GOP’s Plan is to Push Agenda

AUSTIN–Flush with a smashing Election Day victory, Texas

Republicans now hope to advance a legislative agenda they say has

been blocked by decades of Democratic dominance.

Even though they have held the governor’s office for eight

years, controlled the Texas Senate for six of those and have

carried every statewide office for the past four years, the

Republicans’ power has always been checked by a Democratic majority

in the Texas House and by its Democratic speaker.

The elections broke the Democrats’ control of the House and

Democrat Pete Laney’s 10-year reign as speaker.

The Republicans’ consolidation of power comes as Texas faces a

looming budget shortfall and with voters demanding relief from the

spiraling cost and declining coverage of homeowners insurance


But even with their unchallenged authority over all branches and

all agencies of state government, the extent of the mandate handed

to the Republicans remains unclear.

“The only clear mandate that came out of the election was to fix

homeowners insurance and maybe say no to a tax hike,” said Harvey

Kronberg, who publishes the Austin political newsletter Quorum

Report. “The Republicans are not going to want to write a tax bill

their first session when they are completely in charge.”

The Republican victors, led by Gov. Rick Perry and Lt.

Gov.-elect David Dewhurst, agree that homeowners insurance will be

on the front burner Jan. 14 when lawmakers assemble for the 78th


But they adamantly insist that voters gave them clear

instructions to wage a frontal assault on the challenges they say

will face Texas in 2003.

“We will address the state budget with a tighter belt, through

budgetary reform, and with an eye toward smarter spending,” Perry

said in his first post-election news conference. “With a $114

billion budget, we have the resources to keep our fiscal house in

order. We must now show the courage to set priorities.

“We will address the lawsuit abuse that jeopardizes jobs and

that drives up the cost of health care while good men and women

leave the medical profession,” said Perry, who won in his own right

the job he assumed when George W. Bush became president. “And

central to providing economic security for the people of Texas is

rate relief for Texans who have been overcharged for their

homeowners insurance policies.”

With Texas facing a budget shortfall of $5 billion to $12

billion during the two-year cycle that begins in September,

business interests and conservative organizations hailed Perry’s

pledge to hold the line on state spending and new taxes.

That pledge was echoed by Dewhurst and state Rep. Tom Craddick

of Midland, who will be Texas’ first Republican House speaker in

more than a century.

“Thank God for Tom Craddick for saying new taxes are off the

table and everything else is on the table,” said Peggy Venable,

director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. “Our members want

smaller government; they want government to do less, not more. And

I think that’s what the voters want, too. I think that’s what they

were saying on Tuesday.”

But some from the other side of the political spectrum warned

the winners not to read too much into the election returns.

Samantha Smoot, who heads the Texas Freedom Network, said voters

embraced the GOP because the candidates preached from a moderate

platform. The party’s statewide candidates were careful to steer

clear of issues such as limiting reproductive choice and offering

tax-dollar vouchers to send children to private schools, Smoot


The Republicans would be wise not to raise them during the

upcoming legislative session, she said.

“These candidates went out of their way to avoid talking about

issues like school vouchers and other pet causes of the far right

wing,” Smoot said. “If they now go and try to pretend that there

was some sort of mandate to put those issues forward, I think that

would be very deceptive.”

Perry said lawmakers have no reason to shy away from a “limited”

voucher bill, saying the Republicans’ support for such a measure is

well documented. Dewhurst, who also supports vouchers, said it was

doubtful that time will be available in the 140-day session to get

to vouchers.

Surviving Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are assessing the

shelling that their party endured on Election Day and will probably

be on the defensive.

“There are very few silver linings on our side,” said state Sen.

Mario Gallegos, D-Houston. “We took a pretty big hit, and there’s

no way to sugar-coat it.”

Having spent the past six years on the minority in the Senate,

Gallegos and other Democrats have grown adept at using rules and

parliamentary procedures to protect their turf. A key Senate rule

— one that requires the agreement of 21 of the 31 senators for a

floor debate on any bill — has traditionally kept that chamber in

the political center.

However, with Republicans now holding 19 Senate seats, a push to

change the rules and allow bills to come to the floor with a simple

majority vote is possible.

“It’s still real early in the process to know whether anyone is

going to want to change the rules,” Gallegos said. “I still haven’t

met a lot of the new senators yet. I plan to sit down with the

lieutenant governor-elect [who presides over the Senate]. And I

guess the Democratic caucus will want to meet to see what our

agenda is going to be.”

Most observers said that solving the budget will consume much of

the session. Some also said that the first programs targeted for

cuts would be those benefiting low-income Texans because several of

the lawmakers who championed such initiatives will be leaving.

Gone are state Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, chairman of the

Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and state Rep. Patricia

Gray, D-Galveston, the House Public Health Committee chairwoman.

Both declined to seek re-election because their districts were

redrawn with less friendly constituencies.

“Some of the health programs could be in jeopardy,” said

Kronberg, the Quorum Report publisher. “You might see some rollback

[in the Children’s Health Insurance Program] and cuts in the

discretionary Medicaid funding.”

F. Scott McCown, who heads the Center for Public Policy

Priorities, said there will be a fight over those cuts.

“It will be our mission to protect the Children’s Health

Insurance Program, Medicaid and Child Protective Services,” McCown


Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, a Republican who chalked up

the largest majority of any statewide candidate, said the

left-leaning organization will have her as an ally in that cause.

“I am identifying ways we can deliver health care to our

uninsured and underinsured more efficiently and with less money so

that no child should have to do without,” said Rylander, the

state’s top budget officer.

Consultant Chuck McDonald, who was press secretary under

Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and now represents several business

organizations, predicted that the Republicans will use their

newfound clout in Austin wisely.

“I think the Texas Republicans will continue the tradition of

bipartisanship in the Legislature,” McDonald said. “People who are

expecting a real one-sided agenda are going to be disappointed. I

think the Republicans are capable of governing.”

Key legislative issues

* Homeowners insurance — Observers and players agree that

voters expect action to reduce spiraling homeowners insurance

rates. Gov. Rick Perry has designated the issue a legislative

emergency, meaning that it will be tackled early and that a bill

could go into law immediately after the governor signs it.

Key players: State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, who has called

for a special session on homeowners insurance, and state Sen. Troy

Fraser, R-Marble Falls, who led a legislative committee that spent

the past year studying the issue.

* Budget shortfall — The state budget is shaping up as an issue

that could dominate the agenda. The official estimate is that

lawmakers will face a $5 billion shortfall for 2004-05; some say it

could reach $12 billion.

Key players: Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, who is charged

with making the official revenue estimate and who must certify the

budget before it can take effect; and the chairmen of the House

Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, who have

not yet been named.

* Social programs — Health and human-service programs are

called “budget drivers” because they eat up a giant share of the

state’s revenue. Pressure will be tremendous to contain these costs

and not to slash social services.