The Never-Ending Story: Redistricting and 2014

Politics is fast. Redistricting is slow.

Start with the fast one. Susan Combs released the political Kraken Wednesday, announcing she will leave office at the end of this term. That made Comptroller of Public Accounts an open seat and inspired a scramble to announce for that race. And it takes a rich player away from the table in the 2014 race for lieutenant governor. Combs had expressed some interest in that and had $7.3 million in starter funds at the end of last year. Her exit from that conversation removed one of several ways for other candidates in that race to fall short.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has told reporters he will seek re-election, and he’s expected to make that official pretty soon. That doesn’t mean he will be back, but that he will try. Two statewide officeholders plan to run, and at least one senator is looking at it. That’s before you invoke the names of any Democrats. No faces are showing in that part of the forest, but they have more time and less primary competition to navigate.

Dewhurst’s challengers will leave openings at Land and Agriculture. And all of that interesting stuff could seem insignificant real soon now, when Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott announce their plans.

It’s been a good while since this many seats were open on a statewide ballot. In 1990, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and treasurer’s posts were all open and another statewide post — agriculture — ended with an incumbent Jim Hightower losing to an upstart named Perry. Two railroad commissioners gave up their posts that year, too: John Sharp, who was elected comptroller, and Kent Hance, who lost that year’s Republican primary for governor.

That year would be hard to match, but give these guys credit for trying.

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The slow part might be even slower than expected.

Perry called the Legislature back for redistricting and gave them a narrow list of instructions — like a grocery list with one thing on it. His order: “Legislation which ratifies and adopts the interim redistricting plans ordered by the federal district court as the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and United States House of Representatives.”

Poke around the Legislature for a minute and you will bump into parliamentary lawyers who don’t think a governor can order a result in that fashion — that Perry’s instruction has the effect of asking lawmakers to look at the subject of the interim redistricting maps and doesn’t prevent them from making changes.

Making changes could make a mess of the intent of the session.

This started, remember, with Attorney General Greg Abbott’s proposal to ratify the maps drawn by federal judges for use in the 2012 elections. Doing so has a reasonable chance of killing ongoing litigation over maps approved by lawmakers in 2011 — in particular a pre-clearance finding of intentional discrimination in those maps. What’s more, a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an Alabama case could wipe out the whole pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act, freeing Texas and other states from having to get federal permission every time they change their election laws.

Abbott saw a shortcut through at least part of the legal bramble. A newly drawn map from lawmakers could add to the bramble, inspiring a whole new round of litigation or adding to the complexities of the tangled lawsuits already underway.

For now, the Legislature is proceeding with hearings. The San Antonio federal court at the center of this has asked the busloads of lawyers to opine about the various possibilities by next week. The Washington case is on hold until the Supremes rule on the Shelby County, Ala., case, probably this month.

And for now, the Texas party primaries are set for March 2014.

Whatever Became of That School Finance Ruling?

Judge John Dietz in his courtroom before he ruled that school finance system unconstitutional on February 4th, 2013
Judge John Dietz in his courtroom before he ruled that school finance system unconstitutional on February 4th, 2013

When John Dietz issued an oral ruling declaring the state’s school finance system unconstitutional in February, the state district court judge said he would release a more detailed, written decision by mid-March.

It’s now June, and there is still no final decision in the sweeping lawsuit involving more than two-thirds of Texas school districts that arose after the Legislature eliminated roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011.

Dietz, who did not return a call for comment, has not formally communicated any reason for the delay to the parties in the lawsuit, according to David Thompson, an attorney involved in the litigation.

But Thompson said his “best surmise” was that the judge decided to wait until the dust from the then-ongoing legislative session had settled.  

Shortly after the initial ruling came down, it became apparent the legislative session could have an effect on the details of Dietz’s decision, which will explain how and why the state has failed to adequately fund its public schools. Lawmakers began adding money back into public education. It also became clear they would likely make changes to charter school policy and high school graduation and testing requirements, all of which were covered in testimony during the trial.

By the time Sine Die rolled around on Monday, lawmakers had restored about $3.4 billion to public education funding. They also passed House Bill 5, testing and high school curriculum legislation, and Senate Bill 2, which expands the state’s charter school system.

All three bills now sit on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk awaiting final approval. If they become law, the court will likely hold a few additional evidentiary hearings to update the record before the case goes on its expected trip to the Texas Supreme Court.

How students did on the 2013 administration of the STAAR exams, the results of which will be announced in the next few weeks, could also be a factor. During the trial, lawyers for the state said that poor performance the first time around was to be expected as schools adjusted to the new assessment system.

Thompson said that while it would be important to clarify in court how the legislative session had affected the case, he did not expect the outcome to differ much from the judge's bench ruling in February. Likening the changes to tuning up a 20-year-old car, he pointed to the outdated formulas and disparities from district to district that remain in the state's funding for schools.

“We haven't said, 'Do we have the right structure, do we have a system that is actually designed to give our kids a good shot at meeting the standards that we've set?'” Thompson said.

The state, of course, will argue differently, as lawmakers did when they praised the passage of the 2013 budget. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said it contained the “most equitable” school funding plan the Legislature had ever approved.

When that happens depends on whether Perry vetoes any key education legislation, and what Dietz thinks of the final results. The governor has until June 16 to make up his mind. The judge doesn't have a deadline.

Some Lawmakers Looking Out for No. 1

Bidness as Usual


This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

Call it the self-preservation society. When push comes to shove, some members of the Texas Legislature are adamant that their elective office should come with some special protections.

Take the lawmakers who caused a major stir this session by trying to change state law to allow themselves and other elected officials to carry concealed weapons in places where private citizens with such gun licenses may not.

Proponents of the amendment — which was so volatile it ended up killing the entire bill — argued their public positions put them at greater risk than their constituents. Both Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Van Taylor, R-Plano, declared on the House floor that they had received death threats since taking office.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers made their own good use of an amendment to an omnibus ethics bill that would’ve forced them to put their personal financial disclosure forms online but allowed them to keep their home addresses private. They kept the amendment, but stripped the provision to put their forms online — leaving only the part that let them delete their home addresses.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, made impassioned remarks on the floor of the upper chamber to explain the change, saying he had two friends who had their children kidnapped because of the parents’ financial resources. The bill passed and is awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s signature.

“The more you expose the members here as to who has money and who doesn’t, the more you’re endangering our lives and our children’s lives,” Nichols said. “…It keeps people from sitting up at night trying to figure out who to target and attack them and their families.”

Such arguments didn’t always sit well under the pink dome. State Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas, opined during the gun debate that voters sent him to Austin “to take care of my constituents, not to advance my own self-interests.”

“I have to go back to my district and say, ‘We couldn’t pass campus carry, but you know what, I can carry wherever I want,’” he said.  

In the regular legislative session, those self-interests weren’t limited to personal safety; they extended all the way to financial livelihoods.

In late May, lawmakers gave the green light to pension increases for state elected officials — including themselves — despite some vocal opposition from the Legislature’s Tea Party set. At the same time, they held off an effort to ban “double dipping,” the practice of state elected officials who are eligible for retirement collecting both their salary and their pension at once.

“We weren’t sent here for the pensions,” Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said with consternation, offering an amendment that would’ve left lawmakers’ pensions unchanged. Longtime Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, suggested that opponents like Isaac could simply opt out of the program if they found it offensive. 

Longtime lobbyist Bill Miller said legislator self-preservation is nothing new, and that it's a cheap thrill to be "the only gun in the room." 

"Lawmakers always have the unique privilege," he said, "of making rules that apply only to themselves."

Newsreel: Special Session, Redistricting, 2014 Politics

This week in the Texas Weekly Newsreel: Now that the 2013 regular legislative session is over and the special session is under way, we can finally focus on who may be running for office in 2014, and on another round of redistricting. Plus — is that the only item Gov. Rick Perry will add to the special session agenda?

Inside Intelligence: Grading the 83rd Legislature...

Asked to grade the state’s top three leaders, the insiders gave House Speaker Joe Straus a solid B, handed Gov. Rick Perry a C-, and gave Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, on average, a D. Each had his fans and detractors: 42 percent gave Dewhurst a C or better; 57 percent did that for Perry; 93 percent gave Straus an A, a B or a C.

The Legislature itself got decent grades, landing an average right between B and C and getting Cs or higher from 87 percent of the insiders.

The insiders don’t expect the kind of turnover that put 44 fresh faces in the House and 6 in the Senate this session. Most — 65 percent — think between 1 and 3 senators won’t be back for more in 2015; 58 percent think the House turnover will be somewhere between 11 and 20.

We asked about heroes and goats in a comment question, and the full set of responses to that — and comments on the other results — is attached. Here’s a sampling:

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How would you grade these state leaders this session?

• "Perry gives a speech in January, disappears, and then makes demands with a couple of weeks to go. Real leadership right there! <end sarcasm> Also, not very transparent in doing the bidding of/protecting MQS's group."

• "Governor Perry is a shadow of his 2011 self. The oops debate has haunted and will haunt him until he hangs up the spurs. David Dewhurst's special session plea for conservative relevance came off as too little too late."

• "You left off the two real chamber leaders this session: Dennis Bonnen and Kevin Eltife. Both get an A."

• "Straus is the weakest speaker in recent history. I guess that's what we get for a man who ran on bowing down always to 'the will of the House.'"

• "The Governor and Dewhurst are so over. Gentlemen, please retire! After this session, what could they possibly be clinging too? Can it be that much fun riding around in black SUV's? Meanwhile, the Speaker continues to pretend that there is still a country club wing in the GOP. Although beloved by the press -- he squandered his good PR capital, offering no leadership or vision on anything -- budget, education, transportation, water -- nothing. Nice man. What a waste."

• "Straus's style may be too hands off for some people, but he let's the House be the House. He may be as good as Pete Laney."

• "Mr. Perry's usefulness as the state's chief executive has reached its limit. Dewhurst may be the worst Senate President in modern history, and Straus - well he looks OK compared to Thing 1 and Thing 2."

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How would you grade the Legislature?

• "With a few failures (e.g. transportation funding), they addressed the matters they needed to address, handled the available resources reasonably well, and did so in a much more collegial atmosphere."

• "The freshmen and sophomores filed good bills, but Straus' leadership didn't let them see the light of day. Dewhurst was supposed to prove his conservative credentials, but bills including the budget proved quite the opposite."

• "Tax cuts: check. Water funding: check. Restoring education funding: check. Balanced budget: check. Hard to argue with the end result, though it was sloppy getting there."

• "For having a bunch of money and, thus, a pretty easy go of it, the session was mediocre and forgettable."

• "It takes real leadership and courage to go from one of the most combustible sessions in our history to one that ran fairly smoothly."

• "Generally, a pretty common sense legislature. Their inability to 'get' that the public wants them to reform themselves is the only thing holding them back from an A."

• "Both bodies acted like adults, and managed to do their jobs without drama. One of best sessions in recent years."

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How many members of the Senate will leave or be replaced in the next election cycle?

• "At least 2 Senators plan to run for statewide office."

• "Turn over is real and we do not need term limits. If people actually did the homework and math they would see that there is a consistent turn over rate."

• "Patrick and Hegar will try to move up. I could envision a retirement."

• "Adios, Senators Davis, Campbell, and maybe Hegar, who will be a great Comptroller."

• "Lots of folks with aspirations for statewide office."

• "San Antonio is calling they want their Senator back."

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How many members of the House will leave or be replaced in the next election cycle?

• "If any of the incumbents were going to be replaced they would have been last time. A few of the freshman will get beat. There will be very little turnover"

• "Lots of primaries and cardinals retiring."

• "This is a great ending session for many members, with a budget surplus and water funding taken care of. Why not call it quits and stop being hassled by the fringe on either side of the aisle?"

• "The good ones are tired of waiting for a chance to move up within the Capitol, so they head for local positions where they can actually get something done. E.g. Mark Strama."

• "Depends on what happens with redistricting"

• "Can't we start with a clean slate? Get rid of all of them and start over???"

• "Normal attrition. This session was relatively pleasant, and not apt to drive excessive retirements."

Who were the heroes this session, and who were the goats?

• "Jimmy Don Aycock House Hero. John Otto House Hero. Jim Pitts House Hero. Sylvester Turner House Hero. Dennis Bonnen House Goat. Drew Darby House Hero. David Simpson House Goat. Van Taylor House Goat. Bob Deuell Senate Hero. Bob Duncan Senate Hero. Tommy Williams Senate Hero. Kel Seliger Senate Hero. Royce West Senate Hero. Donna Campbell Senate Goat. David Dewhurst Goat of Goats"

• "Rick Perry definitely the hero"

• "Heroes: Aycock, Williams, Van de Putte, Huberty, Straus, D Bonnen, Eltife. Goats: Campbell, Stickland, V Taylor, Drew Darby."

• "Jimmie Don Aycock was a goat. Dan Patrick a hero."

• "Freshmen and sophomores were the heroes. The goats were the leadership and their lieutenants."

• "Jim Pitts is the Hero, but then again he seem to always be, What’s up with Tommy Williams? He is spending every dollar in sight."

• "The Geren/Seliger bill was an embarrassment."

• "Heroes include Dennis Bonnen, who really ran the House and kept the members going, and Tommy Williams, who exercised patience and problem solving. Goats have to include Sen. Davis and Rep. Wu (seriously, we don't need your comments on every bill) and Rep. Creighton, who did almost nothing to help leadership."

• "Dewhurst, not a hero."

• "Straus is a hero. Perry is worse than a goat."

• "Hilderbran showed he can move major legislation, unorthodox though his style may be. Ellis flubbed his chance to knock over the apple cart on HB 500. Van Taylor, Stickland, and Simpson were the sad clowns of the House."

• "Hero: Joan Huffman, Dan Patrick, tommy Williams, Joe Pickett. Goat: Sylvester Turner, Ruth McClendon, Charlie Geren"

• "Heroes?"

Our thanks to this week's participants: Gene Acuna, Cathie Adams, Brandon Aghamalian, Jenny Aghamalian, Victor Alcorta, Clyde Alexander, George Allen, Doc Arnold, Jay Arnold, Louis Bacarisse, Charles Bailey, Tom Banning, Dave Beckwith, Rebecca Bernhardt, Andrew Biar, Allen Blakemore, Tom Blanton, Chris Britton, Andy Brown, Thure Cannon, Snapper Carr, Janis Carter, Tris Castaneda, William Chapman, Elna Christopher, Harold Cook, Randy Cubriel, Curtis Culwell, Denise Davis, Hector De Leon, June Deadrick, Roberto DeHoyos, Nora Del Bosque, David Dunn, Jeff Eller, Jack Erskine, Jon Fisher, Neftali Garcia, Norman Garza, Dominic Giarratani, Bruce Gibson, Kinnan Golemon, John Greytok, Jack Gullahorn, Clint Hackney, Wayne Hamilton, Bill Hammond, Ken Hodges, Steve Holzheauser, Kathy Hutto, Deborah Ingersoll, Jason Johnson, Mark Jones, Robert Jones, Lisa Kaufman, Robert Kepple, Richard Khouri, Tom Kleinworth, Sandy Kress, Pete Laney, Dick Lavine, James LeBas, Donald Lee, Luke Legate, Leslie Lemon, Myra Leo, Ruben Longoria, Homero Lucero, Vilma Luna, Matt Mackowiak, Bryan Mayes, Dan McClung, Mike McKinney, Robert Miller, Bee Moorhead, Mike Moses, Steve Murdock, Nelson Nease, Keats Norfleet, Pat Nugent, Sylvia Nugent, Nef Partida, Gardner Pate, Robert Peeler, Wayne Pierce, Allen Place, Kraege Polan, Gary Polland, Jay Pritchard, Jay Propes, Ted Melina Raab, Bill Ratliff, Karen Reagan, Tim Reeves, Patrick Reinhart, Grant Ruckel, Jason Sabo, Andy Sansom, Jim Sartwelle, Stan Schlueter, Robert Scott, Ben Sebree, Dan Shelley, Bradford Shields, Jason Skaggs, Brian Sledge, Ed Small, Todd Smith, Larry Soward, Leonard Spearman, Dennis Speight, Bryan Sperry, Tom Spilman, Bob Strauser, Colin Strother, Sherry Sylvester, Russ Tidwell, Trent Townsend, Trey Trainor, Ware Wendell, Darren Whitehurst, Seth Winick, Alex Winslow, Lee Woods, Peck Young, Angelo Zottarelli.

The Calendar

Friday, May 31

  • House Select Committee on Redistricting, 9 a.m.

Saturday, June 1

  • House Select Committee on Redistricting, 9 a.m.

 

Thursday, June 6

 

  • Senate Select Committees on Redistricting, 9 a.m.

 

 

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

With the ink barely dry on the bills passed during the 83rd Legislature's regular session, Gov. Rick Perry  called lawmakers back into an immediate special session to consider redistricting measures for the Legislature and the Texans who serve in the U.S. Congress. For now, the agenda for the 30-day session only includes redistricting, though that could change. 

It was a whirlwind of an end to the 83rd Legislature's regular session: A look at the deals reached and the measures that fell short during the 140 days of the regular session. 

Two senators are hoping the special session that kicked off this week will be an opportunity to create a serious fix for the state’s transportation funding shortfall. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, have filed a resolution that would ask voters to approve diverting some of the revenue that traditionally goes to the state’s Rainy Day Fund into the state’s highway fund.

Just as lawmakers finalized plans to spend $2 billion on water-supply projects around the state, a court decision could force Texas to rethink its water-planning process. Last week, Texas’ 11th Court of Appeals ruled that two regional plans feeding into the 2012 state water plan — a 300-page document that underlies the Legislature’s new water initiatives — contained conflicting recommendations.

It’s happened before: The Texas political world is waiting for an announcement of future plans from Gov. Rick Perry. In 2008, he defied expectations and said he would seek another term as governor. Two years ago, he reversed months of denials and said he would, in fact, run for president. Earlier this year, he said he would announce his next move in June. And now it’s June.

Political People and their Moves

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Julia Rathgeber, deputy chief of staff to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, to be the state's new insurance commissioner. She replaces Eleanor Kitzman, who couldn’t win Senate approval. Rathgeber worked at the state's General Land Office, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and at that agency's successor, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

House Speaker Joe Straus filed papers before the end of the session setting up a run for a fourth term as speaker in 2015.

Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, is the new president pro tempore of the Senate, putting him third in line behind the governor and the lieutenant governor and giving him the keys to government when the other two are out of state. 

Deaths: Ray Barnhart, former chairman of the Republican party of Texas. He was 85.

Quotes of the Week

How did you spend your interim?

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, after the 30-minute break between the regular and special sessions on Monday

We may be litigating for the rest of your life term and for my lifetime.

Luis Vera, attorney for LULAC, to federal redistricting judges

I hope it's your lifetime.

U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, in response

I feel a sense of loyalty to friends.

Comptroller Susan Combs to YNN Austin on her support for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's 2014 reelection

When you say 'new revenue,' that is an ideological bumper sticker for 'uh-oh, I might lose a Republican primary.'

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, on finding money for transportation

As we’ve seen in the last few weeks, a month can be an eternity in politics.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at a New York Republican Party dinner on Wednesday, alluding to recent string of scandals plaguing the Obama administration

I don’t think we should be acknowledging people who are voting against us in our hour of need.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., to BuzzFeed on his decision to boycott that dinner because of Cruz's vote against Hurricane Sandy relief aid