Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A Surreal Day in the Texas House

It took all of four legislative days for the second special session on school finance to implode. This time it happened in the Texas House--and in spectacular fashion this afternoon. It was a marvelous few hours of legislative theater that ended with the sponsors of both the school finance bill and the property tax cut bill voting against their own legislation.

How did it come to that?

The House convened this morning planning to take up the school finance bill, House Bill 2--followed by the property tax cut bill, House Bill 3. But the House stood at ease for most of the morning and afternoon while Speaker Tom Craddick tried to scare up enough votes to pass at least HB 2.

When debate finally started on HB 2, the House rebelled against leadership, voting 76-67 in favor of Scott Hochberg's amendment to lower the proposed property tax cut and triple the homestead exemption. Hochberg, a Houston Democrat and high priest of school finance policy, contends that the increased homestead exemption will ease the tax burden on lower and middle income families. The plan narrowly failed in the first special session.

With Hochberg's amendment in the bill, Craddick was in a tight spot. The House stood at ease for half an hour while leadership tried to peel off some of the 13 Republicans who had backed the Hochberg plan. There was a palpable sense of unease among Democrats on the House floor as they waited for Craddick's next move. And when Craddick sprung it on them, it turned the House upside down. Unable to turn enough votes to take out the Hochberg amendment, Craddick decided to scuttle the ship. HB 2 sponsor Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington) went to the front mic and accepted all the pending amendments, which moved the House right to a vote on HB 2. Grusendorf then raised two fingers to signal a vote against his own bill. A slew of Republicans and some stunned Dems killed HB 2 by 79-62.

Craddick then told Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) to move ahead as planned with HB 3, even though everyone on the House floor knew the bill didn't have the votes to pass. With HB 2 dead, there was still some hope for the special session, because the Senate could send its school finance plan over to the House. But not so with HB 3, because tax bills must originate in the House. So when Craddick rolled out HB 3 for a sacrificial killing, the Speaker essentially blew up the special session.

In his closing remarks on HB 3, Keffer summed it up perfectly, "It's been sort of a surreal day." He then stunned the House. He said he was committed to cutting property taxes but that "this is not the bill. This was the governor's plan. We worked on it as much as we could...we didn't get there. Mr. Speaker, show me voting 'no' on HB 3." The House floor erupted in cheering and whooping. The tax bill died by a final vote of 124-8. At which point, Rep. Paul Moreno (D-El Paso), as he does after legislative victories, yelled, "It's Miller time."