Bottom line: Go where money is
Some years ago, a wizened legislator observed that while the Legislature dealt with some things on social policy, the huge majority of its issues depended on the redistribution of money. The important questions revolve around from whom tax money is collected, and where, how and on whom it is spent.
Back in the 1970s, when Hispanics and African-American began to be elected to the Texas House in more than token numbers, the new representatives often sought committees that dealt with health and human services and education.
But by the second and third generation of minority lawmakers, their focus had shifted: put us where we can touch the money.
And thus the more adept legislators want to be on committees like Appropriations and Ways and Means in the House, and Finance in the Senate. They know that passing a bill saying something should be done means nothing unless there's also the money allocated to pay for it. (They also know that the spending and taxing committees are better vantage points to raise campaign funds.)
Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, found the added power helped when he was named to the appropriations committee in 1993. Then-University of Texas Chancellor Bill Cunningham visited Gallego to talk about his school's budget. Gallego said he had a bad taste for UT since getting his law degree in 1985 there.
When he graduated, his diploma did not have a tilde over the n in his middle name of Pena - his mother's maiden name. A rude clerk had told him that if he wanted the tilde, he could put it in with a magic marker, Gallego told Cunningham -- which he did.
Cunningham, horrified, presented Gallego a newly printed diploma a week later - with the tilde - and broadened UT's diplomawriting procedure. It didn't hurt that Gallego was in a position to affect the school's budget.
Legislators can also make their impact felt even if they aren't on the spending and taxing committees. When the appropriations bill got to the House floor recently, legislators voted 129- 8 to disallow spending state money on private school vouchers, and re-directed money for merit pay for teachers to an across-the-board teacher pay raise.
* The Senate's chairman on transportation issues, John Carona, R-Dallas, hopes to get an indexed fuel tax increase to alleviate some of Gov. Rick Perry's heavy emphasis on toll roads.
* On Tuesday, the House tabled an amendment that would have fully restored the Children's Health Insurance Program to its level before 2003, when Gov. Perry's insistence on no new taxes resulted in CHIP's rolls dropping hundreds of thousands of kids. But the fact that 55 of the 150 House members - all Democrats save Republican Tommy Merritt of Longview -- voted against tabling it indicates the idea won't completely go away.
* Lawmakers are howling about sex abuse and other scandals uncovered in Texas Youth Commission facilities, and a huge investigation is under way. But a big part of the problem is that TYC employees are underpaid and overworked - because of tight-fisted budgeting by the Legislature.
* Mentally ill juvenile offenders are often left in lockups. Part of the reason is that the Texas Youth Commission has a one mental health counselor for every 19 youths who need one - more than double the 1-to-8 ratio recommended for such residential facilities.
* More than 500 TYC inmates may be released soon, partly to improve the staff-toinmate ratio.
* Texas A&M University's board of regents voted recently to raise tuition as much as 13 percent next fall. Reason: universities thought the Legislature wasn't spending enough money on higher education, and so asked for and got tuition deregulation so regents can deal with higher costs.
And the list goes on, program after wellmeaning proposal, goal after goal, that might as well be written in invisible ink unless accompanied by money.
Reach McNeely at email@example.com or (512)323-0248.