Texas's 1999 legislative session, the most important of Gov. George W. Bush's political career, was gaveled to a close today after a final weekend of debate and deal-making on issues certain to resonate in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
For Bush, the bottom line was pretty good.
While the governor's legislative accomplishments overall fell short of the goals he set when lawmakers convened 140 days ago, Bush said he achieved more than enough to claim victory for Texas and himself.
By this morning, as the dust finally settled after late-night, last-minute negotiations Sunday, the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-controlled House had passed $1.35 billion in property tax relief--far less than the $2 billion Bush wanted. At the start of the session, the governor also called for $600 million in tax cuts for businesses and consumers. Legislators, however, agreed on $506 million, almost evenly split between businesses and retail buyers.
Even though lawmakers opted to use less of Texas's projected budget surplus for tax reduction than Bush proposed--and voted instead for more new education spending than the governor wanted--the result is still the biggest tax cut in state history. And Bush pronounced himself pleased.
"People of both parties came together for a brief period of time and enacted a lot of laws that will make Texas a better place," said Bush, who holds a wide lead in early GOP presidential polls.
Sunday was the deadline for voting on substantive legislation. As the evening hours ticked away, lawmakers approved $2.1 billion in new education spending, about $500 million more than Bush proposed. But the bill included money for items that were among Bush's legislative priorities: $1.7 billion for pay raises for Texas public schoolteachers, librarians and counselors, and $173 million for programs aimed at curbing social promotions in schools.
As for school vouchers and abortion--important topics to many socially conservative GOP primary voters--Bush lost on one issue but prevailed on the other. His proposal for a pilot program allowing tax money to be used for some private school tuition was virtually dead-on-arrival in the Capitol, and a last-ditch effort to revive it failed Sunday night. But lawmakers earlier this month approved a bill requiring parental notice in cases of juveniles seeking abortions, a legislative success for Bush that won praise from antiabortion activists.
"We cut taxes," Bush said. "We emphasized public schools. . . . We deregulated the electricity industry. We're going to have cleaner air in the state of Texas. We got a parental-notification bill passed. I think this is a session where members of both parties said, 'Let's see if we can't do what's right for Texas.' "
But Molly Beth Malcolm, Texas's Democratic chairman, said Bush deserves no credit. "In a session shadowed by the governor's national political agenda, Democrats refused to play politics and remained focused on education, health care and priorities that put working families ahead of the presidential ambitions of George W. Bush," she said.
The property tax cut and new spending for schools were included in a $3.8 billion education bill that won last-minute approval Sunday. Although the balance between tax relief and spending was not what the governor proposed, he nevertheless declared victory.
"It's important to be bold," Bush said. "I took a message to the people of Texas. I said, 'Let's pay the teachers more money and let's substantially cut taxes.' This bill will do both."
Lawmakers approved $277 million in sales tax cuts for consumers, while small and large businesses will get $229 million in tax breaks in the coming two-year budget cycle.
Although some lawmakers complained that the business tax-cut legislation will benefit large corporations far more than small companies in subsequent budget cycles, Bush described the overall plan as fair. "We did the best we could to make sure the tax cuts were widespread and felt by all Texans," said the governor, who was elected in November to his second four-year term.
In other business, the legislature approved a small but telling change to the Texas constitution. It clarifies the procedure by which the lieutenant governor succeeds to the state's highest office when the elected governor, for some reason, leaves early.
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush stands with Jose Lopez, a Medal of Honor recipient, during Memorial Day ceremony in Austin dedicating a monument to Medal of Honor winners.