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Eyes of Texas Are Upon Next Step for Legislature

Politics: The question in Austin is, should Gov. Bush move to Washington, who will replace Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, whose post wields the real power in the state.


While everyone else in the nation keenly waits to find out who will be the next president, Texans have another question hanging over their heads: Who will be their governor?

And perhaps more important in a state where much of the power lies in the legislative branch: Who will be the lieutenant governor, the official who presides over the influential state Senate?

In a massive state with a legislature that holds regular meetings only in odd-numbered years--2001 being one of them--the uncertainty has left lawmakers wondering how much policy they'll be able to address next year before the session is dominated by debates about congressional redistricting.

"We'll need to hit the ground running," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston. "Once the census numbers come in in April, redistricting is really going to be the main driving force. It takes policy and moves it to the back burner, so if you don't get it done fast you won't get it done."

The presidential limbo has stalled Lone Star State politics ever since election night came and went with no clear winner. Up until then, the options seemed simple: Gov. George W. Bush wins the presidency, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry gets a promotion and the Senate chooses Perry's replacement from its own ranks. Or Bush loses and it's back to business as usual.

For now, Texas politicos must be ready to advance but careful not to appear presumptuous.

And speculation in Austin, the capital, has concentrated more on who will hold sway on the Legislature than on how to fix some of the state's looming policy issues, such as a massive Medicaid budget shortfall, crowded schools and federal demands that the state improve its air quality.

Uncertainty dominates right now because of the unusual structure of Texas state government, which in many ways gives the state's second in command as much or more political power than the governor.

The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and appoints the chairpeople of all committees, in effect controlling which issues get heard and are given priority.

"The Senate is a very small body, only 31 senators, and it's extremely personal," said Coleman, who added that state senators, unlike members of the Texas House, are not accustomed to choosing their body's leader because the lieutenant governor is elected in a statewide popular vote.

"The choice of who would take over is very important," Coleman said. "It's an issue of power, and power is derived for individual senators from the lieutenant governor. They'll have to choose wisely because it's the difference between being a committee chair or being outside the rail."

With 16 Republican senators and 15 Democrats, contenders for the slot are busy building alliances that could usher them in if their governor becomes the president-elect. The chamber has 30 days after Bush leaves office, if he does win the White House, to pick Perry's successor.

Aides to Perry, 50, a Republican whose dark brown hair always is perfectly blown dry, say that he is prepared to assume the state's top post should Bush prevail.

"He's been saying all along that, regardless of which office he might occupy, he'd be ready," Perry's spokeswoman Kathy Walt said. "He has a legislative agenda that's more than just in his head. He's been out talking about what he would be proposing, with a primary focus on eduction and building on the reforms and advances made by Gov. Bush."

The governor's role is one Perry has taken on for much of the last 15 months, acting as Bush's understudy when time on the campaign trail took the second-term governor away from home.

Still, Coleman, a strong backer of Vice President Al Gore, said he'd be more than happy to keep the status quo in Texas.

"I think Gov. Bush is a nice guy," he said. "But I'd rather have him as my governor than as my president."

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