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78th Texas Legislature wraps up in Austin

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Lt. Governor David Dewhurst: "The Senate will convene and the secretary will call the roll of order..."

Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 reporter: As lawmakers gathered for their final day of business this week, the House and Senate chambers at times resembled a political love fest. All the deadlines for debating had passed. So, senators and representatives bided their time with effusive speeches honoring their colleagues or with noticeably bipartisan hugs and photo ops.

Governor Rick Perry was particularly upbeat. In less than five months, he accomplished much of his legislative agenda, including deregulating state college tuition, capping jury awards in medical malpractice cases, and establishing a $300 million business enterprise fund.

As he strode into a narrow but tall press conference room Tuesday, Perry had smiles and handshakes for the Republican leaders who carried his agenda: Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Governor Rick Perry: Texans owe a great deal to these two individuals for their outstanding leadership. I also want to credit Representative [Talmadge] Heflin and Senator [Teel] Bivins and members of both parties who put in the long hours, made the tough decisions and put Texas first, ahead of party, ahead of politics.

Sprague: But when passing out thanks, Perry only named members of the GOP. And in citing successes, the governor largely stuck with bills that had been opposed by most democrats. So it wasn't difficult to find Democratic Representative Garnet Coleman from Houston, who felt bipartisanship had suffered in the 78th session.

Representative Garnet Coleman, Democrat from Houston: It's been a session of what I would call "command and control." The way this legislature has operated this session, in particular the leadership of Tom Craddick, is indicative of a way that isn't open. It isn't good for Texans and it truly is only good for the lobbyists big business sends up here.

Sprague: Coleman says the Speaker held bills hostage until their sponsors agreed to support the Republican leadership's agenda. When Democrats - such as Fort Worth's Lon Burnam - refused to cave in, they paid the price.

Representative Lon Burnam, Democrat from Fort Worth: Only one of my bills got through with my name on it.

Sprague: In fact, most of the significant bills - such as insurance reform and the budget - weren't resolved until the last two days of debate in behind-the-scenes committees, headed by Republicans. The bills often emerged with provisions that angered Democrats, who were prevented by House and Senate rules from changing them. Still, Speaker Craddick says the measures wouldn't have passed both houses if they'd been blatantly partisan.

Tom Craddick, Texas Speaker of the House: You've got a transition after 130 years from one leadership to the other, but if you look at the votes on bills and you see that there's a mixture of Republicans and Democrats voting on bills - to me you've got a bipartisan effort.

Sprague: But according to Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, a Democrat from Austin, many of the bipartisan votes praised by Craddick were a result of Democrats and some disaffected Republicans going along to get along.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Democrat from Austin: Just to say that we're going to be working at it in a bipartisan method, does not actually mean that that is occurring. There were frankly some people who did not want to deliberate much but instead had the votes and wanted to run over everyone and everybody.

Sprague: Barrientos was particularly opposed to state college tuition deregulation, which narrowly passed in the Senate. But his colleague, Republican Florence Shapiro of Plano believes that debate actually speaks to the spirit of compromise during the session.

Senator Florence Shapiro, Republican from Plano: The House was absolutely digging in their heels. They were saying we will do tuition deregulation with absolutely no strings attached. This body said, we want a legislative oversight committee. We want performance measures to be pronounced and we want those schools to meet those measures.

Sprague: When the tuition deregulation bill passed, it did provide a legislative committee to monitor accountability, but Democrats considered that a small triumph. Their larger victories included passing an ethics reform bill and stopping congressional redistricting. Lawmakers are still nursing some wounds over the Democrats' flight to Ardmore, Oklahoma that killed the redistricting bill. But Senator Shapiro expects many of the hard feelings will disappear with time.

Shapiro: I mean, there is a new day in Texas. It is a Republican state and you know that from the polls, you know that from the votes, you know that from who's elected to this body and the other body. And it just takes time to recognize that change in power.

Sprague: Generally, Republicans don't say they need to change how the legislature is managed. So Democrats like Lon Burnam have a wait and see approach to the upcoming special session on school finance reform.

Burnam: All this session, we've had a very strong sense that the leadership was not at all interested in compromise, that's one of the reasons we ended up going to Ardmore. I think it will be very interesting to see how it evolves in the situation for public school finance, whether they try to just cram things down peoples' throat or if we really get serious about addressing the school finance needs of this state fairly for everybody.

Sprague: But Burnam and other Democrats warn that if redistricting resurfaces in the special session, it will rekindle some of the political fire that ignited the 78th session. Governor Perry says that issue isn't on his agenda now, but he is considering a cap on automatic admissions to state universities. That measure died when a Democratic senator filibustered it on the legislature's last day of debate. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.

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