AUSTIN, Texas - Lone Star state lawmakers are working their way through the biennial 140-day session of the Texas legislature under the white-hot glare of national attention generated by Republican Gov. George W. Bush's probable presidential campaign.
While insisting the legislative session is his top priority, Bush earlier this week announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee that allows him to start raising campaign funds. "I do have a compelling reason to consider running for president," he told Texas reporters at a news conference Tuesday. "For my family and every family in America, I want the 21st Century to be prosperous."
In his State of the State Address, Bush called on lawmakers to make the most out of the unusually close focus on him and them.
"We begin this session with a national spotlight on us. I have been asked about it. You have been asked about it. You didn't ask for it but it is here anyway," he said. "And we can either view it as a distraction, or seize it as an opportunity to show the world what limited and constructive government looks like."
The scrutiny will be especially close on Bush's legislative agenda which is, as usual, a narrow one. Overall, he and the lawmakers are confronting issues ranging from parental consent for abortions performed on minors to education to crime to nursing home reform.
Bush, the current odds-on favorite of most pundits to win next year's Republican presidential nomination, says his top priority is the budget. And his top concern under that heading is public education.
Thanks to a strong economy, Texas lawmakers have a bucket of additional money to spend or use for tax cuts this year. The official revenue estimate says the state will have $94.1 billion in revenue for the next two-year budget cycle. The current two-year budget is $87 billion.
The lawmakers have lots of ideas about how to spend the added funds. Bush wants to spend $2 billion on property tax relief, and send another $1 billion to school districts to spend as they please, perhaps on teacher pay hikes.
His most ambitious initiative is a push to use the state's standardized tests as the sole arbiter of whether third-, fifth- and eight-graders are promoted. It's the keystone of his plan to end the "social promotions" that he says now shuffle kids from grade-to-grade with no guarantee that they've learned anything.
Bush's plan, with a significant change, has won Senate approval and awaits House action. The retooled version includes a provision allowing for local school officials to decide whether students who fail the test should be promoted anyway. Bush endorsed the change as a legitimate injection of local control, but said he hopes promotion of students who fail the test will be the exception, rather than the rule.
The education debate also will include another attempt to win approval for a school voucher pilot program aimed at offering a private-school option for kids in low-performing public schools. Bush backs the idea, as does new Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, who enjoyed high-dollar financial support from pro-voucher forces in his successful race to replace retiring Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.
Also high on the issues list are topics that will cause lawmakers to referee among business interests fighting for larger slices of particular pies.
Proponents of electric utility deregulation have been running TV ads for months. The electric companies and their big industrial customers favor deregulation, but there is no consensus on how to restructure the power industry in a new, competitive way.
The session's telecommunications war pits Southwestern Bell against AT&T and other long-distance companies in a scuffle over access fees paid to Southwestern Bell by the long-distance providers. Bell says the fees help keep bills down for local service. But the long-distance companies say the fees cause artificially high rates for their customers.
On the gambling front, lottery officials, seeking to end the first sales slump since the games began in 1992, want lawmakers to undo a prize payout cut approved in 1997 and blamed, in part, for the sales decline.
Also on the legislature's agenda before the session concludes on May 31:
An ongoing effort to pump up child support collection payments. A consultant's report recommends leaving the chore at the attorney general's office and seeing if new Attorney General John Cornyn can do a better job than his predecessor.
A rejuvenated effort to find a new method of judicial selection. Critics say the current system, in which all judges are elected, is an invitation to scandal as lawyers feed the political coffers of the judges in whose courts they practice. Bush remains a fan of the current system.
A start-from-scratch effort to find a place for a low-level radioactive waste dump. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission last year turned down the Sierra Blanca site, 90 miles east of El Paso, into which millions of dollars had been poured in recent years.
The legislature's crime-fighting work will center on efforts to do something about gangs, in prison and on the streets. Efforts are also underway to use civil commitment process to keep sex offenders in custody after their prison terms end.
Major welfare overhauls of recent years will be subject to tinkering, including possible changes in welfare-to-work requirements.
In the session's most ambitious undertaking, key lawmakers are pushing a complete rewrite of the Texas Constitution. The 1876 version now on the books has been amended 377 times, and is generally viewed as an overly specific, patchwork. But even the framers of a proposed new version rate their effort as the longest of long shots.