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Redistricting: This is WAR!

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX – ALBUQUERQUE, NM (7/29/03) - What started out as a white-gloved political disagreement over congressional redistricting has turned into a down-and-dirty, all-out war.

Monday, 11 Democratic members of the Texas Senate fled Texas to New Mexico to break the Senate quorum and prevent a redistricting bill from coming to the Senate floor. At an evening press conference, many of them spoke in low-key terms about the need to protect minority rights, their willingness to return if a traditional Senate rule were reinstated, and their commitment to protecting their constituents' rights.

What a difference a day makes.

Since that press conference, Republican leadership has turned the tables and in press releases and press conferences have blamed the Democrats for holding up $800 million in state revenues that could be appropriated for health and human services programs and spending that affect the state's most vulnerable population.

"I am saddened by the fact that we will not be able to put hundreds of millions of dollars into a number of priorities," Perry said Monday. "We could have spent that money to boost Medicaid payments for home care services, to help pregnant women receive Medicaid services, to expand health insurance for children of working families, to provide HIV medications for afflicted Texans, to train new doctors, or to address a number of other health and human service needs."

Say what?

Democrats are astounded that Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have shifted the blame to them, after they fought tooth and nail in appropriations committee hearings and conference committee meetings to ward off Republican-led cuts for the state's needy, disabled and its children.

The rhetoric has now escalated. The white gloves are off.

BAM! This has certainly kicked things up a notch!

At a press conference today from New Mexico, Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Sen. Leticia Van de Putte called redistricting an "unfair and wasteful" process and a "cynical, partisan assault" on 1.4 million African-American and Hispanic Texans.

And about that $800 million... The governor's sound bite was "misleading" at best, said Van de Putte. She accused the governor of trying to pin "his own failure" to provide health care to needy Texans on the Texas 11's efforts to protect their constituents by fleeing to New Mexico.

She said it is time the Republican leadership "stops playing politics and starts telling the truth."

She said the "zero-based leadership" failed to protect health care cuts and education cuts during the 78th Regular Session while the Democrats "fought hard to protect the interest of children from cuts proposed by the governor and his Republican leadership allies."

Van de Putte said the 11 senators challenge the governor to put the $800 million in additional revenues "back on the table" and challenged Dewhurst to reinstate the blocker bill "and together we will fight for Texas families."

Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, who sacrificed her 16-year Senate career perfect attendance record to join fellow Democrats in New Mexico, was incensed over Perry's remarks. The Laredo Democrat, former chair of the Senate's Health and Human Services Committee and current vice chair of Senate Finance, has long been an advocate for the state's most vulnerable citizens who benefit from state HHS programs.

She said not only is Perry "playing games" about redistricting, but "he is playing games about some of the most important issues for the people of Texas, especially the most vulnerable."

She explained that when the state's projected $5 billion pre-regular session shortfall increased to $10 billion, the lieutenant governor identified $6 billion in additional revenue. She said the Finance Committee worked "round-the-clock" on health and human services appropriations in an effort to ensure that necessary programs were continued and the state's most vulnerable populations would not suffer.

"Not once do I recall the governor coming forth and saying let us focus on Medicaid, the needs of the disabled, children..." Instead, she said, Perry was more focused on the Texas Enterprise Fund, a fund to be administered by the governor as a means of economic development.

"You can imagine my chagrin as vice chair of Finance and a member of the conference committee to hear the governor say we are taking actions that would hurt the very people we tried to protect. We ask him to be honest and tell it like it is. He is playing politics at the expense of the people of Texas."

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso said of Perry's remarks that he is glad the governor "has an ounce of compassion left in his compassionate conservatism."

Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, dean of the Senate, said the 11 Democrats are not in New Mexico because they are opposed to redistricting, but because they are opposed to Dewhurst's removing the blocker bill, a tradition that requires a two-thirds vote to bring up bills out of order in the Senate.

Whitmire, a veteran of more than 20 years in the Senate, said the blocker bill is a long-time Senate tradition that requires all members of the Senate to sit down at the table to negotiate and reach a consensus. Without it, he said, any 17 members of the Senate can control legislation. He said the rule should be returned to use during the second special session.

"We feel so strongly about it that it forced us to use our constitutional right to break quorum to bring this to the public and to the legislative leadership," said Whitmire. "We want the rules of the game to remain as they were yesterday." He said as late as Monday afternoon the Democrats were working actively with the leadership and negotiating in good faith. Then they received information from House members that the governor would ask both chambers to sine die at 3 p.m. "under one set of rules (including the blocker bill)" and come back at 3:30 for a second called session "under a new set of rules," they decided to leave the state.

He said there also was rumor of a call on the Senate, which would have locked members in the chamber and force them to stay. "The question ought to be, why change the rules in the middle of the game," said the dean.

Dewhurst has cited what he calls the "Bullock precedent" for removing the blocker bill because former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock removed the tradition in 1991 during a special session on redistricting. Whitmire was a member of the Senate at the time. He said that session was a three-day session with one issue on the call. He said there was no conflict, no objecting to removing the blocker bill. He said it was an agreement among the senators to come in and "ratify" a plan. The current called session, he said, is to "undo" a plan.

"That is undemocratic. We cannot stand for it."

Van de Putte said the Texas 11 are prepared to stay in New Mexico until the governor ends his redistricting efforts or until the normal rules of the Senate are reinstated "so that our vote against redistricting will provide the protection and representation our constituents deserve."