How about them Texas Democrats! In case you hadn't heard, 51 Democratic state representatives from the Lone Star State holed up at a hotel in Ardmore, Okla., recently -- at their own expense. They fled the state Capitol in Austin to prevent the Republican majority from passing several objectionable bills before a May 15 deadline.
At first blush, this might appear to be merely a dramatic twist on partisan bickering. But the objectionable bills violate -- or at least ought to violate -- every decent person's sense of fairness and justice. A dramatic response was in order.
One bill would have thrown 250,000 poor children off the state's health insurance program.
Another would have cut Medicaid drug coverage and other critical benefit programs for nearly 400,000 Texans.
A third bill proposed a redistricting plan that gave new meaning to the word "gerrymander." The plan would have tied distant regions of the state together in new congressional district boundaries clearly intended to benefit Republicans.
Texas law requires the House to have a quorum of 100 out of 150 members present in order to conduct any official business. If legislators are needed for a quorum, the speaker may compel them to return to work. If a lawmaker refuses, he or she may be arrested and forcibly returned to the state Capitol. (This actually happened to Rep. Helen Giddings from Dallas, who was apprehended outside her Austin apartment, taken to the State Capitol and locked inside the House chamber -- lending new meaning to the expression "house arrest.")
So, what's a conscientious Texas Democrat to do? Leave the state, of course. And that's exactly what Representative Jim Dunnam, the Democratic Caucus Chair from Waco did, along with 50 of his Democratic colleagues.
The response? Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, called the action a "childish prank." I spoke with an aide in Rep. Dunnam's office, who told me they received a few angry calls from citizens, but by and large, the public response was overwhelmingly positive. Even lobbyists and independent political analysts blamed the mess on the Republican majority, who refused to work with minority party Democrats toward a more balanced, responsible solution to Texas' budget crisis.
In my home state of Iowa, the local Democratic Party could learn a few things from our Texas counterparts. Hightailing it to the nearest state line would never work in Iowa, where the House requires only that 51 of 100 members be present for a quorum. Yet the chutzpah and creativity of the Texas D's should inspire Democrats here and across the nation to respond more aggressively to the many bad bills floated (some by Democrats) in Republican-controlled legislatures year after year. Indeed, if Democrats hope to convince voters that we offer a viable alternative to the status quo, we had better get inspired.
In Iowa, we should have been inspired earlier this year to do more than just stand by while our Democratic Governor, Tom Vilsack, and the Republican majority eliminated the entire $1.8 million budget for the Emergency Assistance Program, which provides a last-ditch safety net for low-income Iowans on the verge of homelessness.
We should have been inspired to do more than just watch as the governor and Republicans slashed by 66% the budget of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which has accomplished great things in Iowa for sustainable farming and environmental protection.
We should have been inspired to do more than merely offer amendments to restore money for public transit while the governor and Republicans slashed funding from $14 million to $8 million over the past few years.
And we should have been inspired to challenge the extent to which the state budget (like many state budgets) has become a slush fund for corporate welfare -- in Iowa, to the tune of nearly one billion dollars annually.
The message other Democrats should learn from the brave Texans holed up in Ardmore is that acting boldly -- even to the point of physical and financial discomfort -- to oppose radical budget cuts to critical services is exactly what the public expects and demands from a party that historically represented the interests of average, working folk. Indeed, if Democrats ever hope to lead this nation forward in the future, it is only through standing firmly for the people and against corporate greed that we will prevail.
Ed Fallon is a state representative and executive director of 1000 Friends of Iowa, a group that promotes responsible land use. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 515-288-5364. Editor's Note: At press time the Texas budget was expected to throw 130,000 poor children off the state's health insurance program but it appeared deep cuts in Medicaid and other benefit programs would be avoided.