Texas Hate-Crimes Bill Dies
By Paul Duggan
Sparing the Republican governor a difficult political choice on a proposed hate-crimes law, Senate Republicans managed to kill the bill Friday after an unusually rancorous standoff with Democrats that paralyzed the chamber late into the evening.
The bill, which would have stiffened penalties for crimes motivated by hatred of specified groups, including homosexuals, cleared the Democratic-controlled House on a largely partisan vote last month. Had it succeeded in the Senate, where Republicans hold a one-seat advantage, Bush would have faced a political dilemma.
Signing the bill likely would have alienated socially conservative GOP primary voters because of the sexual orientation provision. Yet vetoing the bill – the James Byrd Jr. Act, named for the black man slain in Texas last June in one of the grisliest racial crimes of the post-civil rights era – would have handed Democrats a fat campaign issue to use against him.
In the end, while the governor remained out of sight Friday, making no public appearances, Senate Republicans refused to let the hate-crimes proposal emerge from a committee. Saying their objections were philosophical, not political, they stood firm despite what amounted to a tag-team filibuster by Democrats. The maneuver prevented Senate committees from acting on hundreds of other bills, a coercive tactic meant to force action on the hate-crimes proposal.
As the stalemate dragged on, many of those other bills died along with the hate-crimes measure at midnight today, the deadline for committees to move legislation to the Senate floor.
In a chamber where bipartisan cooperation is a tradition, the dispute, which had been simmering for days, boiled over late Thursday in parliamentary skirmishes that included shouting and name-calling in two committee rooms. It continued Friday as the shadow of presidential politics fell heavily on the Senate floor, where Democrats, in emotional speeches, accused Republicans of trying to shield Bush from an awkward political decision.
As with some other politically sticky issues, Bush, the front-runner in GOP presidential polls, avoided taking a public position on the hate-crimes bill, and his spokeswoman said the governor had no role in killing it. Nevertheless, lawmakers wondered if the ill will generated in their ranks by the dispute would carry into the final two weeks of the legislative session, when action is expected on most of Bush's tax-cutting and education agenda. Success in those areas is vital to his White House campaign.
"Even though the governor has declared that he won't start a presidential campaign until after the session, the fact is, the session is now being shaped by presidential politics," said Sen. John Whitmire (D), who joined other members in making "privileged speeches" on the Senate floor Friday, bringing business to a halt.
"It all gets back to sexual orientation," said Whitmire, one of 11 senators who prevented the 31-member chamber from casting the two-thirds vote necessary to end the delaying tactic. He said Republicans are overcome with "concern about elements in their party for whom this sort of thing is a political litmus test."
But Senate Republicans, denying any political motivation, said their opposition stemmed from a belief that no group should be singled out for special protection under state law. And the governor's spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, said Bush's decision to steer clear of the issue reflected his legislative style, not his presidential aspirations.
"His pattern is, he campaigns [for governor] on specific priorities," Hughes said, citing key elements of Bush's agenda, including tax relief, increased teacher compensation and parental notification in cases of juveniles seeking abortions. "His primary focus throughout any session is only on the legislation on which he campaigned."
On that score, the governor got a big lift Thursday when Texas's first-term Republican comptroller, Carole Keeton Rylander, released a much-awaited report that boosts projected state revenue by $807 million over the next two years, raising the estimated budget surplus to $6.4 billion. That new money could help Bush achieve some of the ambitious tax cuts and other goals he laid out during last fall's gubernatorial campaign and polish his re»sume» for the 2000 presidential race.
Based on a $6.3 billion budget surplus projection by Rylander's predecessor, Bush last fall proposed $2.7 billion in tax cuts, including $700 million for businesses and $2 billion for property owners, whose tax bills would be reduced as a result of the state giving $2 billion to local school districts. He also proposed $1.6 billion in new education spending, including increased compensation for the state's 260,000 public school teachers.
But Rylander, after taking office, lowered the surplus projection to $5.6 billion, putting Bush's goals in jeopardy. Now, said Hughes, "we are optimistic that the $6.4 billion estimate makes it easier to enact the governor's agenda." Legislators, mostly delighted by the new figure, were more cautiously optimistic.
"To say the governor's package is completely resurrected or anything – no," Sen. Bill Ratliff (R), the finance committee chairman, told the Dallas Morning News. "We've still got problems. But I think we can go a long way and provide the governor a meaningful package of tax relief that both sides of the aisle can support."
In interviews today, the House and Senate education committee chairmen, Rep. Paul Sadler (D) and Sen. Teel Bivins (R), agreed with Ratliff. "The governor and I have always been able to work things out, and I think we'll be able to this time," said Sadler. Bivins, who spoke with Bush and described him as delighted, said the new surplus estimate is "good news for the governor, good news for teachers, for taxpayers, for legislators. It's good news for all of us."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company