Absent Legislators Slow Decision on Transportation Funding


Gov. Rick Perry isn't letting lawmakers leave until they deliver more spending for congested Texas highways so drivers can get where they're going.

But there's one growing problem: simply getting lawmakers to the Capitol to vote.

When the Texas House failed to approve spending an extra $900 million a year to ease traffic-choked and crumbling highways, missing from the make-or-break vote were 23 lawmakers, some of whose absences remained unexplained Tuesday.

The bill -- the only order of business left for the Legislature -- fell short by 16 votes Monday. The result Tuesday was an immediate third session ordered by Perry, who called the failure of a transportation funding bill "unacceptable."

Some lawmakers believe the bill would have prevailed in a full chamber -- thereby averting yet another special session, each of which costs the state roughly $800,000.

Republican House Speaker Joe Straus said filling chairs won't get easier as the Legislature drags into an eighth month.

Without enough lawmakers present to deliver a two-thirds majority, the House can't approve a plan to send voters a November referendum for more transportation spending.

"It is clear as you get deeper into the summer that to have 150 members here is not going to happen," Straus said. "There's several members who have family illnesses that they're attending to. There's members whose families are going back to school shortly. There's a lot of reasons why members who are part-time legislators can't be here every day so it's going to be tough to pass something that requires a hard 100 votes."

The Associated Press reached out to every House member absent for Monday's vote. At least three lawmakers were dealing with sensitive personal issues: Democrat Marisa Marquez was mourning the weekend death of her chief of staff, and Democrat Terry Canales was in a California hospital with his son. Republican John Zerwas was at a hospital with his wife.

Aides to other House members would not comment on their bosses' whereabouts and took messages that were not returned.

Republican state Rep. Lyle Larson, one of only a handful of lawmakers who showed up for work Tuesday, said the bill's prospects in a full House on Monday would have been strong because some members likely would have switched votes if the bill was on the brink of passage.

"We would've got real close," Larson said.

Some lawmakers were unapologetic for not being at their desks.

"We're supposed to be a part-time Legislature. They've held us there captive," said Rep. Jessica Farrar, who was among 14 Democrats absent for the vote. "They had us there for abortion. I really just think it's failed leadership. It should have been taken care of a long time ago."

Farrar said she missed the afternoon vote because she was studying for the bar exam. By the evening, the former House Democratic leader said she decided she was still not ready to take it.

Farrar said she would not have supported the bill if present, further dooming its chances anyway.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst blasted the House for their thin ranks.

"I'm really shocked that so many people who have been elected take off when they need to be here," Dewhurst said.

He then added: "These members have responsibility to show up and do the work they were elected for or resign."

Justin Rodriguez, a first-term Democrat from San Antonio, also missed the vote. Brian Hodgdon, his chief of staff, would not reveal where Rodriguez was other than to say that he was among nine lawmakers Monday whose absences were recorded as excused.

There is a low threshold for being granted an excused absence in the House. The explanations in the official journal are vague and typically chalked up to "important business in the district."

The House needed two-thirds of the chamber to support the would-be constitutional amendment. The vote came after a week of talks between the House and Senate, and was freighted with the hopes of finally sending lawmakers home after seven months.

Among the Democrats not present was Trey Martinez Fischer, who was at the White House for a conference on voting rights. Ruth McClendon, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, was speaking at the Southern Legislative Conference in Alabama, said Janis Reinken, her chief of staff. Rene Oliveria was sick in Brownsville, said spokesman Anthony Gray.

Other Democrats missing were Rafael Anchia, Garnet Coleman, Helen Giddings, Sylvester Turner, Joe Farias and Joe Deshotel.

Republicans not present were Pat Fallon, Jim Keffer, Chris Paddie, Diane Patrick and Allan Ritter. Republicans Matt Krause and Stefani Carter said they were temporarily out of the chamber but would have voted no.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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