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Itsy-Bitsy Salaries, Texas-Size Agenda


Most Texans believe that government, if left to its own devices, can always be trusted to solve complicated problems - particularly ones that don't actually exist. "No man's life or property is safe," an old saying here goes, "when the legislature is in session."

It's no surprise, then, that the Texas legislature is one of the nation's least professionalized. Lawmakers meet for only five months every two years and earn just $150 a week. Pete Laney, the powerful Speaker of the Texas House, is a full-time cotton farmer.

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This minimalist approach makes Texas unusual to begin with. But it's even more remarkable in the nation's fastest-growing state, which has more inhabitants than Australia, more land than France, and a booming "siliconomy."

As states search for ways to downsize, Texas has become a test case. If lawmakers here can handle the state's explosive growth and absorb federal responsibilities like welfare without widening the scope of government, the Lone Star State will surely be seen as a model of political innovation.

If not, Mr. Laney and his colleagues may need a seminar in crisis management.

"The prevailing sentiment around the country seems to be 'less government is better government,' " says George Christ-ian, a longtime Texas political activist and former press secretary to Lyndon Johnson. "There's always been a resentment of government here, but at the same time the pressures to produce are much greater now. States are struggling to adjust, and Texas is one of them."

So far, so good. Despite a devastating drought last year, an economic crisis in Mexico, and several years of lackluster oil prices, the Texas economy is robust as ever. In the past two years, the state has amassed a $1.7 billion budget surplus.

In 1995, Gov. George W. Bush and the legislature managed to enact long-overdue tort reforms, toughen the state's requirements for welfare recipients, and revise the state's policy toward juvenile offenders. In the current session, legislators are weighing a huge plan, proposed by the governor, to revamp the state's tax code and its system of school financing.

Advocates of the state's laid-back style of governance note that in case of emergency, the governor can always call the legislature into a special 30-day session. Legislative committees work year-round, and many of the state's functions are controlled by independent boards and commissions that don't require anything from the Capitol but a budget.

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Defending the system

"I defend it mightily," Governor Bush says of the state's anomalous system. "In fact, if it works in the second-largest state in the union, other states ought to try it. The federal government ought to try it."

Not only do lawmakers spend a lot of time back home living under the laws they've written, he says, but the abbreviated sessions tend to prevent unnecesary dickering.

"If you get smart and disciplined people together who want to work, it's amazing what you can get done," Bush says. "We don't have the luxury of playing games."

Nor, it seems, do Texas lawmakers have much hope of enlarging the state bureaucracy. Recent proposals to move to an annual budget cycle have gone nowhere, and the last five attempts to raise legislative pay have been quashed by voters. Texas still has no state income tax, and a constitutional amendment requiring public approval makes that option improbable.

So, it seems, Texans must find nongovernmental solutions to the state's looming problems. That may not be so easy. Texas already ranks in the 40s among all states in per-capita government expenditures, and its antiquated tax system still draws the lion's share of its revenue from the stagnant petrochemical industry.

In addition, Texas must contend with a rapidly growing immigrant population that is making new demands on Texas's social programs budget. Contentious debates over water rights and workforce development loom, and lawmakers must soon finalize plans to absorb federal block grants for Medicaid and welfare.

Moreover, some observers say, Texas lawmakers are currently wrestling with a relatively new phenomenon here - partisanship.

"This is one of the meanest legislative sessions I've ever seen," Mr. Christian says. "There was a really competitive and divisive campaign last fall, and some Republicans targeted the [Democratic House and Senate] leadership for defeat. Some people hoped they'd put aside their differences, but so far they haven't been able to."

According to Walter Dean Burnham, a University of Texas political scientist, the state's current political environment could prove disastrous.

"What we have, to a large extent, is a retrograde orientation toward public policy - where there's less money for higher education and nothing in the way of important inputs for growth. If Texas is considered a leader, I'd be pessimistic about the future of the country."

Low-cost leader

For now, however, Texas is enjoying its status as the minence grise of the national movement toward limited government. In the past three years, lawmakers here have managed to privatize some state services, hold down spending, and complete their business on time with no immediate consequences.

"If Texas is successful at its attempts to experiment with other approaches, other states will look to it," says Rich Jones, director of legislative programs at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There's a real hunger out there for inexpensive solutions."

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