Redistricting: A Million Ways to Die

You're not supposed to predict the future in our business, but what the heck: You have not seen a redistricting plan this year that will actually be used to elect legislators next year.

Most senators pooh-pooh the working map presented by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. Republicans think it should assure them at least two more seats. Democrats think it cuts some of their districts too close for anyone but an incumbent to win, and there are regional fights all over the map. Change the name of the chairman of redistricting to Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, and you can say most of the same things about the House map.

Republicans think it might lose them seats, cutting them to 69 or 70 from the current 72 GOP members in the 150-member House. Jones thinks they would win 80 seats under his map. The Republicans involved in the coordinated "Redistricting Education Project" claim to have signatures from more than 60 House members who promise they'll vote against Jones and in favor of whatever the outlanders have drawn.

Parts of the maps will survive. It's safe, sort-of, to say that Wichita County, Texas, will be a House district. It's safe to say, probably, that the final House map will include only one illegal county cut—where a county is chopped in a way that violates standing court orders. But other stuff is soft and all you're seeing at the moment is positioning. When this round is over one month from now, everyone involved wants to be in the best possible fighting position.

A plan that passes the Legislature and gets the signature of the governor would rank high—that's a good position, if you like the map. A plan drawn by the Legislative Redistricting Board after a legislative breakdown or a gubernatorial veto would have some weight. A plan approved by the Legislature but not by the governor: Less. A plan approved by one house and crushed by the other: Less still. Plans drawn by factions in the face of a complete meltdown: Give the judges the crayons and let them draw the maps without interference.

By our deadline, the consensus in the House was that the map put out by Jones would have to be seriously amended to get out of committee and onto the floor in some kind of workable form. And because it zings some people who were thought to be sympathetic to House Speaker Pete Laney, there has been a persistent rumor that it's just a head fake to throw off the opposition. Some of his allies, like Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, are paired with other allies, like Rep Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon. Some members who might stick with him in a knife-fight, like freshman Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would find themselves in districts they don't think they could defend. Some of the folks expected to be against him in a fight over control of the House, like freshman Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, got districts that look pretty good. (We point to those two because an alternate explanation is that they're freshmen and don't have the clout to control their fortunes yet.)

Jones said at the end of the week that he still hopes to get redistricting to the floor of the House in the first week of May. Republicans who are working on an alternate map of their own say they're not quite finished with it, but plan to be ready in plenty of time for a floor battle. They widely expect Jones to put out another map before that time, and they don't want to volunteer for the same kind of target practice he's been subjected to for the last week. As long as Jones has the only working map, he's the only guy being shot at. They'll make their map public, but not until they're convinced they've seen his last map, or at least the one he's taking to the floor.

Straight, No Chaser

The Republican argument, uncluttered by our interpretation, goes like this:

The Delwin Jones map fails on standards of fairness, compactness and constitutionality.

It's unfair to draw a district for Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, that goes all the way to the Texas-Mexico border. It's unfair to run the district of Rep. Gene Seaman, R-Corpus, through a skinny little chicken neck that connects a big chunk of South Texas and a piece of the border with a hunk of Nueces County that borders with nothing but the Gulf of Mexico. The connecting piece is one voting precinct wide as it passes through seven precincts.

Several districts aren't as compact as they could be (that's a legal requirement and not an aesthetic one), including the two mentioned above and a number of districts in urban counties. The district drawn for Rep. Kenn George, R-Dallas, looks like a map of a development built around a mountain range or a lake. The "lake" is another district, drawn for Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, a Democrat.

One constitutional problem, according to the Republicans, is in Brazoria County, where there are two cuts made when one would do. That double-cut shouldn't stand. Harris County should get 25 seats instead of the 24 on the current map, according to the Republicans. The county has enough people on a raw number basis for 24.46 districts, but the REP folks say the law clearly gives the county the edge in that argument, and they say Jones ignored the letter signed by every member of the Harris County delegation asking him not to strip them of a district.

They note there are other legal problems without specifying all of them. Several districts lose Latino or Black population, or retrogress, in an illegal way. Some—use Ehrhardt as an example—appear to the Republicans to be drawn for purely partisan reasons. It's not necessarily bad to have a partisan effect when you're drawing a map for someone, but that partisan effect can't be used as a legitimate reason for the lines.

The Jones map, according to the Republicans, gives the Democrats a win in every case where there is a Republican paired with a Democrat. It creates nine new districts and the Republicans say they would win in only four of those.

Random Bits

The first week of May is the last "Normal" week of the session; on Monday, May 7, the rules tourniquet starts to tighten. The rest of the month's calendar is littered with internal processing deadlines. What that means to non-parliamentarians is that in the last month of the session, it gets harder and harder every day to make something happen in the Legislature.

• The House will soon be looking at contribution limits for campaigns. The House Elections panel sent out a bill (HB 3) that includes donor limits of $25,000 for non-judicial statewide candidates, $10,000 for state senate candidates and $5,000 for state representative hopefuls.

• That constitutional amendment that would protect the Legislature in 2011 from having to mess with redistricting during its regular session is moving; the Senate kicked it out on a unanimous vote.

• You've probably seen at least part of it by now, but there's a poll out there by the Eppstein Group that shows Rick Perry killing Tony Sanchez Jr. in the governor's race 18 months from now. Perry, who's run three statewide campaigns, beats Sanchez, who hasn't run for any office, 2-to-1. That same poll shows Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander with better numbers than either Land Commissioner David Dewhurst or Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, but it says Ratliff would do better than Dewhurst in a general election race against Democrat John Sharp. What's not there is the fact that Eppstein works for Ratliff. He ran the head-to-head numbers for Dewhurst vs. Sharp and Ratliff vs. Sharp, but not for Rylander vs. Sharp. The poll is real early: Nobody knows any of them yet, and voters have plenty of time to get happy or disgusted with the lot.

Just Ten Months until Primary Elections

Either way, you could have a Crabb in the House. Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Humble, might not return to the House next session. His county attorney has offered him a job, and if he accepts that, he's barred from holding elective state office. That's got Michael Sullivan interested in another race. Sullivan ran against Crabb in 2000, and says he'll be in the race to replace him in 2002. He won't announce until after the current session, he says, "in order to respect the sitting incumbent and the process." On his website at www.SullivanCampaign.com, he has this posting: "Please check back June 1, 2001, for an important message from Michael Sullivan."

What says Crabb about that? He says Sullivan will have to fend off a Crabb either way. Joe could turn down the job offer and run for reelection, or (and this sounds more likely at this moment) he could take the new job, resign from the House, and then support the candidacy of his beloved, Nancy Crabb. She's a teacher and has a couple of former legislators in her ancestry. Neither that nor her husband's tenure in the House has spoiled the idea for her; Joe Crabb says she would definitely run.

And Only 18 Months to General Election Day

Land Commissioner David Dewhurst is circulating a memo, addressed to "Republican Friends," that manages to snarl at John Sharp, mention Tony Sanchez's bungled investigation of Secretary of State Henry Cuellar and pat Gov. Rick Perry on the back, all in four short paragraphs. Dewhurst is expected to run for lieutenant governor, as is Sharp, who ran for the job and lost to Perry in 2000. The Republican knocked Sharp for quotes that recently appeared in the Dallas Morning News, in which he called Perry "stupid" at a political roast. He then went on to blame Sharp for the investigation that got painted as Sanchez's attempt to smear Cuellar.

He ends with a zinger: "Sharp is a desperate, career politician, whose well known liberal policies and mudslinging caused him to lose in 1998, and it will sink him again in 2002. If you needed another reason to defeat John Sharp, here it is. Now, let's go do it."

Sidebar: Dewhurst refers to Perry as a "charismatic, bright man" in the memo. It's addressed on the day that current Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and Perry were having a mild spat in the papers over Perry's intervention in a Senate vote on hate crimes legislation. Ratliff and Dewhurst are on track, at the moment, to run against each other in the Republican primary for Lite Guv.

The Other Medicaid Problem

Nursing homes—where the state's low Medicaid reimbursement rates and a declining client base have combined to create huge financial problems—could get some money through a proposed bed tax that doesn't seem to be upsetting them as much as you would think.

The homes would pay $5 per day per patient to the state, which would use the money to attract federal matching funds. The combination of those two piles of money would amount to about $500 million. The bed tax would be collected from all nursing homes and for all patients, including those who aren't receiving Medicaid benefits. But the money could be used only for Medicaid patients. That can't be dedicated by law to the nursing homes, which makes them a tad nervous, but lawmakers have assured them that the money will be used on nursing homes.

Another component of the deal aims to quell fears in the insurance business. Lawmakers are sweating over liability insurers abandoning the industry and are trying to keep them. The industry is sweating even more than the policymakers, and one of the reasons is that homes without Medicaid patients are on board is to try to hang on to their insurance.

The lawmakers working on the nursing home problems don't think the bed tax and federal matches will completely solve the problems, but it gets them closer. And some are starting, quietly, to push for more state help for assisted living and home health care, which are both growing alternatives to traditional nursing home care.

The Sun Never Really Sets, Part I

The Texas Department of Economic Development—besieged for months and months by auditors, legislators and reporters, among others—looked like a sure bet for a legislative toe tag. But shutting down a prominent government agency through the sunset process is harder than teaching a chimpanzee to play the clarinet, and TDED looks like it will survive intact for two more years.

The version that was current at our deadline would move international programs to the offices of Secretary of State Henry Cuellar. Conversation about moving the economic development stuff to the governor's office has pretty much stopped. Talk of merging tourism functions that now reside in at least four agencies, including TDED, has been replaced with a proposal for an interagency group that will coordinate things between TDED and 10 other agencies. And the big slap at TDED, moving the Smart Jobs to another agency, has been retracted. The House committee working on the sunset legislation actually voted to move Smart Jobs to the Higher Education Coordinating Board, but then thought better of it, recalled the bill to committee, and erased that idea. Smart Jobs stays.

Instead of killing or field-stripping the agency as they have talked about for nearly a year, lawmakers are now saying they'll send the nine board members home, replace them with a five-member board, and rig the Smart Jobs financing system in a way that keeps the program from getting any new money for the next two years. They'll try to find a long-term solution next session.

Smart Jobs is funded with money that overflows from the state's unemployment insurance (the elves in that system call it UI, pronounced You-eye). UI is running $77 million in the red, a number that is expected to rise to $114 million. It gets its dough from a tax on employers, and lawmakers don't want to raise that tax enough to fund UI and also Smart Jobs. Besides, they still don't know what happened to all of the Smart Jobs money that already has been spent. Here's the bottom-line logic: Why fight over moving it to another agency if it's not gonna have any money anyhow?

The Sun Never Really Sets, Part II

It's still early, but the General Services Commission is still a candidate for a toe tag; more likely, it'll get smaller with some of its duties going to an existing agency and some going to an altogether new one that would handle real estate for state government.

A proposal from Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, would move the telecommunications duties of the into the Department of Information Resources, including new programs like e-procurement and e-travel (fancy ways of saying agencies could buy services and goods online). GSC would be able to work on the content of online procurement, but the system setup and maintenance would get housed with DIR. It would also create a totally new state agency called the Texas Building Commission, which would take over all of the construction and leasing of state government office space, management of the State Cemetery, and recycling programs. GSC would keep a couple of its current duties, including surplus property and salvage and miscellaneous administrative support for other agencies.

Sex on the Internet; Inexpensive Hotels

• This might be enough to attract people to a hearing of the House State Affairs Committee. That panel, like others in the Legislature, sends email notices to anyone who signs up, listing hearing times and bills that'll be up for consideration. They sent a posting that includes bills on job discrimination, same-sex marriages, and sexual orientation, and got this apparently automated email message from a Dallas-based utility in reply: "TXU automatically screens all e-mail for inappropriate subject matter (i.e. material that is discriminatory, hateful, vulgar, pornographic, sexually-explicit or obscene). This e-mail contains information that is considered inappropriate for the business environment..."

• You have to like this one: The press corps that travels with President Bush stays in Waco when he sleeps in Crawford. During the current trip to Texas, during which Bush is dedicating the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, there's a convention in Waco. And the high-falutin' White House scribes will be staying at Motel 6.

Just a Matter of Finance

Health insurance for school employees looks like a bigger train wreck than it probably is. The House plan needs more money than the Senate thinks will be available. The Senate plan is doomed in the House because it depends on a constitutional change that House leaders can't pass.

Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, has a proposal that wouldn't take effect unless two separate constitutional amendments win approval from both the Legislature and the voters. One of those amendments is in danger of not passing the first hurdle: House leaders don't think they can muster 100 votes in favor of spending some of the capital gains in trust fund for public education. There is a pile of money to be gained by such a move, but some conservatives don't like what they call a "raid" on the Permanent School Fund. Members of the State Board of Education have been working hard against that (and against legislation limiting their own involvement in the investments).

What's more, the downhill slopes of the markets have made some members squeamish about the PSF idea. In spite of the fact that the legislation is sponsored by Appropriations Chairman Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, and Finance Chairman Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and championed by Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, it probably can't get out of the House. That reduces the amount of money available for things like health insurance for teachers and other school workers.

The second amendment in the Bivins package would tap the $6.4 billion surplus in the Teacher Retirement System, using some of that money to increase a multiplier that determines benefit levels for retirees and to cover huge shortfalls that have developed in the TRS-Care health plan for those retirees. The House doesn't have a version of that to play with; they would have to hook up with Bivins' constitutional amendment and find another bill that would cover retired teachers. Bivins' employee health plan would require passage of both amendments. It's written so that the TRS package could move ahead even if voters (or lawmakers) turn down the bit about the Permanent School Fund.

The House plan offered up by Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, wouldn't require any constitutional amendments, but would require some outside help from the folks who are working on the state budget. He's fiddled with the particulars since we wrote about this two weeks back, but the bottom line is still big, at $1.3 billion. Where that comes from is up to the appropriators who are locked in a back room sorting out the differences between the House and Senate budget proposals.

Sadler would have the state giving each employee $1,000 a year to be used for health care or even to be taken home as extra salary. Small districts would be required to sign up; larger districts would be added in later. That would include more than three-fourths of the state's school districts in the plan, but because they're small, only about one-fourth of the public school employees in the state would be included at first. The $1,000, however, would go to school employees in all districts, including those that have their own health plans and don't immediately join the state's pool. The districts in the plan would be required to contribute $150 per month per employee. Those that pay less than that now would have six years to get to that level; those that pay more could divert the overage to other employee benefits, but wouldn't be able to spend the extra money on non-employee items.

Fighting for the Nest Egg

The idea of grabbing some of the gains in the school trust fund is tangled with another school finance fight: Who should have control over the investments in that school trust fund? State auditors have given mixed reviews of the use of outside investment and consulting firms. Legislative leaders want to move control of the investments away from the State Board of Education and some of the outside advisors hired by the SBOE. Those advisors point to other state funds that are run differently and, they argue, not as well. And they've fed some of the confusion by arguing to keep outside managers and consultants while also arguing against using any capital gains in the PSF for current spending. Add to that one more constitutional amendment, which would create a new board to take over the investment duties now in the hands of the SBOE. That change, carried by Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, could go before the full House this week.

Political People and Their Moves

Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen is on the "hurry-up" list the White House is using for judicial appointments. She's under consideration for a spot on the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Bush Administration is reportedly rushing appointments to get them in front of the Senate quickly, while they can be sure Republicans are still in the majority. Owen won her spot on the court in 1994, in the same elections that made George W. Bush governor of Texas. If she leaves the court, Gov. Rick Perry would get to appoint a successor. Austin attorney Hector DeLeon is among the people being talked about for that job... Here's what started that bogus rumor about Texas Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews looking at a race for land commissioner: Matthews hired consultant Lisa Pollard to do some fundraising and to "broaden" his contacts in the oil and gas industry. The part about the hiring is correct. The land commission part is not: Matthews says he'll stay right where he is... Former Sen. Jerry Patterson, who is going to run for land commissioner, is putting his fundraising operation together. He's signed Susan Lilly in Austin and Heidi Lange in Houston to vacuum up money for that effort. Lilly also does consulting work for Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, who would surprise everyone in Texas politics if he decides against running for lieutenant governor. Patterson, who lost to Dewhurst two years ago, has said he won't make the land grab unless Dewhurst moves on... The Republican Governors Association hired Susan Nelson as its new finance director. She's a Washington, D.C., consultant and we mention it here because of the Texas ties: Nelson has worked on campaigns for Gov. Rick Perry and for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas... Eddie Fariss got bumped up to director of community affairs at the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. He's been working at the agency for 17 years... remember the rumor a while back that President Bush would appoint former naval officer and Dallas Cowboy Roger Staubach to be Secretary of the Navy? Well, they got the state right: Bush named Gordon England, who's done a couple of tours in Fort Worth with General Dynamics and Lockheed... Another U.S. Attorney in Texas is stepping down: Mike Bradford, who had the Eastern District of the state, will sign up with a Beaumont law firm... Bexar County Judge Cyndi Krier resigned now that she's a University of Texas regent, and the commissioners elected Nelson Wolff, the former state senator and San Antonio mayor, to replace her. He'll run for election to that job in two years and will, in turn, have to quit another government job. He's on the City Public Service Board... Deaths: Morris Douglas Jaffe Sr., a San Antonio businessman and power broker who had close ties to a mess of mostly Democratic politicians including Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, John Connally and Henry Cisneros. He was 78.

Quotes of the Week

House Redistricting Chairman Delwin Jones, as quoted in the Houston Daily Court Review: "People keep asking me if we will have a fair plan. It's going to be fair. I'm going to draw [House Speaker Pete] Laney's district first, then mine, and then my good friends. A lot of people are coming up and reminding me what good friends we are."

University of Texas at Austin President Larry Faulkner, in a letter explaining thin ranks of minority executives at UT to Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio: "It is often the case, even though the situation is getting better, that there are not enough minority applicants who yet possess the education and experience necessary to compete for faculty or high-level academic appointments."

Faulkner, in a second letter on the subject: "If my language was interpreted so as to give offense, I apologize for creating a situation where that was even possible."

Paul Sugg with the Texas Association of Counties, quoted in a New York Times story on ranchers selling water rights on their land: "What happens to land values, to local and regional economies that are often based on agriculture? What happens to the tractor dealer and the local car dealer when a farmer says, 'Heck, I can make more money selling my water and stopping farming?'"

Armin Narro, a pizza deliveryman who's running for mayor of McAllen, during a debate: "While all of you are putting up those disgusting four-by-eight [political]signs, I'm feeding the hungry."


Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 42, 30 April 2001. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2001 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.