Governing on Eggshells

It's quiet in Texas politics and government at the moment, but only part of that can be attributed to the annual lull that comes with summer. Much of it is a result of presidential politics.

Like small children wearing their best clothes and feeling the presence of their elders' eyes on their every move, elected and non-elected officials in state government are sitting quietly with their hands folded, taking care to stir nothing, to raise no dust, to do anything that might reflect poorly on the way that the GOP's nominee-apparent, Gov. George W. Bush, is running things. If you expect that to change before November 8, see your doctor: You might be succumbing to the heat.

Republicans and Democrats alike are playing down grassfires in the budget, problems with Bush appointees, and blemishes in legislative reviews. They're working on each of those things, but nobody's making noise and most of the warts have remained out of sight of out-of-staters whose interest in Texas starts and stops with the current race for the White House.

Here's a pile of curiosities that, after some scratching and scraping, aren't that curious at all:

• Several state agencies are staring down budget woes. The state's Medicaid program needs about $80 million more than budgeteers set aside, because of changes in federal formulas that were already in place before the budget was signed. There's a shortfall at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation that lawmakers scooted under the rug until January. The prison system has borrowed from next year's budget twice, for pay raises for guards and for operating expenses. The Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse had to cut back services because of a budget gap.

• Texas senators, eager to scuffle over who would succeed Lt. Gov. Rick Perry if Bush wins and Perry succeeds him, have turned down the burners and have taken what was only a semi-quiet enterprise completely into the zone of silence.

• Texas Health Commissioner William "Reyn" Archer III, appointed by Gov. Bush, peeled off some remarks that would ordinarily draw shouts and/or whimpers from Hispanics, doctors, insurers and others, but while some congressional folk and some activists tried to make an issue of it, nobody in the Texas government establishment took after him for it.

• The Texas Department of Economic Development, chaired by Gov. Bush's friend and former next door neighbor, Mark Langdale of Dallas, was seared in an auditor's report that cites gross financial mismanagement and scalded by a Sunset Advisory Commission report that recommends the agency be cut into pieces and buried in various other parts of the government. But instead of dog-piling, lawmakers held a hearing and then took the whole issue under advisement, saying privately that they won't recommend anything too harsh until next year's legislative session, if then.

• Another Bush appointee, Florita Bell Griffin, vociferously scolded lawmakers -- by name -- for interfering with her agency, all the while admitting that she is under federal investigation and refusing to quit her post in spite of months of pleadings from various allies of the governor.

Even when lawmakers and the governor announce something, it's kept quiet until the last minute. Take, for instance, the recent announcement of a raise for prison guards. Lawmakers were discussing that idea openly in March, and several said they were close to working out a way to get more money for correctional officers without a special session. But because it could have affected a couple of East Texas political races, and because the participants wanted to avoid a noisy public debate, the issue seemingly disappeared until talks were complete.

An Issue of Legislative Paternity

Quite a few of the state's elected officials would like to be proclaimed the rightful parents of the prison pay raises. Unfortunately, there's no way to do DNA testing on legislative offspring, and so we are left, like a family court circa 1700, with claims and counterclaims, suspicions and rumors.

This is important because there are so many contested legislative races in areas with prisons and prison employees. The incumbents and other contestants in those races would like to be able to go home and brag of their achievements on behalf of their voters, or to debunk the claims of folks who say they helped get the raises, but didn't.

As the announcement of the raises was put together, there aren't many clean shots. Credit got spread around broadly enough to allow a half-dozen or more legislators to claim they had a role in getting more money for the correctional officers, or Cos.

While none of the claims is a slam-dunk, Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, has the advantage of having gone on record early this year (in January -- not February as we said last week) on the need for pay raises for prison employees. He sketched out a plan calling for $50 million. The final overall cost was less than that, but the $138 per month raise for each correctional officer was larger than the $100 per month Staples proposed for a larger group of prison employees. And he said Gov. George W. Bush should call a special session in June if lawmakers were otherwise unable to put a raise in place. At the time, he took some flak for calling for a special session. For one thing, nobody thought that was remotely possible with Bush running for president; for another, it looked like demagoguery.

The whole thing was worked out, more or less, several weeks ago, but there were primaries and runoffs in the way and some objections to this or that detail, and so the thing finally was announced in mid-May. By then, it was clear to the players that everybody wanted credit, and since this is a competitive sport, they could agree only to spread it out so much that nobody in particular was labeled as the father of the pay raise. Staples did, however, come up with a letter from Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, written before the announcement, acknowledging that some of the details in the final plan did, in fact, come from Staples. Since he's running for the 3rd District Senate seat in East Texas, and since that 17-county district is packed with prisons, that's a useful letter. He's got another letter from Terral Smith, the governor's legislative director, thanking him for his help.

The Long-Term Problem is Still a Political Issue

The short-term solution on prison pay only lasts until the end of the biennium -- that's the end of next summer -- and without legislative action the correctional officers and others who got more money will be back where they are now. The Legislature will surely do something, but just what form that should take offers candidates something to crab about for the rest of the election year.

Prison pay is an issue in a number of House races, and will probably play out similarly, if more quietly, to the Senate race. Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, and Republican challenger Ben Bius, for instance, will probably be talking about it. Nobody anywhere seems opposed to the deal worked out, in the end, by Bush, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Pete Laney, but there's plenty left to argue about. Bius will have to explain his comments against Staples' original call for a special session or a solution; during the GOP primary, he got after Staples for putting Bush on the spot.

Staples got out of the gate early again, asking the prison system for information about the prison employees in hazardous duty positions who did not get their pay increased in this emergency fix. Without having hard numbers available, he estimates that could cost up to $25 million more, and says that's one of the things he wants to get into next year if he's elected. Long-term, he (and just about everybody else who's running for office in an area with prisons) wants to bring prison guards' pay up to the national average.

Teachers, Too. And State Employees, Maybe...

When they come back for that permanent money, the people who work in the Texas prison system will have plenty of competition for whatever surplus exists in January. Teachers will be there, looking for pay increases and for improvements to their benefit programs. State employees who don't work for prisons will be there, too. And those groups will get support from some of the same people who helped push for the prison guards' raises.

The Texas Public Employee's Association, for instance, will be lobbying for a 16.5 percent pay raise in the next biennium and has hired a lobby squad that includes Mignon McGarry and Doc Arnold to help them make the case. They've also cooked up a career schedule for prison employees. Right now, if you're a guard at a state prison, your step-by-step pay tops out after 20 months on the job. That's it unless you get promoted or lawmakers decide to give you more money. The temporary fix cooked up this month raises the pay, to be sure, but does nothing to fix the career ladder, which under the new plan tops out at 36 months. TPEA is pushing a 15-year career ladder.

They don't offer a cost assessment of what they're asking for, but it would run well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, just guessing from the price tags on similar plans in the past. But don't dismiss it too fast. The quick fix on prison pay will keep those issues, oddly enough, on the front burner since the Legislature promised to do something permanent. And even some of the more conservative voices in the political and business communities are starting to worry aloud about the drain of talent from government to the more lucrative private sector.

Maybe the Problem is the Unconcealed Handguns

Legislative supporters of the state's concealed handgun law held a "birthday party" to commemorate the law's passage. That ain't news, but they brought along a study that concludes, generally, that it's safer to be around people with concealed handguns than around everyone else.

If, for instance, you're hanging out with men over the age of 21, you are 8.2 times more likely to be violently assaulted by men in the general population than by men who are authorized to carry a gun. Overall, the violent crimes arrest rate for all Texans is 5.5 times greater than the arrest rate for Texans who have concealed handgun permits, according to Bill Sturdevant, the Navasota engineer who did the study. Men hold about 80 percent of the handgun permits.

Side Dish: The announcement for that event was sent out on the stationery of Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas. The person listed to contact for more information wasn't a member of her staff, but was Jerry Patterson, who's now a lobbyist for the Texas Association of Health Plans. In his previous life, Patterson was the Senate sponsor of the concealed carry law.

Not Campaigning for Anything in Particular

While we're on the subject of the former senator from Pasadena, he's put out a printed card that looks like the sort of thing you'd see from a candidate for public office. But it doesn't mention any particular office and Patterson isn't on the ballot this year. He lost the Republican primary for land commissioner in 1998 to David Dewhurst, who went on to win the job, and has said he'd like to run for that post in the future if Dewhurst decides to move on to something else.

The card he's got out right now is headlined "Patterson 2002" and includes a short biographical article on one side and a letter from the non-candidate on the other. The printed card refers to a website that's not really up and running yet. The site, at www.votepatterson.com, is done up in Aggie colors and says "coming soon." Patterson says he printed about 10,000 of the cards in anticipation of the GOP state convention next month in Houston. He's not ramping up a campaign yet, he says, but wants to make sure Republicans know he'll be in the running.

Timing is Everything

The Texas Department of Economic Development was citing litigation concerns for its reluctance to talk to reporters before it ever got the letter it now uses as proof those concerns were warranted.

They offer no explanation now, saying they don't want to talk about the matter.

In trying to explain a few weeks back why TDED ran off former legislator Randall Riley, agency executive Jerry Valdez said he was constrained in talking because, first, it was a personnel matter and second, because it involved pending litigation.

The honchos at the agency first considered suing Riley for authorizing contract payments to a particular Smart Jobs vendor. They quickly jumped off of that idea, and Valdez, the top aide to Executive Director Jeff Moseley, said later that the litigation concern stemmed from a threatening memo from that contractor, Houston-based Kemil, Inc.

But that memo, as we have noted previously, never threatens a lawsuit, and the Smart Jobs contract wasn't the issue in question, either: The company was trying to get some information under the state's open records laws. The agency, in Kemil's view, hadn't responded within the time frame required by law, and the company sent over the memo demanding the information and telling TDED it would file complaints with the attorney general's office and other "proper authorities."

Riley's departure was announced in the first week of May. The first mention of litigation came quickly after that, when reporters and others began to inquire about Riley. And the open records memo Valdez is now using for proof that litigation was a concern was written a few days later still, arriving at the agency on May 10. Kemil's execs say they never have talked to lawyers about suing over the Smart Jobs contract and say they don't know what threat the agency is talking about.

Valdez also offered up a letter to the company's banker in which, he said, Riley exposed the agency to a liability, but the agency's obligation to pay the contractor already was spelled out in its original contract. At any rate, auditors didn't find anything peculiar in that letter and let it drop.

Lawmakers on the Sunset Advisory Commission, meanwhile, are looking at a number of options for what to do with the agency. Among the ideas: Move Smart Jobs to the Texas Workforce Commission, as recommended by the Sunset staff, and move everything else, including tourism, into the governor's office or into a newly renovated agency with a new board.

There's an interesting variation being debated: Put everything but Smart Jobs under the Secretary of State. That would move everything as close to the governor's office as is possible without adding to the governor's staff (increasing that staff size has been used to the detriment of incumbents in previous gubernatorial campaigns and is currently considered a no-no). It would also add to the power and prestige of the Secretary of State's office, which is already considered a plum appointment. Because they'd like to keep all of this out of the big newspapers as much as possible, expect lawmakers to vote on a recommendation in June and then shut up until next year.

Other People's Money, Vaporware

Remember the attempted raid of the Texas Workers' Compensation Fund last session? Several legislators, prompted by Gov. George W. Bush, tried to get some of the surplus in that fund to pay for tax relief and other goodies. That got slapped down, and quickly, when the businesses that paid the money into the fund in the first place said that if any money came back out, it should be in the form of refunds to the policy holders and not as a redistribution of wealth. Guess what? The fund still has a surplus and both the administrators and their customers are telling legislators to leave the money in the pot for a rainy day. Several lawyers who've followed the issue are telling lawmakers that the surplus -- over $600 million -- can't legally be snagged for the state budget anyway.

• They swear it will work on time, but the Texas Ethics Commission had a bust when they showed off their new electronic filing software to a group of politicos. The system crashed, according to participants, and they never got any of the demo to work. They're telling folks the software will be ready soon and will be useable for the July reports on contributions and expenditures.

Update: Adults with Crayons

Republicans are ramping up their public activity on redistricting, appearing for the first time (in organized fashion) to counter Democrats' claims at legislative reapportionment hearings in San Antonio and getting busy raising money to pay for polling and legal work on that subject now and into next year. Really useful Census data won't be available until January or February, and the official numbers won't be ready until April of next year, but the early arguing is well underway.

Texas Republicans aren't getting the same kind of national help the Democrats have been getting so far, and are running their efforts through a state committee, Texans for Fair Redistricting. (The Democrats are running their show out of Impact 2000, a redistricting effort headed this year by U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston.) The GOP outfit flew in a witness from Washington, D.C., and also brought in pollster Mike Baselice and consultant Royal Masset, both of Austin, to help argue its case.

At the moment, it's a warm-up exercise and a rationale for fundraisers as much as anything else. To wit: U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, doesn't have an opponent this year, so he's on a redistricting tack, trying to raise money for statehouse Republicans on the theory, as he writes it, that "a majority in Austin means a majority in Washington." Barton, in a fundraising letter for the Sixth District Republican Association, starts off by saying the Democrats control California and will probably be able to "gerrymander away" six to ten seats now held by Republicans in Congress.

He wants to offset that in Texas with a "fair" redistricting map that would add 11 Republicans to the Texas delegation, and says that's possible if Republicans control the Texas House and thus draw the congressional districts in 2001. (Republicans hold 13 seats in the Texas delegation; the state will likely go from 30 seats in Congress to 32). "Democrats are flooding Texas with money," Barton writes in his fundraising pitch. "Tiny rural Texas districts get money from places like New York and Massachusetts from liberal interest groups who want to run Congress again."

Living in the Future

Former San Antonio Mayor and Clinton cabinet member Henry Cisneros still makes some Republicans nervous, and still makes some Democrats drool. They fear and covet his star power, in spite of poll numbers that show more Texans holding negative than positive views of Cisneros.

Some operatives on both sides think Cisneros' well-known troubles (adultery, followed by lying to the FBI about payments to his former mistress) could be overcome in a campaign. Cisneros has still got some mojo: He was on the front pages in his hometown of San Antonio for two days running, saying he didn't want to be superintendent of schools in Los Angeles one day, then saying the same thing a little more emphatically the next.

Republicans mulling over future statewide ballot names keep asking about the former Housing and Urban Development chief, in part because there are few well-known charismatic personalities on the Democratic side of the ledger. The Republicans find some relief in the poll numbers, but worry about his continuing ability to make news and draw attention. Democrats, on the other hand, come at this from two directions. Some are looking for a big name that might overcome the party's woes with sheer candlepower. Others contend that the lineup of middle-aged white guys offered as statewide candidates by the Democrats in the last election cycle left voters uninterested. The Republicans, meanwhile, swept the elections with a statewide ballot that included a Hispanic, an African-American, and a woman, and that's before you get to the judicial section on the ballot. Democrats who see that as a problem are trying to recruit Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is black, onto the state ballot.

And whether or not Cisneros decides to play, they're looking around for other up-and-comers, like Laredo Mayor Betty Flores. For his part, Cisneros has told reporters in San Antonio that he's not interested in elected office, at least for now. His focus has been on Univision, the Spanish-language television network he heads, and on education issues, which is what got him in the papers recently. Cisneros is one of five candidates listed by a search firm for the LA school job. That list also includes Houston ISD Superintendent Rod Paige and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer.

Political People and Their Moves

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has changed campaign managers. Celeste Hubert, who previously worked for Attorney General John Cornyn, moved to Hutchison's operation in February to run the Republican's reelection race. Without much of a race to run -- Hutchison faces Universal City Democrat Gene Kelly in November -- Hubert is moving on. Lindsey Parham, who has worked for Hutchison for nearly a decade, will run the campaign... Press Corps Moves: Janet Elliot is leaving Texas Lawyer to take a job at the Wall Street Journal's Texas Journal, a post opened when that paper's legal affairs writer, Mary Flood, took a job at the Houston Chronicle... Walt Borges, a former Texas Lawyer reporter who later went to Court Watch (a self-styled legal watchdog group) and now works for Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, is outta there, having taken an editing job with Texas Medicine, the magazine published by the Texas Medical Association... The House Appropriations Committee will go without a staff director for three months. Lawrence Collins, the lucky bastard, is taking a sabbatical starting June 1 and says he'll spend most of that time in Mexico, studying Spanish and goofing off. He'll return to his current post after Labor Day... University of Texas Vice Chancellor Mike Millsap has already said he'll leave that job at the end of the summer; now he's signed his first lobby client. When he hangs out his own shingle in September, the first name on the roster will be Southwestern Bell Telephone, he says... William C. Powers Jr. is the new law school dean at the University of Texas. He's the 11th of that breed, and will take over in September, when the current dean, Michael Sharlot, leaves the post to return to a teaching post in the college... The Children's Hospital Association of Texas honored a handful of officeholders for their work on health and safety issues, giving "Golden Bootie" awards to District Judge Scott McCown of Austin, Health and Human Services Commissioner Don Gilbert, Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, and Rep. Patricia Gray, D-Galveston... Kingsville Rep. Irma Rangel and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, both Democrats, were named Man and Woman of the Year by the Texas Women's Political Caucus.

Quotes of the Week

New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, citing his health as the reason behind his decision against making a U.S. Senate run: "Something very beautiful happens. It makes you figure out what you're all about and what's important to you. I used to think the core of me was in politics. It isn't."

Norm Mason, founder of Fort Bend County's Christian Coalition, in a letter to GOP precinct chairs urging their support for a challenger to a judge appointed by Gov. George W. Bush: "You will be asked to rubber-stamp the temporary assignment made by the governor's 'advisors,' because it came from 'higher up.' I hope you will look to an even Higher Authority to guide your decision."

Eric Hauser, former spokesbot to former presidential candidate Bill Bradley, on the importance of the Internet: "You can talk all you want about the new media. But the Internet is critically important because it is a way to raise money. And you use that money to purchase television time."

Garry South, political advisor to California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, dissing Gov. Bush's prediction that he'll beat Vice President Al Gore in that state: "I'm sure in Texas he looks like a compassionate conservative because Texas is so far to the right. In that landscape, he really does seem like a sensible moderate. In California, the guy looks like a right-wing wacko."

Computer systems designer and National Rifle Association member Ed Kelleher, on firearms politics: "We're in the midst of a concerted assault on gun owners. We're always being described as crazies. But look at me. I don't walk around with a gun in my hand and a knife in my teeth."

Lottery winner Joe Kainz, founder of the Wild Onion Brewing Co. in suburban Chicago, on what's next: "I've always had a dream. You know, they've got the Clydesdale horses. I want to get a set of dwarf horses and put them on a Red Flyer wagon and haul a keg of beer around."

Gov. George W. Bush, after a 77-year-old Kentucky man kissed him on the cheek, when asked whether any other men had kissed him during the campaign: "None as cute as that."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 46, 29 May 2000. Copyright 2000 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.