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Grumet: Beyond Paxton's scandal, Texans deserved more this legislative session

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This year's legislative session began with a record $33 billion surplus, providing what Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar called "a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to address vital needs in our state.

We had such high hopes, so much promise for a historic session.

And now? The 88th legislative session is ending amid Republican infighting and a seismic scandal: the effort to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton for corruption and abuses of power that, frankly, have been on public display for years.

A reckoning for Paxton has been long overdue. Texans deserve an attorney general who isn'tunder indictment, who isn'tunder federal investigation, who isn't sullied by too many controversies to count.

But that is a low bar. Texans deserve a lot more than that. And they should have gotten more out of this session.

Yes, the state budget includes $12.3 billion in new money for property tax cuts, although it's too soon to say what that will mean for the typical Texan. Notably, the spending plan includes billions of dollars for behavioral health care facilities, funds to support broadband and water infrastructure, and raises for state employees.

But the budget brings no raises at this time for teachers — even as they keep leaving the profession in alarming numbers — because public education funds are mired in a high-stakes showdown over private school vouchers.

Nor does the budget include any bump in the pensions for state government retirees, even though they haven't had a cost-of-living adjustment in more than two decades. The inaction is beyond disappointing.

"Many state retirees actually feel fear and anxiety" with a stagnant pension strained by high inflation, Tyler Sheldon, legislative director for the Texas State Employees Union, told me.

And while lawmakers finally expanded Medicaid coverage for new moms from a paltry two months to a full year after giving birth — improving support in a state where pregnancy complications and deaths after childbirth are on the rise — the Legislature still refused the broader expansion of Medicaid embraced by 40 other states.

Any talk of providing access to essential health care for 1.7 million Texans, helping them live healthier and more productive lives, remains a nonstarter at the Capitol.

A more intrusive state government

One could argue that Texas Republicans are the party of limited government, and this budget reflects that.

In many policy fights outside of the budget, however, GOP lawmakers were pushing for a state government that is more muscular, more intrusive.

A state government that polices the border, which is a federal responsibility.

A state government that blocks cities from regulating issues related to labor, the environment or finance.

A state government that tells school librarians what can be on the shelves and tells teachers what can be in their lessons.

A state government that makes the deeply personal medical decisions that should belong to parents, from handling agonizing pregnancy complications to pausing puberty for teens grappling with their identity.

A state government that sees drag queens, tenured professors and diversity programs as threats — because alternative viewpoints are dangerous! — yet access to military-grade weaponry remains unfettered and shattered bodies from mass shootings pile up.

Lawmakers even tried this session to inject religion into public schools, although (mercifully) the House did not vote on Senate proposals to place the Ten Commandments in every classroom and provide Scripture study time at every school.

Still, under a bill headed to the governor's desk, public schools will be able to bring in religious chaplains (no training or certification required) to counsel students (no parental consent required). So much for all the GOP angst about "indoctrination" in schools.

Dealing with the scandal at hand

Now we wrap up this session with the spectacle of the first Texas impeachment of an elected official in nearly half a century, targeting an attorney general stalked by scandal yet surprisingly impervious to it.

The 20 articles of impeachment described Paxton using the powers of his office to protect a powerful donor, shield himself from accountability and attack the whistleblowers who reported the alleged misconduct to the feds.

For years, Paxton's legal problems were his own. This past week, they became the Legislature's headache, and in the words of the House Committee on General Investigating, a "long-standing pattern of abuse of office and public trust" that lawmakers could no longer ignore.

The waning days of the 88th Legislature have been tangled up in Paxton's plight. Beyond this controversial end to the session, though, so much of the work that Texans needed — on health care, on public safety, on issues touching everyday lives — will remain unfinished.

Grumet is the Statesman's Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at bgrumet@statesman.com or via Twitter at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/news/columns.

Coming Wednesday: Some Texans find silver linings in this year's legislative session

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