Vol 17, Issue 25 Print Issue

Like Pouring Syrup on an Anthill

Wow! Live weather metaphors! Just when the television folk ran out of descriptions for the presidential freeze-frame, it got really cold in Austin. It looked possible that it would drizzle and that the drizzle would freeze on the streets. It was dark and stormy and gray. People came to work late. Then the sun broke through, Al Gore resigned, George W. Bush accepted, and Republicans all over the Capital City started smiling again.

The thaw metaphor is even better. People are free now to talk about new jobs, appointments, moves, and succession games. The people going to Washington are beginning to find that out. The people who are staying in Austin are fixing their nests. It's like... well, it's unfurling the way November 8 was supposed to unfurl for the GOP. This was supposed to happen the day after Election Day.

The biggest impact on Texas people will be on the staff level as opposed to the high official level. In fact, we did a quick check, calling upon the memory of some graybeards to get a little history to illustrate the point. The question: How did Texans do the last time somebody from the Lone Star state occupied the Oval Office? And the answer: Two. Lyndon B. Johnson inherited John Kennedy's cabinet and stuck with several of those people. By the end of his tenure, he had named C.R. Smith, an airline executive, to be commerce secretary, and Ramsey Clark to be attorney general. Clark's a stretch: He was born in Dallas, but wasn't reared in Texas. The staff, however, was full of Texans.

Bush doesn't need Texans on his cabinet, though he might have a couple, because the state is solidly behind him. Better to recruit where it will shore up support. On the staff level, though, the rule is this: Go with the ones you know. That's where most of the movement here will occur.

Equal Protection from Chads and Other Election Perils

The same U.S. Supreme Court opinion that put Bush in the White House could force Texas and other states to look at how they run their elections. The court warned states that counting votes differently in different places could violate the equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

 

Your reading of that depends entirely on what lawyer is whispering in your ear, but one interpretation is that using different voting methods in different counties could amount to different kinds of voting. Statistically, one type of voting system may be more reliable at collecting and recording votes than another. Punch cards and electronic ballots and Fill-in-the-tiny-ovals and systems that require you to make an "X" all have different accuracy rates. And it's possible to argue that a vote is more likely to be counted under System A than System B. That opens an argument that allowing more than one type of system creates differences in vote-counting. That, in turn, could violate the equal protection clause before anybody pops off about chads or recounts.

In Texas, there's a contrary argument that the election and recount laws are tight enough to remain constitutional with different systems in place. Even so, legislators here and elsewhere are starting to look at laws that would require all of their cities and counties to be using the same or substantially similar systems. They're prompted in part by Florida's national embarrassment, by the Supreme Court's opinions, and by this: The people who pay for voting systems are newly interested in fixing things, and the vendors who might benefit from those fixes are dialing for dollars. A new group called the National Commission on Election Standards and Reform will look into it, try to come up with some standards and file a report later in the spring. That group starts meeting in Washington, D.C., next month, and could generate some recommendations for folks to follow in post-Florida elections.

We Rejoin the Transition Already in Progress

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry's informal transition team, which was kicking around ideas for a Perry Administration before the elections, has been replaced with a formal team that's more diverse, more structured, and less heavy on lobbyists. And word of other appointments is starting to leak.

To wit: Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, is the Gov.-presumptive's leading candidate for Secretary of State, with Geoff Connor's name in the hat as the Assistant SOS. Others who were mentioned as candidates to be the state's top elections officer before Perry settled on Cuellar include Susan Weddington, chair of the state GOP, and Fred McClure of Dallas, vice chairman of the Texas A&M System Board of Regents and a managing director at Public Strategies, Inc.

McClure and Cuellar are both among the ten folks named to Perry's transition team. That cohort is supposed to help the new governor organize his appointments process and deal with two foreign governments – the one in Mexico City and the one in Washington, D.C.

The Secretary of State job is generally focussed on elections – that's why you know who Katherine Harris is, after all. But in Texas, the office has also taken on more and more of the state's dealings with Mexico. Elton Bomer, the current secretary of state, was Bush's emissary to the inauguration of Vicente Fox. Bomer's predecessor, Tony Garza, was at the center of those conversations. And Cuellar is on the transition panel that is supposed to deal with Texas-Mexico issues.

Appointing Cuellar works on several levels for Perry. He's a Democrat, which gives the new Guv some bipartisan points (as it worked when Bush appointed Bomer, who served in the Legislature as a Democrat). It puts a Hispanic in the top appointed job in the executive branch, and it splits Laredo. That last bit is interesting because of the 2002 governor's race. A.R. "Tony" Sanchez Jr., a wealthy Laredo businessman and banker, is considering a run against Perry in two years. A Cuellar appointment would put someone who knows Sanchez inside the Republican's camp.

Conservative Republicans worried about Cuellar's bona fides can console themselves with the knowledge that he has been a leading proponent of public education vouchers in the House, and with Connor's pedigree. Connor, an attorney, worked for Gov. Bill Clements before becoming general counsel at the agriculture commission under Perry, and then general counsel at the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission under Barry McBee, who is now (and apparently will remain) Perry's executive assistant. Connor has worked at Akin Gump for the last two years.

 

Appointee-appointing Appointees

Perry formed a three-member panel to oversee appointments. That panel will work with an as-yet-unnamed appointments secretary who will help the governor appoint people to be considered by the Senate Nominations Committee and then the full Senate and who, upon confirmation, would serve on the state's boards and commissions. That group includes Texas Southern University President Priscilla Slade, Bexar County Judge Cyndi Krier and Robert Estrada, chairman and CEO of a Dallas investment banking firm.

The Texas-Mexico group includes Cuellar; Scott Caven Jr., an executive with Goldman Sachs & Co. in Houston; and Patricia Diaz Dennis, a lobbyist with SBC Communications Inc.

The Texas-federal team will try to attract federal funding and cut federal red tape on behalf of the state, and includes two current and one former executives of Public Strategies Inc. McClure, mentioned above, and David Bates Jr., are both managing directors with that company, and both worked in the Reagan and Bush Administrations. Former U.S. Rep. Pete Geren III of Fort Worth was with PSI after leaving Congress, and now is a private attorney and businessman. And Wendy Lee Gramm, former chair of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and wife of the state's senior senator, rounds out the list.

The Race is Over. Let the Race Begin.

The state Senate met, in halves, on the phone, on the day that the presidency was finally decided, to figure out the words to the Senate stanza in the George W. Bush succession anthem.

They're still tinkering with their plans. The centerpiece – a secret vote in an open meeting – is catching some flack, but only from a few senators. Noise on that score from outside, which some senators were worrying over, hasn't begun. At this point, it still looks like the votes will remain secret unless the senators want to talk about their preferences.

That said, the rules are wide open again. The six senators generally considered to be candidates had more or less agreed to a process. Then the rest of the Senate began looking over the proposals and some things that appeared to have been done came undone.

For now, the race has become a conversation about rules. There are as many questions and tweaks to be explored as there are senators. That's why Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, put the phone calls together. Senators could talk among themselves about the proposed procedures, thus knocking rough edges off the plans and building a consensus about the rules in advance of an actual vote. And he has said he wants to hold off on a vote until he's got the process nailed down. No surprises.

They've made a couple of changes since we last scribbled about this, and have plenty of time to make more. There is a split among the candidates for the presiding officer job over just what information should be secret and what should be announced to senators and the rest of us.

Most senators seem to agree that they shouldn't be forced to announce who they're supporting, but should be allowed to say who gets their vote. A senator would have the option of revealing his or her ballot, but nobody else would have that option.

But the proposed rules would keep the vote totals secret, too. You wouldn't know by watching whether That senator or This one had more votes, and neither would they.

A frontrunner, like Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, might like to have the votes announced, so that everyone can see that he's (the most often mentioned candidates for the job are all men) ahead, and by what margin. A candidate who starts back in the pack, say, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, might have a better chance to prevail if he could keep the tallies secret for a while, so that nobody knows another candidate starts with six or seven more votes.

And a candidate in the middle of the pack – Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, might be an example – might like a bit of each extreme: Hide the votes for a time so the leader can't build momentum, but reveal them at some point so that coalitions can be built from the support for second- and third- and fourth-place finishers.

That last formulation seems to be gaining favor from the Senate. They're considering a secret tally until the race is down to four candidates. At that point, the "tellers" – the folks doing the counting – would start announcing to the Senate and to everyone else just how things stand. In the original proposed rules, which were discussed over the last several weeks by the candidates for the job, the tallies would never have been announced. The balloting would go in rounds, with last-place finishers getting knocked off after each vote. Sooner or later, someone would get a majority of the votes, winning the gavel and the keys to the corner office.

Senators also wanted to know how to remove their names from the balloting, and they've figured out how to do that now. But they're still quibbling over voting out loud and counting out loud. Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, wrote a letter complaining of the secret votes and saying it should be an open vote. He's a Sibley supporter, but has told other senators that wasn't the reason for his opinion.

And it's hard to tell just which rules favor which candidate. One thing senators do agree on – this would all be so much easier if someone could get 16 supporters to sign a piece of paper. You don't have to approve rules to hold a press conference and claim the title.

At this writing, senators were preparing for a vote between Christmas and New Years Day. That would accommodate holiday plans, time to approve rules, and the resignation that starts it all.

What? Cut Education Spending?

Only about a dozen people claim to fully understand school finance formulas in Texas, and several of them are wrong. We're not in either group. But some of the people who do grok this stuff point out an odd bit of business resulting from rising property values and relatively flat enrollments.

If no changes are made to the state's school finance formulas, the state could reduce its share of education spending by $700 million to $800 million a year.

Put that another way, since you probably doubt what you just read: The state is spending $700 million more per year than it needs to spend to satisfy the current school finance formulas. Local spending, driven by taxes on increasingly valuable property has driven down the need for state money in the current formulas. Depending on which set of computer models you use, that either frees a large pile of money or means that the state can be more generous to the school districts without making a lot of new investment. In fact, it could be forced to be more generous.

The Dallas school district is on the verge, and has been for a few years, of slipping out of the equalized funding system. What that means, in plain language, is that the state is on the verge of not having to send as much money to that particular school district. That's because of rising property values and relatively flat enrollments.

One group of budgeteers will tell you that the state will get sent right back to court if Dallas falls out of what are called "Tier 2" districts. When the school finance system was mired in litigation, one standard got a lot of attention: The state should have a system that sends money to districts that education at least 85 percent of the public school students in Texas. As it now stands, Dallas and the other "equalized" districts take the state right to 85 percent. Take Dallas out, and the number slides to 82 percent or even lower. If that argument prevails, it would cost roughly $600 million to $700 million to make the formula changes that would keep Dallas in Tier 2.

But the Texas Supreme Court never set that standard in stone, according to another set of budgeteers. They're the ones who argue that the state could, theoretically, use the extra money for something else. And since we're talking theory and not politics, they wouldn't actually have to use the money for education. It's not dedicated money.

What? Spend School Money on Drugs? Teacher Insurance?

Why are they even talking about this? Because prescription drug programs covered by the state, in Medicaid and elsewhere, are driving spending right now. Budgets for drug prices, prescription drug use, and caseloads were off the mark. The state is looking at an emergency spending bill in the $700 million range, and they're scouring the bank accounts for money. They're also aware that they'll have to cover these rising prices in the next budget. When you have an eye-popping problem, you look for eye-popping solutions, and that's why they're surveying education spending.

Add indications (albeit hazy) that the economy might slow during the next two-year budget period. Stir in the idea that a government program is getting too much money, and lawmakers will at least have a look at the wad of dough before them.

Will they get into it? It depends, but as tempted as they might be to get into what could be characterized as overspending on public education, there are good reasons to leave it be.

First and foremost is the general perception that education is Job One for lawmakers in Texas. A vote to cut spending on education, unless framed very, very carefully, would be a dangerous vote indeed. On the other hand, the money could be redirected. Lawmakers could pull it out of the education funding formulas, use it to pay for some kind of health insurance program for teachers, and they'd have killed two birds with one wallet: The money would still go to education, after all, and teacher groups would be happy to have gotten a start on their legislative priority.

Hard numbers won't be available until more information is nailed down. School districts will report enrollment projections soon, and the comptroller's office will get a better read on property values around the state. The computer printouts that result will tell the budgeteers which way to go.

Prepping for 2002

If you want peace, get a bigger gun.

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry's year-end financial report will show, we are told, that he collected $5.9 million in contributions during the second half of 2000. That would leave him with $8.3 million in his political bank account. Throw that log in the campfire next time there's talk of the 2002 elections and who starts strong and who starts weak. You'd have to put Perry in the "strong" column.

If Perry had a rival in the Republican primary, it would probably be U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Dallas. She has said she probably wouldn't make a race against an incumbent Republican seeking reelection. For the sake of conversation, though, her bank account had a balance of $4.62 million in her November 27 report. Before you get all wound up comparing the two, consider a couple of points in the senator's favor: She just spent $2.9 million on a reelection campaign, and she can only raise money in $1,000 increments. Perry and other state officials can accept contributions as large as donors' wallets. One other note: You can't convert state political accounts to federal races (mostly because the restrictions are tougher on the federal kitties), but you can go the other way. If she were so inclined, Hutchison could move that federal war chest over and use it in a state race.

• Land Commissioner David Dewhurst hit the mailboxes with a fundraising letter that starts off "I'm a Team Roper." That's his intro to a couple of paragraphs about teamwork. And that leads to a few graphs about what he's been doing in office – cutting the budget, firing state employees, and rejuvenating programs. And that leads to the pitch, which, unfortunately, hit many mailboxes too late to any good. He offers a Team Roper pin in return for a contribution, but it's too late to give. We heard from several folks who got the letter on or after December 9. That was the last day elected state officials could accept contributions until the end of the legislative session on May 28.

Flotsam and Jetsam

Ain't this ironical? After a protracted battle with Aetna and some serious disgruntlement over the settlement of that company's lawsuit with Attorney General John Cornyn, the Texas Medical Association signed on with a new health insurance provider. Guess who? Here's another hint: Disagreements between Aetna and the docs prompted a fight over physical negotiations last session. The doctors won passage of a so-called "Union doctor" bill that allows doctors to get together in groups to talk to insurance companies instead of being forced to cut their deals one doctor at a time.

• The City of Houston is working on contract details with a lobbying team that includes Rob and Gordon Johnson and former House Parliamentarian Bob Kelly, who was simultaneously executive director of the Texas Legislative Council. That new contract could still fall apart – it had not been signed by our deadline – but the city's lawyers were trying to get a deal ready for the city council to vote on before the end of the year. The team that had the contract last session – led by former Rep. Stan Schlueter and including Dick Brown and former Rep. Mike Toomey – withdrew from the bidding earlier this month, saying the city was moving so slowly that it would be impossible to be effective. And while we're here, a correction: Schlueter's team, with over a dozen lobsters, was paid about $600,000 for the work, not the $1 million we reported earlier.

• Some transitions are easy. Call the Pink Building and ask for the folks representing the Third Senate District, and you'll get this response when your call goes through: "Sen. Todd Staples' office." Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, has already moved out to make way for his successor, even though Staples, who is currently a state representative, won't be sworn in until next month. Staples has hired a full staff and most of Nixon's former aides have found new places to roost.

Political People and Their Moves

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry is rearranging the political chairs on his staff a bit. Jay McCartt left a few weeks ago to try his hand at lobbying, leaving an opening for a senior advisor with some political chops. That will be Deirdre Delisi, who worked on Perry's campaign for Lite Guv two years ago, then in his state office, before leaving to work for Bush's presidential campaign. She's on her way back to the Pink Building, probably as deputy to Barry McBee, Perry's executive assistant... Richard Hamner, after nine sessions working for legislators and almost exactly 12 years straight working for Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, is leaving. Hamner will hang out a shingle and become a free-lance, hired gun, contract lobbyist. His first deal: Hamner is part of the team that will lobby for the City of Austin... Holly Mace, praised by Democrats for her fundraising prowess on behalf of the Texas Partnership, is leaving that gig now that the elections are over. She'll help raise money for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is meeting in San Antonio next August. The co-hosts of that event are Speaker Pete Laney and a Texas Lite Guv to be named later. The Partnership is a political action committee set up by House Democrats to help incumbents keep their seats... Kristy Ozmun is selling her public relations firm to Public Strategies Inc. and will become a managing director of PSI. Ozmun will bring along Margaret Justus, another PR veteran with political experience, and a list of clients that includes H-E-B and Pitney-Bowes Corp... Thomas Graham, who does public affairs work for the House Republican Caucus, among others, has sold his firm to El Paso-based SWG&M, an advertising and marketing company. He is opening an Austin office for the firm, closing his own firm in Amarillo, and will hang on to current clients... Appointments: Gov. Bush named George Williams of Houston to another term on the board of regents at Texas Southern University. Williams, an investment banker, will finish the term of Albert Black of Rowlett, who resigned. Williams will finish that term, which ends in February 2001... The Texas Ethics Commission's new chairman is Lem Allen Sr. of Seguin, and former Rep. Ernestine Glossbrenner of Alice is vice-chair. The other board members elected them... Deaths: Former U.S. Rep. Marvin Leath, D-Waco, after a bout of heart disease. Leath, who'd been working as a lobbyist since retiring from Congress in 1991, was 69.

Quotes of the Week

GOP direct mail consultant Al Mitchler, on what U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, will mean to people like him: "Without a doubt, she is going to be the best fundraiser the Republican party has had in a generation. We're going to have six years of hyperbole over her and people are making it up right now. I'm making it up right now. By God, this is a gift."

House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, on his industry: "Always remember, politics is a substitute for violence."

Taz Hansen, who works at a marina at Nevada's Lake Mead: "California seems to have a surreal attitude about water. They think everybody else's water really belongs to California."

Lobbyist and former Sen. Kent Caperton, defending fellow Aggie Rick Perry from charges that he's just another pretty face: "I think that's an accusation made by detractors. Let's be honest. When did we last have an intellectual giant as governor?"

U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey on a retiring colleague: "He's kidded by a lot of people about having a political tin ear. I think he has a political deaf ear. Bill Archer could be as shrewd a politician as anybody in town, if that's what he chose to do. He's very clearly chosen not to do that."

Uri Treisman, executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas and a board member of a national group that gave the state mediocre higher education ratings for student preparation, college affordability and the general level of education in the state: "I'm sorry to report that Texas received no 'A's or 'B's. The only solace I can give you is that we got no 'F's."

Vice President Al Gore, feigning objection to going to Harvard University after his current posting is complete: "There's a lot of fundraising associated with that job."


You just finished the last Texas Weekly of the year 2000 and of the millennium (We didn't go for all that Y2k stuff). We'll return in time for the January 9 legislative session. Have a great holiday season and a safe and happy New Year.


Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 25, 18 December 2000. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2000 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email [email protected]. For news, email [email protected], or call (512) 288-6598.