- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

DALLAS — The Texas Legislature, with only two weeks left in its biannual conclave, must deal with several important issues even as undercurrents of anger and frustration remain evident.

When 51 Democratic House members left the state for four days last week rather than be beaten on a redistricting bill that likely would have retired several Democratic U.S. congressmen, they played havoc with hundreds of other bills as well.

Thursday at midnight, at least 100 House bills died automatically because no floor debate was held before the deadline.

Another estimated 300 died in the Calendar Committee before they could reach the floor.

Legislators scrambled Friday to see what bills or portions of bills could be tacked on as amendments to Senate bills — which still have several days to meander through the process.

One area affected was the demise of House Bill 2 and House Bill 3519, each of which would have altered or shrunk state governmental functions, which Republicans claim would save at least $460 million a year. That expected bonanza has been considered vital in an attempt to deal with the state’s $9.9 billion shortfall.

Rep. David Swinford, Amarillo Republican, began work Friday breaking his House Bill 2 into pieces to tack onto Senate bills as amendments. Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, Burleson Republican and sponsor of House Bill 3519, said main elements of her bill are likely to be added to a Senate bill also.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry insisted Friday as the truant lawmakers returned to the Capitol that the Legislature still could enact his three main priorities — the state budget, a lowering of the state’s home insurance rates and a bill dealing with stricter civil justice laws.

“There is absolutely no reason we’re not going to have a successful session, even with all the excitement,” Mr. Perry said.

His reference to the “excitement” was his only remark concerning the Democrats’ walkout. Nor did he want to discuss the failed redistricting bill, which had been pushed strongly by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

“We’ve got work to do,” the governor said. “Someone else may want to talk about this. I don’t.”

Political consultants generally agree most of the pressing legislation can still be attained, but some worry about the several that cut expenditures to help balance the state’s budget.

Tom Craddick, the House speaker from Midland, predicted Mr. Perry would be forced to call a special legislative session in June if these cost-cutting measures aren’t enacted by the end of the session June 2.

Mr. Craddick, serving his first term in that capacity after a Republican landslide last year allowed Republicans to take control of the House and Senate for the first time in 130 years, called a special session “a distinct possibility.”

But as the Democrats basked in their “victory” in denying a quorum on the redistricting bill, Republicans began to work to make some of them pay.

Republican Party radio ads and targeted phone messages Thursday began saturating three House districts, represented by Democrats Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs and John Mabry of Waco.

Molly Beth Malcolm, state Democratic chairman, said Democrats will answer with radio spots and phone banks in those districts targeted by the Republicans.

Meanwhile, the Republican agenda was revived Friday in the state Senate, which passed legislation to cap medical malpractice damages and rewrite the state’s laws on civil suits.

The legislation puts a $250,000 limit on noneconomic damages that medical professionals would have to pay, with a $500,000 cap on liability for hospitals, nursing homes and such facilities. Claimants would be able to recover no more than $750,000 from all defendants combined.

That Senate measure now will be sent to the House, which passed a similar bill in late March. It is expected to wind up in a conference committee for a final version next week.

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