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Bills broadening governor's powers draw debate

By J. Lyn Carl,

Ausitn, TX – Legislation that would give the governor broader powers and protect some of his personal papers from public scrutiny are being met with resistance from Democratic members of the House in floor debate today.

Rep. Bill Callegari (R-Katy) came up against Democratic spark plug Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) when Callegari brought up HB 56, legislation that would allow the governor to appoint the commissioner of insurance.

The bill would reduce the term of the commissioner from two years to one year and "streamline" qualifications and requirements for the job to ensure that the commissioner have experience in administration of business and government, said Callegari. He said the bill also would give the governor "greater flexibility" in trying to control insurance costs.

Wolens asked Callegari if the reason he was carrying the bill was because the governor's office asked him to carry it.

"That's one of the reasons - yes," replied Callegari.

Wolens asked if Callegari was not happy with the job that Jose Montemayor is doing as current insurance commissioner.

Callegari said he has no opinion on the job the current commissioner is doing, that he just thinks the governor needs the ability to make change if he thinks change is necessary. "When I run my business, I want people who can do the job," he said.

Wolens said that "must be an indictment of the status quo."

Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R-Burleson) defended the Callegari bill, saying giving this authority to the governor would make the commissioner more accountable to the people of the state.

"We started off one bill ago trying to hide the governor's budget papers," said Wolens. He said HB 56 would simply result in the governor being allowed indirectly to regulate insurance rates at the whim of the industry.

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) got into a shouting match with Wolens. "We want performance," she said loudly of the proposal to limit the insurance commissioner's term to one year. "If you're not performing, you're out of here."

Wolens' motion to table the bill failed and the bill passed to third reading.

The bill relating to the governor's budget papers (HB 54) was brought to the floor by Rep. David Swinford (R-Dumas). The bill would exempt certain budget papers of the governor from public disclosure.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) said the issue is "political."

"It's all political," she said. "That's why we let the sunshine in. Because it is all political." She said the legislation would close off "the public's right to know what goes on in the governor's office."

Swinford ended up offering a motion, which was approved, to lay the bill on the table subject to call.

Speaker Tom Craddick explained, upon question by Wolens, that the bill can come back up for discussion later this legislative day. If it does not, one legislative day's notice must be given before it can be taken up again.

HB 57 by Rep. Carter Casteel (R-New Braunfels) also drew heated debate. It would restructure the Office of State-Federal Relations as an office directly linked to the governor's office. She said that as a stand-alone agency, it suffered from "administrative requirements that divert it from achieving its core mission." The bill would broaden the governor's powers by allowing the governor to appoint the director.

"What we're saying is allow the governor to be able to effectively maximize the number of federal dollars," said Casteel. "If the governor can through this office maximize federal dollars, we're all winners."

"The power of the purse belongs to the legislature," countered Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine). He said he does not see how removing the input of the lieutenant governor and speaker from the process would bring more federal dollars in for the state.

The bill was passed to third reading.