Walkout Threatens Array of Bills

AUSTIN – Although the shutdown of the Texas House is aimed at blocking legislation to redraw congressional districts, it could jeopardize more than 200 other bills, including those dealing with the state budget, teacher bonuses and the regulation of child pornography.

The House has until Thursday to give first-round approval for major legislation and until Friday to deliver final approval. A series of other legislative deadlines kick in next week.

The walkout directly threatens 233 bills scheduled for consideration this week, said a spokesman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

The shutdown also indirectly threatens budget legislation, making it more likely that Gov. Rick Perry would call lawmakers back to Austin this summer for a special session.

“This childish prank endangers the hard work legislators have invested in ensuring that homeowners insurance rates are lowered, and it jeopardizes dozens of other pieces of important legislation,” Perry said.

But in a prepared statement, absent Democrats said they’re willing to address pressing issues — but not a redistricting plan pushed by the state GOP and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

“We are ready to work to solve the problems caused by budget cuts in education and health care, not on cutting up the state of Texas to satisfy Tom DeLay’s quest for power,” the statement read.

Besides immediately threatening the redistricting legislation — which the House had planned to consider Monday — the shutdown also threatens a sweeping government restructuring bill scheduled for debate today.

House Bill 2, by Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, would expand the powers of the governor, lead to budget cuts for some schools and potentially result in one-time bonuses for Texas school teachers.

But if House Bill 2 dies, those programs would die with it, Swinford said. The bill also includes an additional $350 million in savings to help plug the state’s nearly $10 billion shortfall, he said.

“This touches every agency in the state,” Swinford said. “You can’t find a vehicle for this” to get the legislation adopted.

State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, said her House Bill 1655 to create “Choose Life” license plates also faces extinction. The legislation, under which a motorist could pay an extra $30 for the specialized plates, was to have come up Monday.

“I was not expecting this to be the reaction,” Wohlgemuth said of the Democratic walkout. “We need to get down to business. This is crunch time.”

Lawmakers have yet to finish debate on other key bits of legislation, including a bill to regulate the Texas insurance market, a bill to make dramatic changes to the civil justice system and the principal state appropriations bill.

But because those bills received prior approval in the Texas House or originated in the Texas Senate, they are less threatened by the mass walkout.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, president of the Texas Senate, also said he would help rescue endangered legislation, especially bills pertaining to the state budget.

“We’re going to work together to make sure that the key pieces of legislation that we expected … are covered by the Senate,” Dewhurst said. “We’ll work on passing each and every one of those so government continues and we don’t see a glitch in services.”

If House members don’t return soon, however, scores of minor bills face almost certain death — including many on the “local and consent calendar” and others still pending in House committees.

The walkout effectively blocked meetings by most House committees, even though Monday was the last day for House committees to adopt House bills.

Political analyst Harvey Kronberg said lawmakers can sometimes find alternatives to hard-and-fast deadlines. But with each passing day, those alternatives become fewer and more disparate, he said.

“This has polarized the House,” said Kronberg, editor of the online Quorum Report. “Some of Craddick’s own chairmen have taken a walk. With the hard feelings that will be lingering over the next couple of weeks, everything is radioactive. Easily hundreds of bills could be killed. And bottlenecks galore.”

Some of the bills scheduled for House consideration this week — but which now could perish — include: House Bill 60, related to prohibitions on child pornography; House Bill 1017, related to child-care services; and House Bill 70, related to tax exemptions for the elderly.

Also affected would be House Bill 405, related to freshwater protections; House Bill 37, related to speed limits near schools; House Bill 3974, related to alternative education programs; and House Bill 699, related to school board elections.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said some bills that face extinction are perhaps better off dead.

“I am equally concerned about some of the pending legislation that might go forward,” he said.

Peggy Venable, director of the conservative Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, said House Democrats have abandoned their responsibilities.

“How can they be representing their constituents if they are hiding from the authorities and playing ob-structionist games?” she said.

Endangered bills

Monday’s walkout by state Democrats could doom numerous bills pending in the Texas House of Representatives, including:

• House Bill 2223, by Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, would suspend a teen-ager’s driver’s license if he engages in terroristic threats, false alarms or bomb hoaxes.

• House Bill 2988, by Jaime Capelo, D-Corpus Christi, would establish guidelines for quarantine measures and the disposal of human remains in case of a major public health emergency.

• House Bill 1253, by Myra Crownover, R-Denton, would give school districts greater latitude in determining the salary of retired teachers who return to work.

• House Bill 797, by David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, would increase penalties for drug offenses committed within 1,000 feet of a youth center.

• House Bill 1691, by Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, would allow funding for accelerated reading programs for students at risk of dyslexia.