Dispatches from the Dome: cruel summer

When the 83rd Legislature adjourns May 27, it could likely be a brief reprieve.

State leaders have begun warning lawmakers to get ready for a special session in June on redistricting—the redrawing of district boundary lines that is supposed to be done every 10 years and be tied to the U.S. Census, but is lately being done on off years.

At stake in redistricting is the protection of incumbents, the addition of new districts relating to population growth and adherence to the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 which states, among many other things, that the minority vote not be suppressed when districts are drawn.

In 2011, the Texas Legislature redrew the lines on a map that federal courts ruled was intentionally discriminatory against minority voters. So state officials came up with a map that would last through this session while the courts ruled on whether it passes muster.

To defend the map, which preserves the Republican minority, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wants lawmakers to affirm their support of the current map to bolster his arguments to the Supreme Court, possibly in June.

The issue is too divisive, apparently, to be addressed during a session with such big statewide priorities as water and education reform.

Redistricting is generally a bitter, partisan fight—pitting Republicans against Democrats, urban lawmakers against rural ones, minorities against Caucasians (and one another) and conservative factions against liberal ones.

On May 24, Gov. Rick Perry refused to address reporters' questions about a special session, but the Capitol is humming with canceled vacation plans and extended apartment leases.

Dashed expectations, high hopes

If a special session is called, a contingent of Republicans said they are hoping Perry will add more than just redistricting to the agenda.

Lawmakers during a special can only take up the issues Perry allows them to, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is among those who are calling for him to add pro-life and gun legislation to the list—issues that Democrats have successfully blocked for the 140-day regular session.

But unlike the regular session, where the rules are set up to kill bills, the special session is designed to pass them, so a lot of the parliamentary procedures and other technical tactics designed to give the minority some power are rendered useless.

Southlake Republican Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, for one, said he does not like the idea of a special session but would not be disappointed if lawmakers used the summer to move closer to the conservative agenda.

The final week capped a session of frustration over conservative legislation he had hoped would pass, such as immigration reform and abortion restrictions, but that never saw the light of day.

"I think this has been a session of missed opportunities," Capriglione said. "Hopefully, we'll get a chance in the summer to reflect back on some of the things we could have and should have accomplished for Texans."

A step toward equal pay

Legislation allowing victims of pay discrimination to collect better restitution was one of the final pieces of legislation to pass the Texas Senate on Wednesday, shepherded through by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

The bill is Texas' version of the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows women to make claims if they can prove they have been subjected to unequal pay within 180 days of the complaint.

Previously, the law stated women could only sue for equal pay within 180 days of the first discriminatory paycheck—and as pay is often confidential, it can take much longer than six months for a woman to discover she is being paid less than her male counterparts.

According to Davis' office, women are now being paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to a man for doing the same job, just a few pennies higher than they were 15 years ago.

"With this victory," Davis said, "women who discover that they are being paid unfairly will be able to seek justice and fight back in the courts instead of being told, 'Too bad, it's too late.'"

In the male-dominated Legislature, the measure squeaked by the Senate on a vote of 17-14, and the House passed it 79-50.

Budget breakdown

The budget bill was on shaky ground on Friday, after House Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Sylvester Turner slammed the Senate's top budget writer and negotiator, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, as "totally disingenuous" and dishonest in his negotiations over the state's $198 billion budget.

The two chambers had been playing a game of chicken lately, with House Democrats holding out for more money in education funding, and the Senate standing by its insistence that they ask voters in November to approve nearly $4 billion in rainy day funds for water projects.

The standoff appeared to end on Wednesday, when both chambers passed those two measures—a constitutional amendment to put to voters, and $200 million more in education spending in a bill carried by Williams.

But tempers flared on Thursday when Turner pointed out that the House had not agreed to a provision in the bill that makes the $200 million contingent on the passage of a tax-relief measure that would drain money from the System Benefit Fund, which helps poor residents pay their electricity bills.

It is a program near and dear to Turner's heart, and he was visibly angry when he told reporters that the Dems had chose to revolt—which could break down the entire budget deal.

Turner said he and House Dems would stand their ground.

"I cannot sacrifice the interests of the poor in order to finance somebody else's tax break," Turner said. "I'm not playing with poor people. I'm not doing that I'm not sacrificing their interests in the name of this gamesmanship. I'm not doing it."

Asked by reporters for a response, a Williams staffer quoted the senator as saying: "Is that right?"

Quote of the week

"I started out feeling like I was drinking from a fire hydrant, and I still feel like I'm swallowing an ocean." —Freshman Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, on what it was like to go through her first legislative session


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