Perry said. “I think the House numbers are appropriate.”

The House last week refused to concur in the Senate amendments to the bill and named five members to serve on a committee to work out a compromise. But Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, so far has refused to ask Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to appoint senators to that conference committee.

This bill has a strange history, having attracted opposition from anti-abortion activists who think it will make it easier for doctors to perform abortions (given all of the abortion-restricting laws this Lege has passed so far, I wouldn’t worry about that too much if I were they).

Ratliff said a zero cap on noneconomic damages would reduce insurance costs even more, “but that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Ratliff acknowledged he’s getting pressured about the bill. But as one of the Senate’s most respected members, Ratliff likely can count on his colleagues to back him up.

“The Senate trusted me to hear the testimony and propose a reasonable solution,” said Ratliff, who listened to 60 hours of testimony from doctors as well as patients who had been severely injured. “I won’t violate the very trust the Senate put in me. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to walk away just because of the heat.”

Senator Ratliff, who was the acting Lt. Governor when Perry took over for Bush in 2001, seems likely to compromise to me. He’s a pragmatic sort, but he also supposedly has no big love for Perry, so if he feels he’s getting bullied he may very well dig in his heels. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, as Clay Robison notes, whatever law gets passed will ultimately be a constitutional amendment that the voters can approve or reject this fall. Unlike most such amendments, this one will be voted on in a special election on September 13, instead of in November. Proponents of the bill are afraid that Houston voters, who will be electing a mayor, will have too much effect on its outcome. It’s a slick yet sleazy maneuver, sure to reduce turnout.

I believe the bill deserves to die a swift death, but that ain’t gonna happen. Tort reform is an illusion, a false solution to a manufactured crisis that aims to screw the little guy. And as Dwight Meredith asked, if politicians like Rick Perry have so little faith in civil juries, why do they trust criminal juries so much?

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