AUSTIN, Texas -- Whee, here we go, the Ledge is back in session! And many a village is missing its idiot. The 78th biennial disaster is upon us, and what glorious fodder to feast upon.

Our peerless leaders are faced with a $9.9 billion deficit, almost twice as high as previously estimated, and billions in mandatory increased spending, so the new Republican majority is busily planning to solve this crisis by: (A) outlawing same-sex marriage, (B) giving more legal protection to fetuses and (C) knocking gay Texans out from under coverage by the Hate Crimes Act. This is tremendously useful of them.

Gov. Goodhair Perry has already earned himself a new nickname after a stunning interview with the Austin American-Statesman in which he noted that Texas has two very serious problems that he, Rick the Reluctant, plans to do exactly nothing about. "Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday that Texas is burdened by an outdated, out-of-whack tax system and a public education finance system that has to go," reported the paper. "But the state's top elected leader also said Texans shouldn't expect the upcoming legislature to do anything about either. Perry said tacking the dense issues is too much to ask of new leaders."

That's leadership! The new "leadership team" of Rick the Reluctant, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker-elect Tom Craddick has a combined total of 56 years in state office, with Dewhurst the baby after a mere four years in statewide office. Damn, I hate when neophytes take over. Funny, none of them ran on not being ready for the job.

Here's the good news. Remember when we had that perfectly splendid string of five House speakers in a row who all got indicted for one thing or another? Not all were convicted, and there was one in there who wasn't indicted but was instead shot to death by his wife -- she was not convicted. Now with Craddick we've got real potential to revive the streak. Not even sworn in and already in hot water.

In 1999, Craddick carried a bill to help give Midland's Cap Rock Energy an edge over other electric utility companies, a story disclosed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Craddick then received more than $28,000 for brokering a deal for a Cap Rock subsidiary, entered into a land deal with an agent for a Cap Rock subsidiary and was offered a position on the board by the utility. Craddick's daughter Christi was hired by Cap Rock as a lobbyist and received more than $30,000, but quit after the conflict-of-interest allegations came out.

Even better, Speaker Craddick is a water speculator. Craddick and a bunch of lobbyists, real-estate developers and former state officials are partners in Native Valley Alliance -- actually a series of private investor partnerships -- - that bought up substantial amounts of groundwater in Kinney County, on the southern edge of the Edwards Aquifer. They plan to tap Kinney County's water and stand to make megabucks by selling it to San Antonio, Eagle Pass and Laredo. I feel we can count on Craddick to put the public first when it comes to the impending water crisis. Don't you?

I'm not worried about the new lite guv either, because as one prominent Republican said of Dewhurst before the election, "He weird, but he's not as weird as he used to be." Besides, Dewhurst has just named the former executive director of the Christian Coalition as one of his top aides, and if there's one thing we're gonna need this year, it's prayer.

Our very own favorite state comptroller, Carol Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn, lashed Ledge just the other day for having a "party" during the 2001 session. Funny, I remember 2001 and what happened was that Carol Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn estimated we had $5.1 billion in new money for the budget.

Over at attorney general, we find Greg Abbott -- a guy opposed to abortion even in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. The former state supreme court justice is also the author of a notable opinion saying it is legal to fire an employee injured on the job for seeking legal redress for his injuries if the employer does not subscribe to workers' comp. Not only a friend of women, but of the workingman, as well!

How can you not love Texas politics? You pick up the paper in the morning and it's kind of like finding Fidel Castro in the refrigerator. Here's one from two months ago under the headline, "Review of Prison Clinics Stumbles": "Two of the seven doctors recommended to conduct an evaluation of Texas' controversial prison health clinics have had their medical licenses revoked or suspended for sexual misconduct, and another was cited this year for negligent care.

"The other four candidates are either graduates of University of Texas medical schools or have professional ties to Texas prison officials or the UT system --despite a pledge to make the study independent of any ties to the UT system, which runs most of the clinics, or to the state prison system."


The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight takes over.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.