When Bill Ratliff sits down to talk to the members of his exploratory committee after the end of the legislative session, they'll tell him a number of things they could tell him today.
They'll say there is significant support within the party for a moderate, that his incumbency will help him raise money, that respect for him runs deep and that a majority of GOP senators, if asked, would probably voice their support for him in a race against any of the other folks who've been mentioned for the job, namely Land Commissioner David Dewhurst and Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. They'll tell him he would be a good general election candidate who would appeal to Republicans and Independents, and depending on who the other side puts up, even some Democrats.
Then they'll detail the problems that have everyone from consultants to graybeards in the Republican Party trying to figure out how to retain the gavel in the upper chamber.
Ratliff was the author of what Republicans call the Robin Hood plan, which evens out school finances among rich and poor districts by forcing the wealthier districts to send money to the poorer ones. Ratliff, who at the time headed the Senate's education committee, says that kind of sharing was the only option, short of new and deeply unpopular taxes, that satisfied the state constitution. As a political matter, it's unpopular with Republicans, but he points out that John Cornyn ruled in favor of Robin Hood as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court and survived complaints about that ruling on his way to becoming attorney general.
The committee will tell Ratliff that his support for a gasoline tax can and will be used against him. He points out that he didn't endorse such a tax, that he merely said it should be considered if the state really needs more money for roads. And he says most of the chamber of commerce types he talks with do, in fact, want roads. That said, gasoline taxes will be front and center for the next year or so. One possible out: Gasoline taxes have been proposed this legislative session by a couple of lawmakers who don't want to issue new bonds to build roads. If that effort gains momentum, it could take Ratliff off the hook. Another: If traffic jams are a bigger booger than higher gasoline taxes a year from now, Ratliff might hold the less unpopular of two unpopular viewpoints.
They'll tell him that the far right wing of the party was ticked when he painted targets on a couple of conservative candidates for the State Board of Education. Both were knocked off, largely due to Ratliff's efforts, but that didn't endear him to the social conservatives in the GOP. The conservatives in the party were miffed, too, when Ratliff came out the narrow winner of the race to succeed Rick Perry as lieutenant governor and split his committees evenly between Democrats and Republicans, putting an exact balance on redistricting and giving the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee to Rodney Ellis, an African-American Democrat from Houston.
The committee will ask him what he was thinking when he made a famous statement that "I am a Republican for the same reason I am a Methodist—I agree with them at least 51 percent of the time." He emphasizes that "at least." Opponents will emphasize "51 percent."
There have already been efforts to recruit new candidates into the race, and in spite of the announcement, it's not at all clear who's in and who's not. Ratliff's announcement quells any lame duck talk during the session, but seemed to stir GOP officeholders and operatives more than calming them. He said he'd make a final decision about whether to run after the session ends in early summer, and until then, he wants to concentrate on the session.
Explorers, Tour Guides and Fellow Travelers
There haven't been this many people exploring Texas since the conquistadors were looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. One difference from the time of the Spaniards: A friend observes that he has never seen a political exploratory committee that came back with a negative answer for the candidate.
In fact, Ratliff made his announcement in part to try to get everyone to shut out the Political Future in favor of the Legislative Present. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, followed Ratliff's press conference with a statement that, as House Republican Caucus chairman, he was encouraging members to wait until after the legislative session to pick sides.
Ratliff's guide on this bit of political exploration will be Bryan Eppstein, the Republican consultant from Fort Worth who has worked on the Lite Guv's Senate campaigns. He'll get an assist from Todd Olsen of Olsen-Delisi, one of the two partners who bought Karl Rove's consulting business when Rove went national with George W. Bush. Ordinarily, that would take two firms out of the race for consulting gigs in the 2002 primaries, but this has an unusual twist. Olsen-Delisi hasn't signed on with Ratliff—only Olsen himself has. And he's on only for the exploration, at least at this point. Ted Delisi says pointedly that neither he nor the firm has been signed by anyone in the Lite Guv race.
Another client of that firm, Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza, has been talked up by Republican consultants and others as a possible candidate for lieutenant governor. But after the conversations hummed for a couple of weeks, Garza says now that he is not going to run for Lite Guv.
The promoters of the idea (and they're not finished just because Garza turned them down) started with the rationale that the GOP needs an Hispanic surname near the top of the ballot to offset an expected run by Tony Sanchez Jr. of Laredo. They follow with the idea—extant but certainly not universal—that Dewhurst, Ratliff and Rylander make a weak field. And never discount the ability of an unattached political consultant to create a new candidate who can then raise money and be billed.
But nobody in state Republican politics has the clout to order other interested candidates to get out of the way for the good of the ticket (as Bush was able to do when he was governor), and the field is getting crowded even without talk of an additional candidate. It's getting harder to build a case for additional players, even for people who don't like the current lineup. Who wants to run against an incumbent, a wealthy man, and the sitting state tax collector?
Ratliff can't take contributions or pledges during the session, but says he'll accept endorsements (which possibly could lead to later contributions). He'll announce members of his exploratory committee over the next few weeks. That'll be headed by Bexar County Judge Cyndi Taylor Krier and Jan Bullock, wife of the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, and Ratliff says he'll flesh it out with a combination of officeholders, political advisors and people who finance Republican campaigns.
Questions immediately arose about whether Krier stepped on a crack by signing up; judges are prevented from overt political activities, and she is, at least in title, judicial. But there are cutouts in the law for county judges, who also are the chief administrators and political officers on their turf, and Krier apparently walked through one of those cutouts. The short form: Judges who aren't in the business of judging cases aren't subject to all of the political restraints that normally apply.
Nickels and Dimes
Buried, but not deeply, in the materials for Perry's highway funding fly-around of the state, is a line putting the governor on record against a gasoline tax. His push: New bonds to pay for highway construction, mixing state and gate money to build toll roads, allowing projects to be built as they're designed (engineers call it design/build) to speed construction, and issuing pavement warranties that force contractors to make certain types of guarantees on what they build. The pitch is tailored to each community along the way, but it's basically this: All these changes will get roads built faster.
Meanwhile, at the Top of the Ballot
Marty Akins is not, not, not exploring whether to run for governor of Texas on the Democratic ticket. He says he is definitely in the race. He'll assemble a committee for raising and spending money within a month or so, and he's been making the rounds at the capitol to let various politicos know that he's in and would like some support. Akins says he is the only Democratic candidate (here comes a poke at Tony Sanchez Jr.) who can win both the primary and general elections next year.
In his version of the way the world works, Democrats in Texas are in trouble unless they can rekindle the loyalties of Reagan Democrats, the largely Anglo and male group that left for the GOP in the 1980s. Sanchez might be able to win a Democratic primary, Akins says, but the Laredo millionaire can't win the big one. He pooh-poohs the idea promoted by Sanchez surrogates that the key to a Democratic renaissance in Texas is a direct and well-financed play to Hispanic voters.
Akins says he did a poll that shows 60 percent of the people in Texas know or think they know his name. He says some of that is from his days as quarterback at the University of Texas, but says a good deal of it comes from people thinking he's a country-western singer, some kind of cross between Chet Atkins and Marty Robbins. Whatever the reason, he concludes, his name will work on a ballot.
Longtime Democratic activist Billy Horton is running the Akins campaign. Horton says that's a purely volunteer effort at the moment and says that the campaign hasn't hired anyone or signed any contracts yet. But both he and Akins say he'll be the campaign manager when the time comes.
Horton says the campaign tried to set up a meeting between Sanchez and Akins, only to be rebuffed by the Sanchez folks. Horton says they were told they could meet with a political consultant. Akins turned down that proposal. The Sanchez folks, in reply, say they're not aware of any meetings in any of these three categories: Requested, Scheduled, or Likely.
This is (Interesting) Spin
The transition from Lite Guv to Guv was apparently kind to Rick Perry, who began the legislative session with double the name identification as he'd had six months earlier. According to a poll done by Baselice & Associates of Austin, 49 percent of voters had a positive impression of Perry at the beginning of the legislative session, and only 8 percent had a negative impression. Baselice is Perry's pollster, but we're told the governor didn't commission this poll. With that caveat, it has a couple of interesting corners. Perry has the best ratio of positive to negative ratings of any elected statewide official, and says he does particularly well with female Republicans and with Republicans over age 45. All of those statewide officeholders are Republicans, and one of them, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, is openly considering a run against Perry. It doesn't compare her name ID to his.
Baselice says the Republican base vote in Texas is growing, even as the number of Hispanics in the state grows. And the pollster concludes that a dramatic increase in Hispanic votes—to one-fifth of the total vote from one-sixth of the total—would only add about one percentage point to the Democratic column. If you're looking at Democratic base votes, or the number of votes cast for the lowest-scoring Democrats on the ballot in the last elections, that's not enough of a change to make a difference.
The GOP topspin on that set of numbers is that the Democrats are going to spend a lot of money on a voter campaign that won't help their ticket. That's bad news, should it turn out to be true, for people who were going to get the Democratic base vote and little more in 2002. Al Gore got 39 percent of the vote in Texas last November and one point wouldn't have helped his case, for instance. But the pollster ignores the fact that, for Democrats and Republicans in tight races, a point could make all the difference. A one-percentage point shift to the Democratic side of the ticket in 1998 would have been enough to turn both the lieutenant governor's race and the comptroller's race. Had nothing else changed, that would have meant a different resident of the Governor's Mansion; the vote swing would have put Democrat John Sharp in line for a promotion when Gov. George W. Bush won the White House. Nevertheless, Baselice concludes there will be no "significant differences in partisan base vote trends in 2002."
Raising Money or Trying to Move the Market?
The Texas Railroad Commission's natural gas conference actually resulted in a couple of legislative recommendations. The three commissioners voted unanimously to push severance tax incentives when prices are high, on the theory that that would encourage more production, which would lower prices. The bet, in essence, is that the producers would use at least some of the money they weren't spending on taxes for new production, or that the fatter margins resulting from the lower tax would attract new people to the game.
Several proposed severance tax breaks are geared the other way, but for the same reason: The theory is that a combination of a high tax and a low price destroy the economics of operating a well. When prices go up and producers are making more money, they can afford a higher tax rate. And when prices drop, the only way to keep marginal wells economically on line is to drop the taxes that become, in effect, a fixed cost that contributes to the problem.
Either way, it'll look like a tax break to the budgeteers, but it's on the way over to the Pink Building. In a letter to the Legislature, the three commissioners endorse the first idea over the second. They also think it would be easier, at least some of the time, to take care of consumers if the jurisdiction over gas utilities weren't split between the cities and the state. But rather than step on municipal toes, the commissioners suggest giving cities the right—if they want to exercise it—to give control over the gas companies to the state (as is already done with electric utilities).
They complain that gas customers don't know the price they're paying until after they've used the gas and make a couple of suggestions about it, but don't propose or endorse any particular approach.
No Sue Me, No Sue You
On the same day that a group of nursing homes sued the state in an effort to raise the amounts they get in reimbursement, a Houston lawmaker filed an industry-backed bill to limit nursing home liability in lawsuits. Under current law, exemplary damages don't apply in cases that involve things like murder, injury to a child, or injury to an elderly or disabled person. The bill by Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, would remove elderly and disabled individuals from that list and apply limits to exemplary damages that could be awarded in cases that involve them.
The federal lawsuit, an unrelated matter filed by a group of five nursing homes and something called the Texas Alliance for Fair Nursing Home Reimbursement, says the state isn't sticking to a 1997 court settlement regarding reimbursement rates paid to homes that care for Medicaid-covered patients. They contend they are losing, typically, $13 per day per Medicaid patient in Texas. And they say the state ranks 45th nationally in what it pays nursing homes for those patients.
More Lawsuit Reform: We did an item a while back on a poll that showed Texans don't like lawyers making big bucks on class action lawsuits. Now a group that's against limits on such suits has turned around that same poll to make its case. Texas Watch pulled some numbers done for a national tort reform group and used them in a newsletter, saying 72 percent of Texans think class action suits are an effective way to compensate people for injuries, 70 percent agree that the suits improve goods and services, 57 percent favor their continued use and 56 percent who think they're generally justified.
No! A loophole in a tax bill? Reps. Talmadge Heflin of Houston and Carl Isett of Lubbock say a 1978 law that was intended to limit the growth of the state budget hasn't done the trick. The two Republicans have proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit—really, this time—the growth of state government to the rate of growth in the state economy. The existing law doesn't include all state spending within the limits; since it passed, state spending has increased 500 percent while the state economy has grown 400 percent. One other thing: State lawmakers can vote, by simple majority, to ignore the spending cap in any given year. This bill would require a two-thirds majority.
No Surprise in the Top Three
Courtesy of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, here's a breakdown of what the state costs the average Texan and where the money goes. Keep in mind that this is the state budget and doesn't include local property taxes and that kind of thing.
• Total spending per capita: $2,550
• Public education: $687.60
• Highways: $138.88
• Prisons: $97.31
• Nursing homes: $82.92
• Medicaid (Aged and Disabled): $69.47
• State Employee Group Insurance: $41.53
• School lunches: $40.71
• Community and Junior colleges: $34.95
• Medicaid (TANF Adults and Children): $27.30
• Higher Education Employee Insurance: $21.44
• Children's Health Insurance Program: $19.14
• Foster care and adoption: $16.14
• University of Texas at Austin: $16.05
• Texas A&M University: $13.24
• Texas Tech University: $6.68
• Commission on the Arts: 25 cents
Water, Prison Guards and Teachers
• Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, is drumming his fingers waiting for a water bill that has a low bill number, a lot of interested parties and a promise of war. Some of the highlights in drafts of the bill include a new Texas Water Policy Council with three members appointed by the governor and four from various regulatory agencies with big interests in water. River Authorities would report to the council, which would also watch over use and management of surface and groundwater. It would not be able to regulate, buy, build, or restrict any water project, but would oversee management of what's going on with water in Texas, just to coordinate the mess. The bug in the wiring is junior water rights. Brown's bill would repeal or modify that provision for transfers of water from one basin to another. And that's where a lot of the fight in the water legislation has been.
• At the end of the 2000 fiscal year (which would be the end of last August in plain English), the state was short 2,292 prison guards, according to the State Auditor's Office. That's up from 1,252 the year before and tells you a little something about the problems in the prisons right now. SAO's report says it flat out: "As this shortage continues to grow, the Department [of Criminal Justice] may have difficulty ensuring the safety of staff members and inmates." Injuries to guards actually fell, but assault injuries to inmates in the prisons were up 11 percent, the auditors said.
The report says recruiting is at record levels but also says turnover was 23 percent last year and says the agency should do more to retain the corrections officers it is able to hire. The budgeteers are working on it, and have approved the less expensive of two pay-raise plans for the guards. The C.O.s are treading lightly, saying the legislative action is encouraging without endorsing it.
• Average salaries for returning teachers rose 2.4 percent in Texas last year, according to the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators. They make an average of $38,301, according to TASB/TASA. Average salaries for beginning teachers rose 1.5 percent, to $26,708. The state minimum for starting teachers is $24,240, and nearly four out of five districts pay more than that amount. One in ten districts pay signing bonuses to new teachers, usually for hard-to-fill jobs, and 37 percent use incentive pay.
Political People and Their Moves
After 30 years working for U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, Don Carlson has signed up with Pricewaterhousecoopers, the firm that hired Archer upon his retirement from Congress in January. Carlson stayed for a month with Archer's successor, U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston; he'll be replaced by William Christian, who had been working for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas... Bob Kelly is not a lobbyist for the City of Austin, as we reported last week. But his officemates, Rob and Gordon Johnson, are lobsters for the City. They cooperate on some accounts, but not that one... Carmen Luevanos, who's been writing speeches and other stuff for Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is ending a long run in state government by moving to a communications job in the Austin school district. Luevanos previously worked for the comptroller's office and Sen. Eddie Lucio, and before that, as a TV reporter... We caught a political pamphleteering operation in full swing in the Capitol's cafeteria, but it was a spillover from the large institution just north of the state government campus. Marshall Maher, the candidate touted on the orange flyers in the Pink Building, is running for editor of The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas... Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named Paul White, a civil defense lawyer from Lufkin, to the 159th Judicial District Court in Angelina County. He'll replace Judge Gerald Goodwin, who resigned... Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander hired Susan Anderson to be the agency's chief investment officer, overseeing the $20 billion sitting in the state treasury and in TexPool and in various trust accounts. Anderson was with a firm called Public Financial Management Inc. and before that worked in financial services for the City of Austin.
Quotes of the Week
Former HUD secretary and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, telling The Dallas Morning News he won't run for office: "Building a self-reliant business that I can share with family and friends and doing something that I think is noble give me the best course, without hellacious election cycles, huge fundraising requirements and all of the personal attacks that seem to be part of the [political] game."
U.S. Secretary of Education (and former Houston ISD superintendent) Rod Paige talking about school vouchers in the Washington Times: "It's not the threat that it's built up to be. It's an over-inflated argument. We've already taken money out of public schools to put in private schools. Charters are private schools and everybody says OK. But the term 'charter school' has not been trashed."
From reporter Todd Gillman, in a story in The Dallas Morning News on a Tony Sanchez Jr. speech: "He proposed no solutions. He got strong reviews."
Amarillo mayoral candidate Trent Sisemore, turning an unfortunate phrase on a troubled local aviation endeavor in a letter to supporters: "When the smoke clears, I have faith that our leaders in Washington will see the [V-22] Osprey's vital importance..."
EDS, the state's Medicaid contractor, in a February 23 statement after reports that fraud allegations against the company are somehow tied to a $600 million budget shortfall related to Medicaid: "It would be a mistake for anyone to view the allegations as the core of the budget crisis. That is simply not true." Later, in a February 28 statement on the grand jury investigation, which was triggered by insider complaints to legislators which were passed on, in turn, to prosecutors: "EDS views this situation as a very Texas-specific issue being driven by political and competitive pressures associated with the state Medicaid budget shortfall."
Political advisor Karl Rove, in The New Yorker on why tax cuts are a good program for his boss, President George W. Bush: "As people do better, they start voting like Republicans—unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing."
Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, during a hearing on highway spending: "The closer the money gets to your district, the more liberal you get."
Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 34, 5 March 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.