January 19, 2009
Well, the 81st Legislative Session started last week, and it was unusually action packed. You’ve probably heard about the dust up over the Senate rules and a controversial law that could negatively affect voting rights. Here’s the situation:
The Senate has a long tradition of requiring two-thirds of all senators to give their permission before a bill comes up for consideration. This is known as the traditional “two-thirds rule.” The state’s own Legislative Reference Library says the two-thirds rule “fosters civility, a willingness to compromise, and a spirit of bipartisanship.”
The last time the two-thirds rule was ignored by the Senate Majority was 2003. That forced through a redistricting plan engineered by Tom DeLay.
The next time will probably be this year.
That’s because last week, Senate Republicans dictated that the two-thirds rule won’t apply to a very controversial proposal that would require voters to produce certain forms of identification before they cast a ballot. (You can read about the fight here, here, and here, and my speech on the issue here.)
Now, no serious person believes anyone questions that we need completely clean, honest elections. But we also need to make sure we aren’t doing anything that keeps legal voters from casting a ballot.
There are forms of identification most of us take for granted – drivers licenses, for instance – that some people just don’t have. A great many of these folks are elderly. And most of them traditionally vote Democratic. Small wonder that this has become a pet issue for certain partisan activists and one of the rare ones that divides the Senate along party lines.
Furthermore, there’s no real evidence that fraudulent votes have been a problem – even a minor problem – in Texas elections.
Any fraudulent voting should be fully prosecuted and we could even look at increasing the penalties for such wrongful conduct. But the current proposal doesn’t look at how to punish those who violate our laws. It instead focuses on creating roadblocks to the actual voting.
The only real impact anyone can find that the current partisan proposal has is on legal, registered voters who are denied their basic American rights when they show up to the polls with the wrong piece of paper.
To me, this is a voting rights issue – Americans are born with the right to vote, no matter what they may or may not have with their name on it. And I will almost always oppose laws that would make voting harder, particularly when there’s no evidence of a problem.
Two years ago, a handful of Democratic senators were able to stop one of these harsh bills using the two-thirds rule. Senate Republicans simply couldn’t pass this bill through the normal Senate process that requires cooperation, consensus and bipartisanship.
So this year, Republicans rammed through a new set of rules, creating a special class of bills that the normal rules don’t apply to. This supposedly special class includes none of the urgent issues facing Texans today – children’s health care, affordable college tuition, relief from rising utility costs and insurance bills, environmental protection, or job creation.
No, this special class is reserved only for the most political, partisan bills that protect the powerful.
Right now, Texans should be asking why state government is failing them. Why is our infrastructure inadequate? Why do basics like insurance or a good education seem further and further out of reach? Why are there so many scandals in so many state agencies?
The answer may be that the leadership cares more about protecting partisan rule than about protecting and serving the people. The most political issues get a special class and special rules, while the challenges facing ordinary, hard-working Texans continue to multiply.
So, unfortunately, I think politics triumphed over policy last week.
The Texas Senate turned its back on a history of cooperation and bipartisanship. It tossed out a tradition that protects Texans, blocks bad ideas and forces us to work together.
Instead, the Senate created a special class of partisan bills that corrupts its own legacy. We still have a long way to go this legislative session. I’m guessing that after last week, there will be a few more fights than most folks are used to.