AUSTIN, Texas -- It was horrible and sickening, but I could not stop watching the final days of the Texas Legislature. Fellow Texans, the ripple effects of this disaster will come to haunt us all.

Just for starters, this budget is going to cost about 144,000 jobs. Perhaps its most serious effect is on public hospitals. A health-care system so fragile that it is almost overwhelmed now -- turning away ambulances for hours at a time, unable to admit a single patient -- will be swamped after this. The counties will be desperate, the cities not much better. Every area of social service has been cut, not because we have a $9 billion deficit but because House Republicans do not believe government SHOULD help people.

We are watching government morph into something very strange. Benito Mussolini said, "Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power." The real driving force behind this session is something I bet most of you have never heard of -- ALEC. ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded, extremely right-wing group that sponsors conferences for state legislators and draws up model bills that are introduced all over the country. ALEC is particularly interested in privatizing government services and deregulating everything, and is anti-environment to an extent that's almost loopy.

Let's be very clear about this: People who want to privatize prisons and schools and social services are in it for the money. The real questions of government are always: Who benefits, and who pays? And the answer given this session with jaw-dropping regularity is private corporations profit, while people pay the price in worse services.

If government provides a certain service -- say prisons -- for X dollars, how does a private corporation do the same job and make a profit? You ask that question, and you get a lot of pious piffle from the right about private industry is more efficient and less bureaucratic than government. Dilbert and I doubt that.

The right says that, in the private sector, pay and performance are related. I look at the CEOs of American corporations, and if there's a connection between pay and performance there, I missed it.

What you get when you privatize and outsource is something like the Department of Defense and the military-industrial complex. We spend $399 billion a year on defense, and if you think that money is well spent because much of it gets run through defense contractors, you have not been paying attention. DOD is the happy home of the $700 hammer, the endless cost overrun, and the revolving door, with accompanying conflicts of interest and dubious contracts. It's a fiscal nightmare. The Pentagon once had to announce that it couldn't account for $17 billion.

You get nightmare public policy consequences, as well. What happens if you privatize prisons is that you have a large industry with a vested interest in building ever-more prisons. The result is even more idiocy, like the three-strikes law and long terms for small-time drug possession.

One veteran lobbyist said of this session, "You look up and you suddenly realize that these people are playing a different game." They don't want to make government better. They don't want it to work well. They don't want it to help people.

It used to be a joke that when a legislator was contemplating some scurvy piece of special interest legislation, he would go to ridiculous lengths to make the spurious claim, "And so you see, members, we must do this for the sake of the cheeldrun of Texas." Man, you stand up in the Texas House today with a bill that really will help the children of Texas and you will not get a single Republican vote.

They are playing a different game. They are out to take government apart, and then they turn around and say, "See, I told you government doesn't work." And they believe in all this with a self-righteous certitude that has to be seen to be believed.

When we weren't watching rigid, ideological lockstep on corporatization, we got a lot of Christian right nonsense. Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth wanted a bill to provide a special license plate reading, "Pro-Life." Under this bill, the state could charge a premium to people who want this specialized plate on their cars, just as we currently have for people who pay extra for specialized plates supporting Texas critters or A&M.

No one before now has thought of putting anything on a Texas plate that was in the least controversial. These suckers are pretty much in the "I'm in Favor of Bluebonnets" school of political controversy. So suddenly here comes Wohlgemuth, with a bill that says any of us can tote around a license plate that reads, "Texas -- Pro-Life." She wanted $22 of the $30 extra charged by the state to go to church groups and non-profit organizations that counsel pregnant women to give their babies up for adoption.

The House would not even accept an amendment to offer another plate saying, "Choose Choice." Fortunately, the bill was finally shot down on a point of order.

During the debate on tort reform, Democrats took to referring to the part of the gallery where the big business interests lobbyists sit as "the owners' box." It sure ain't the people's legislature.

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.