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The regular session of the 78th Legislature will be remembered as the session when Texas-style bipartisanship gave way to highly divisive partisan bickering. Lawmakers can’t be accused of runaway spending after producing a no-new-taxes $118 billion budget with extensive cuts for education and social services. But the House of Representatives had a problem with runaway Democrats. Fifty-one Democrats fled to Ardmore, Okla., where they camped out at a Holiday Inn for four days in May to block a House vote on a Republican-crafted congressional redistricting plan. While ignoring a highly publicized push to change the state’s judicial selection system to allow judges to be appointed, the Legislature crafted and passed a tort reform measure certain to change the civil justice landscape. But the Legislature didn’t use the “sunset” process as an opportunity to dismantle the State Bar of Texas. The Bar received lawmakers’ blessings to continue doing business for another 12 years with relatively few changes in its operations. Before the session ended on June 2, lawmakers had passed 1,382 bills and approved 21 constitutional amendments to be submitted to voters in September, says Steve Collins, executive director of the Legislative Council. That’s fewer passed than in 2001, when 1,601 bills and 20 amendments won approval, Collins says. Following are some of the 2003 session’s winners and losers: Winner: Tort Reformers The passage of H.B. 4 represented the biggest victory for tort reformers since 1995, when the Legislature made major changes in the civil justice system. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a major player in the reform movement, may not have gotten everything it wanted in the bill, but the group came close. “We felt a comprehensive reform was needed, and a comprehensive reform is what the Legislature passed,” says TLR spokesman Ken Hoagland. Although Hoagland declines to say whether one provision in H.B. 4 was more important to TLR than the others, the group lobbied lawmakers to pass hard caps on non-economic damages in medical-malpractice cases. The caps in the final version of the bill – $250,000 total for all doctors named as defendants, $250,000 for a hospital defendant and the possibility of another $250,000 if another institution is found negligent for a plaintiff’s injury – weren’t exactly what TLR proposed, but the group declared the bill’s passage a victory. Loser: Distance-Learning Law School Graduates State Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugarland, lobbied his legislative colleagues hard to pass a measure that would allow his daughter, Julie Drenner, a graduate of a distance-learning law school in Fresno, Calif., to take the Texas bar exam. Although the House added an amendment to the State Bar’s sunset bill that would have allowed Drenner and other graduates of the Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy to take the Texas test, the Senate refused to adopt the amendment. Howard personally visited the Senate chamber seeking support for the amendment, says Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. But Duncan, a partner in Crenshaw, Dupree & Milam, argued during the Senate debate that opening the Texas test to graduates of correspondence law schools would “lower the bar.” Duncan refused to back off his opposition to the amendment. And Howard acknowledges he was upset with Duncan for denying an opportunity to students who didn’t have the money to go to an American Bar Association-accredited law school. Howard’s lobbying efforts to get the amendment added to the sunset bill for the State Board of Law Examiners (BLE) also failed. Winner: Grieved Texas Lawyers The state’s Sunset Advisory Commis-sion recommended last year that the Legislature eliminate Texas lawyers’ option to have grievances against them heard by district courts. But lawmakers decided not to make that change. Under the State Bar’s sunset bill, lawyers accused of misconduct still can have their day in court and, if they wish, request jury trials. Bar leaders worked hard behind the scenes to make sure the district court option remained intact. Loser: Lawyer-Wannabes State legislators hoping to take the Texas bar exam without having to go to law school had their hopes dashed during the session. Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, tried three times to attach amendments – twice on the State Bar sunset bill and once on the BLE sunset bill – that would allow lawmakers with 12 consecutive years of service in the Legislature to take the test. Apparently, a majority of House members weren’t keen on the idea of becoming lawyers. They rejected Hill’s amendment each time he offered it. Winner: Ethics Advocates H.B. 1606, which reauthorizes the Texas Ethics Commission and strengthens the Ethics Code governing political officeholders and candidates, died and came back to life more than any other piece of legislation in the 2003 session. The final resuscitation came shortly after members of a House conference committee announced on May 31 that they couldn’t support the bill and urged the governor to put ethics on the call for a special session; negotiations on H.B. 1606 took place and legislators compromised. The final version of the bill will toughen campaign finance disclosure requirements, require local officeholders to disclose their personal finances, ban lawmakers from representing clients, for a fee, before state agencies, and require lawyer-legislators to disclose legislative continuances granted by judges in suits the lawyers handle. Loser: Gov. Rick Perry The Republican governor’s angry confrontation with Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, on the Senate floor late in the session raised eyebrows. Perry backed S.B. 496, which would have limited asbestos claims in Texas to claimants who could show they already suffered serious impairments. S.B. 496 died after its sponsor, Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, failed to get the 21 votes necessary to suspend the Senate’s rules so that a vote could be taken on the bill. After Lucio declined to cast the vote needed to suspend the rules, Perry strode angrily into the Senate chamber, stepped over the brass rail and confronted Lucio as reporters and visitors in the gallery watched. The resulting publicity wasn’t the kind that the backslapping, hand-shaking Perry typically seeks. Loser: Visiting Judges Short on money, the Legislature cut funding for numerous programs. Among those likely to feel the axe the most are visiting judges. Lawmakers cut the annual funding for visiting judges in the trial courts by almost $5 million, appropriating $3.36 million for fiscal year 2004. Funding for visiting judges in the appellate courts will drop from $1.65 million in 2002 to less than $300,000 in 2004.

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