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Welcome to the funhouse

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) talks about the Texas Legislature much the way you would a carnival funhouse — filled with smoke, mirrors, and deliberate distortion.

The 82nd Lege will always be remembered for what lawmakers slashed: billions of dollars chopped from public education, higher education, and women's health care. But some GOP lawmakers tried to distance themselves from those painful cuts even as they dealt them. House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Myra Crownover (R-Denton) wrote to supporters early this year, claiming the Lege actually "increase[d] state spending on Education by $1.6 Billion even in the face of the worst recession in decades" — a rosy conclusion drawn only by cherry-picking a single slice of the public education system, and an assertion PolitiFact later deemed a "pants on fire" lie.

On a recent morning over coffee, Villarreal spoke of his frustration during an interim House Appropriations Committee hearing held last February. Video of the hearing shows Villarreal verbally pinning down officials with the Legislative Budget Board, forcing them to quantify the damage done with certainty (Yes, the Lege cut a whopping $5.4 billion out of education.) Only if you live in a "fictional world" did spending for education in Texas increase, Villarreal told colleagues. Look to our larger class sizes, scaled-back pre-K programs, and laid-off teachers for more evidence.

Expect more tricks, denial, and funny mirrors when lawmakers go back this week. Among the troubling metrics that should be nagging at our elected officials when they start the 83rd session Tuesday, Jan. 8: one in five Texans live in poverty; one in four has no regular access to health care; one in five children in the state live with hunger. (For more, see "Texas on the Brink.") Instead, what's bound to dominate the discussion are legislative priorities emerging from Gov. Rick Perry's corner: drug testing welfare recipients, more restrictions on abortion, cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities.

Many worry the Senate will no longer be the more deliberative, cautious body that helps quell caustic fights brewing in the House. The partisan make-up of the Senate will largely stay the same as last session, but most of the outgoing senators were replaced by successors that lean even further to the right, like Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Tea Partier who bumped Jeff Wentworth from his seat.

Others, like former Senate Finance Committee chair Steve Ogden, chose not to come back — Ogden, while still conservative, wasn't a radical, and tried as much (as his party would let him) to temper the deep cuts to education last session.

"The Senate took a hard right," said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio). "Well-meaning conservative Republicans said, 'I'm out of here.' And for the most part, the people that replaced them are even more conservative."

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