New speaker, big learning curve for lege
Last week, in one 15-minute recess in the House, at least half a dozen hasty committee meetings were going on at members' desks.
That's because until the last few weeks, it's been rather slow in the House, where new Speaker Joe Straus and a considerable number of House members are learning the ropes.
That's partly because almost exactly half the 150 House members are in a new ball game. The only speaker those members had served under during the last six years was the autocratic Republican, Tom Craddick, and the freshmen newcomers hadn't even had that experience.
So for legislators who hadn't served under Craddick's predecessor, the much more member-oriented Democrat Pete Laney, they're having to learn how the House and its committees operate when the speaker isn't calling most of the shots.
Even for those who served under Laney, many had not been committee chairmen; Craddick took care of that when he engineered House redistricting by the Legislative Redistricting Board in 2001 which helped retire more than a dozen Democratic chairmen under Laney. And for those who did have some experience with autonomy in the House, that memory was at least six years ago.
The narrow 76-74 Republican advantage over the Democrats set the stage for Republican Straus and a handful of Republicans to partner with most of the Democrats to wrench the speakership from Craddick.
But even though the Democrats backed Straus - anything to get Craddick out of there - they're going to be working hard over the next year and a half to net enough additional seats in 2010 to elect a speaker of their own.
Those efforts are soft-pedaled for the time being, while the Legislature is meeting, said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, chairman of the Texas Democratic House Campaign Committee.
"During session, we don't focus on that," Dunham said. "We try to do what our constituents want."
That, Dunnam said, would include things like fully funding the state's participation in the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), to maximize the amount of federal money available to the state.
For that reason, Dunnam said, attention also has to be paid in 2010 to races bigger than just for the House.
"I think it's really important that we begin to really start focusing on running statewide," Dunnam said. "With (Republican Gov. Rick) Perry obstructing policy, we have to have a new governor."
More Republican House incumbents are threatened in competitive districts than Democrats, Dunnam said.
"They (the Republicans) drew this redistricting map, and it's coming back to haunt them," Dunnam said. "I think they've cut the districts too close, assuming that the state would continue trending Republican. But it's coming back (in a Democratic direction)."
Rep. Brian McCall, one of the 11 Republicans who met and chose Straus from among themselves as their consensus choice to contest Craddick for speaker, said "I would assume that if there's a Democratic majority, there'll be a Democratic speaker."
However, if a Democratic majority is by only one or two votes, McCall said, "there are some Democrats, that have been treated fairly and have seen the way the House has operated, that would stick with the current speaker."
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Leave Texas Alone -- Well, Sort Of. . . . One risks whiplash watching Gov. Perry rain on the federal government.
On Thursday, April 9, Perry stood outside his capitol office flanked by 30 House members - all of them fellow Republicans except Democrat Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City - to call for re-emphasizing the 10the Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which calls for states' rights.
"I believe that our federal government has become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state," said Perry, who is expecting a re-election challenge from Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
That was Thursday. On Friday, Perry's office put out a press release saying he was reiterating his request that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide federal money and fire-fighting resources to help the state battle ongoing wildfires.
Perry had requested such a declaration on Feb. 24, it was denied March 17, and appealed on March 20.
Looks like Texas needs some help from those oppressive old feds after all.