January 20, 2007
For a rookie senator — and a Democrat to boot — Kirk Watson did well in committee assignments, but his is not the only chapter in the book. Yet to be written are House committee assignments that tell the story of how Central Texas will fare at the hands of this Legislature.Committee picks can be high drama, but are of low interest to most Central Texans. Yet, the effectiveness of legislators can be predicted — and fairly accurately — in the committees they draw.Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst did well by Watson’s constituents in appointing the former Austin mayor to the Jurisprudence and Nominations committees and to the Business and Commerce Committee and its subcommittee on emerging technology and economic development. The cherry on the sundae was Watson’s appointment as vice chairman of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.Though the committee assignments are only a starting point, each of those is important to the region and signals Dewhurst’s recognition of the economic importance of Central Texas to the state. That should be obvious, but the words “obvious” and “right” don’t meet the same definition in a political dictionary as they do a standard one. The Nominations Committee is important because that’s the first stop for all gubernatorial appointments, and those appointments have an effect on the operation of the state bureaucracy.So, good for Watson and good for us. But it’s a two-chamber Legislature, so Watson’s appointments have to be complemented by the committee assignments Central Texas House members draw. House Speaker Tom Craddick may announce those picks next week.Picking committees is the granddaddy of insider games, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a stake in it. If you eat, drive a car, use public transportation, rent or own property or come in contact with the court system, legislative committees affect your life.To pick committee chairs and members, the speaker and his team look at seniority, but that’s only one factor. A member’s popularity with the speaker and his team also is a factor. In heavily Democratic Travis County, though, members have to be careful not to get too close to the Republican leadership.Nonetheless, Rep. Dawnna Dukes, who represents East Austin, committed to Craddick last session and stuck with him in this month’s challenge, setting up a good news-bad news situation. Dukes is the only Travis County member on the Appropriations Committee, but Craddick and his team may be tempted to reward her loyalty with a chairmanship of her own.The chances of a member of the Travis County delegation being appointed to replace her on the important Appropriations Committee are slim. Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Eddie Rodriguez are vocal Craddick critics, making hash of their chances. Reps. Donna Howard and Valinda Bolton would give Craddick’s Republican supporters heartburn because the women knocked off GOP golden boys — Howard defeated Ben Bentzin twice and Bolton knocked off Bill Welch. State Rep. Mark Strama knocked off a Republican incumbent two years ago, was targeted last year and probably will be tested again by the GOP in 2008.Patrick Rose, the up-and-comer from Hays County, backed Craddick in the speaker’s race and could be in line for a committee chairmanship. If that happens, he can’t sit on Appropriations. Mike Krusee, a Williamson County Republican, heads the transportation panel, another key assignment for the area, so moving him to Appropriations would leave a hole on Transportation.The Appropriations Committee is important to Travis County because the Legislature’s impact is felt here year-round. The huge number of state employees and retirees who make their homes here literally live and die by legislative decisions on their pay, pension and health benefits.The impact extends beyond that, though. State financial support of institutions of higher learning has a tremendous effect on the region’s vitality, and the laws ground out during the session will most likely be adjudicated in Travis County courts.With that kind of impact, it’s obvious and right — in either the political or real world glossary — that the region be represented on the House Appropriations Committee where the money decisions are made.The appointments are only the first step. Once appointed, members have to perform effectively. Committee assignments may be insider baseball, but the box scores are important to all of us.