Unlike our rainy late spring, the 83rd regular legislative session shocked Texans for being, well, dry. Where were the knock-down, drag-out fights over abortion, drug testing welfare recipients, immigration, and education we predicted back in January? (“Welcome to the Funhouse,” Jan. 2, 2013) Not to say some of them couldn’t rear their ugly heads in special session, one of which has already been called by Gov. Perry to tackle redistricting, but the regular calendar focused more on undoing damage created by massive budget cuts last session than picking fresh fights.
For starters, much of the jaw-dropping $5.4 billion cut from public education funding in the 82nd session was restored, though it still falls short by about $1 billion, no chump change considering there will be about 750,000 more Texas school-age children in 2015, when the next legislative session convenes, than there was in 2011 when the cuts were implemented, according to projections from the Texas State Data Center. It’s cool though, because State Senator Dan Patrick, chair of the education committee, managed to ram through his legislative love letter to charter schools, which will increase the statewide charter cap by 90 through 2019. If you still have the misfortune to go to, teach in, or enroll your child in one of Texas’ many awful public schools, be comforted that the legislature also dialed back high school exit exams from 15 to five in HB 5, a bipartisan bill sponsored by local rep Mike Villarreal among others.
It wasn’t always so hunky-dory on the floor, however. State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon’s much-lauded bill to create a state commission to review wrongful convictions bombed in dramatic fashion last month. It was the second session in a row that developments in the final days of the Lege unexpectedly derailed McClendon’s bill, which would have created the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission in honor of a man posthumously exonerated for a rape DNA evidence later proved he didn’t commit.
Debate over the bill, which overwhelmingly passed in the House, turned sour when it went to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee for a hearing. After Sen. Joan Huffman finished her lengthy speech calling the bill unnecessary, Cory Session, Cole’s brother and a policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas, fired back, referencing Huffman’s role in the case of Josiah Sutton, a Houston man exonerated in 2004 for a rape he didn’t commit. Huffman, then a state district judge, recommended the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturn the conviction, saying new DNA testing discredited the “inaccurate scientific evidence” that was admitted at trial.
“You put a man in jail, but you made it right,” Session told Huffman. “We’re trying to make it right for other people.” After shouting at Huffman from the dais, Session muttered “bitch,” and stormed out of the committee room. In retaliation for Huffman’s efforts to keep the measure stalled in committee, where it ultimately died, McClendon spiked several of the senator’s bills on the House floor, dooming their chances of passing before the Lege’s regular session wrapped last week.
Amongst the nuttiest nattering came courtesy of a newbie state senator from our neck of the woods. Texas Tribune readers have already voted her the 83rd Lege’s worst legislator. Our neighbors to the north at the Austin Chronicle called her “Just Straight-Up, Tea Partying, Bats**t CRAZY.” We suspect when Texas Monthly editors come out with their biennial legislator list, State Sen. Donna Campbell will populate a spot somewhere near the top of the magazine’s “Worst” category.
This session, we got exactly what we should have expected from the freshman senator from New Braunfels, who told the E-N before the start of the session she hoped to be the “cavalry” for the “most conservative Senate in Texas history,” and, in a preview to the ultimately unsuccessful anti-abortion measures she championed this session, said, “There was only one baby ever created for the purpose of dying, and that was Jesus.”
The most conservative Senate in Texas history the 83rd was most definitely not. But Campbell carried the culture-war torch all the same. She helped wage the bizarre witch-hunt against CSCOPE, the curriculum management program that fielded Tea Party-driven charges that it sough to proselytize Marxism, socialism, and pro-Muslim, anti-Christian anti-Americanism to Texas students. In brain-wrinkling fashion, she later questioned why we don’t teach creationism in public schools during the nomination hearing of State Board of Education chair Barbara Cargill. (Answer: because the federal courts ruled long ago that public schools can’t teach creationism, or so-called Intelligent Design.)
Even her right-to-life kin grew weary of a resolution Campbell filed that would have let voters decide whether to amend the Texas Constitution to declare that “government may not substantially burden a person’s or religious organization’s Freedom of Religion.” While some argued its redundancy, Joe Pojman with Texas Right to Life worried that the bill’s language was so expansive that it could have made abortion “a religious right.” Good one, Dr. Campbell, and bless your heart for keeping things interesting.