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Austin Chronicle Where Was George?

By Louis DuBose

JUNE 1, 1999:  "We were promised that presidential politics wouldn't interfere in the business of the state of Texas," Austin Rep. Glen Maxey said in February. George W. Bush was at the National Republican Governors' Conference and House Democrats had just walked out of a caucus where they had discussed CHIP -- the federal/state Children's Health Insurance Program. "Where," Maxey asked, "is the governor?"

Designed to provide low-cost health insurance for children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford health insurance, CHIP, Maxey argued, was essential for Texas. Texas is second to California in the number of children without health insurance, and this program brings in three federal dollars for each state dollar spent. And it would provide insurance for 500,000 of the 1.4 million children currently without it -- if the CHIP eligibility level were set at 200% of the federal poverty level. Yet while the governor was at a conference mugging with Jesse Ventura, someone on the Bush staff informed House Democrats that the CHIP eligibility level would be set at 150% of the federal poverty level -- a decision that would push 200,000 children out of the program.

"It shouldn't even be a fight," Maxey said. "Gov. Engler, Gov. Wilson, Jeb Bush in Florida, all of them are participating in this program. [New Jersey Gov.] Christine Whitman is even going to 300%." But for some reason, the extreme (and religious) right wing of the Republican Party opposed CHIP. And Bush -- or at least his staff -- refused to budge. Maxey promised a fight when the governor got back home to Texas. "If he ever comes back," Maxey said with a wry smile. He never did.

Of course, Bush came back to Texas. But by March, it seemed as if the Legislative session was over for him. After he had kicked off the session by pushing through a $45-million tax break for oil well owners and trying to bust a children's health program, the governor had disappeared into his presidential campaign.

"You've heard the joke about what the 'W.' stands for," Fort Worth Democrat Lon Burnam said of George W. "It's Waldo. Everybody around here has been asking, 'Where's Waldo?'"

With two weeks remaining in the session, his comptroller, Carole Keaton Rylander, held a press conference announcing that she had found $801 million in additional revenue -- enough, she predicted, to provide both the substantial teachers' pay raise that the Democrats have been fighting for and the big tax cut that the governor promised. Everyone at the Capitol knew it was coming, but by certifying the additional surplus with only two weeks remaining in the session, what Rylander really certified was that public policy would be made in a chaotic race to beat the May 31 end-of-session deadline. "The general public," Burnam said, "will never understand how irresponsible this is."

Rep. Glen Maxey cajoles fellow reps on the House floor. Speaker Pete Laney presides in the background.
photograph by John Anderson

Fifteen minutes after Rylander's press conference, the governor held his own, celebrating the extra money the comptroller had managed to come up with and promising tax cuts all around and -- a sales tax cut, a property tax cut, an Internet tax cut, a business tax cut -- and a substantial pay raise for teachers. "I appreciate the comptroller's hard work and understand why she delayed her decision to make sure the numbers were firm," Bush said. He also used the occasion to attack the single pro-consumer amendment added to the electric utility deregulation bill -- which, like Bush, has been kept under wraps for most of the session. The amendment, Bush said, threatened to "derail the entire bill." He had even sent some of his staff over the night before to work on it.

What it threatened to derail, said the amendment's sponsor, Houston Democratic Rep. Kevin Bailey, was the big corporate train that was about to run over the state's residential utility ratepayers. "The amendment would ensure that residential consumers would not pay a disproportionate share of stranded costs," Bailey said, referring to the huge debt utilities have incurred, mostly for nuclear plants now too expensive to operate. "They have loaded this bill with almost $9 billion in stranded costs, up from about $4 or $5 billion in the original bill. Under the bill, as originally conceived, close to 75% of those costs would be borne by residential ratepayers. My amendment just evens it out. It's now 50-50.

"It's about fairness," Bailey continued. "Their position is about greed. Greedy corporate interests who want to pile rates on the residential ratepayers so that they can benefit their special interests. Now, everybody's got to pay these costs. Homeowners, small business, industrial users."

Is the governor's last-minute interest in a bill that has been the product of protracted negotiations excessive? "They've got a right to do it, I guess," says Bailey. "But it's clear. They're siding with the rich industrialists. My statement to him is if that amendment comes off, that's the deal breaker."

So for the governor, the session ends as it began -- in a flurry of advocacy on behalf of corporate interests, and a gesture aimed at his party's right wing. In January it was the big push for oil and gas and an attack on children's health insurance; in May it's a fight to shift the cost of electricity from big industry onto the backs of the people who own homes or rent apartments. Then and now, tax breaks for everybody. And for the Republican right, the final push for a parental notification bill that Bush promises "will accomplish the objective of reducing abortions in Texas."

"Some people are saying it's all wrapped up in presidential politics, as they have been saying all session," Bush has stated. "I refuse to accept that. I think it's best for Texas." Presidential politics, the governor seemed to be saying as the 76th Legislature began a wild race to a conclusion, never touched this session.

Louis Dubose is the editor of the Texas Observer.

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