Texas Lawmakers on Their Way to DC

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AUSTIN (AP) -- Schools and programs to protect children and the elderly are in such dire shape in Texas that Gov. Rick Perry has declared them emergencies for the Legislature.

Those issues will have to wait, though, until after lawmakers travel to Washington, D.C., and get their grooves on with ZZ Top and Ted Nugent during this week's inaugural festivities for President Bush.

Legislators got the 140-day session off to a rip-roaring start last week with the unveiling of a Senate school finance plan, a proposal to overhaul the workers' compensation system and approval of new rules on recorded votes.

But then they adjourned until Jan. 24 so that many lawmakers could head north to the presidential party.

"Only in Texas do we declare three things an emergency and then take off 10 days," Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, joked shortly before the House adjourned for the week. It's not every day a Texan is inaugurated as president, Eiland pointed out, referring to the Elvis-like adoration Bush enjoys from some of his fellow Texas politicians.

Perry will be the guest of honor at a cocktail party Tuesday featuring rockers ZZ Top and Ted Nugent. On Wednesday, it's the Black Tie and Boots Ball, before Bush's swearing-in ceremony on Thursday.

Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Tom Craddick and dozens of legislators from both sides of the aisle plan to go to Washington for the festivities.

That puts on hold the pressing concerns of school funding and overhauling the state's troubled child and adult protective services, despite Perry's emergency declaration.

"The governor is confident that the priorities of the leadership and of the people of Texas will be addressed this session," Perry spokesman Robert Black said. "Protecting our most vulnerable, reforming CPS and APS, fixing our school finance structure, cutting property taxes, those issues will be addressed, and of that, the governor has no doubt."

Declaring the issues emergencies means that legislators can take action on them as soon as necessary.

"We're excited, I wish we were starting next week, but I guess we have to wait," said Mike Lavigne, Texas Democratic Party spokesman. "They're spending a lot of money out there, while we still have needs here."

Not all legislators are packing their bags.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, says he'll be in Austin most of the week, analyzing the impact of the state's preliminary budget, which was released Friday.

"Just because we're not on the House floor doesn't mean that there's not work to be done to represent our constituents and do good for the people of Texas," Coleman said.

This week's schedule, he suggests, reflects a lack of dedication from the state's leadership to the emergency issues.

The top issue for the Legislature this session will be overhauling the state's $30 billion school funding system. Both rich and poor school districts agree it needs repair, and a judge last fall ruled the system unconstitutional and ordered the state to pump more money into public schools.

Another leading issue will be reforming Child Protective Services, which has come under scrutiny after a number of high-profile child abuse deaths. Adult Protective Services, which is charged with looking after the poor elderly, also is being reviewed.

In declaring the issues as emergencies, Perry said "there is no greater priority than protecting those who cannot help themselves, those who are in the dawn of their lives or the twilight of their years who are at risk of abuse, neglect and manipulation."