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Why Rally If the Votes Are Truly Locked Up?

Ordinarily, anyone who could collect more than 80 House votes for an issue before it's even been heard in committee would be happy indeed. But the folks pushing to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, to the maximum are worried about the depth of their support.

By Zach Vaughn

Ordinarily, anyone who could collect more than 80 House votes for an issue before it's even been heard in committee would be happy indeed. But the folks pushing to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, to the maximum are worried about the depth of their support.

That's why they continue to rally their troops with press conferences and by working the halls of a Capitol where most members now understand the CHIP arguments.

As we've written, this active House group wants the state to insure all children through age 18 whose families make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The Senate has approved legislation that would cover all kids up to age 11 at the 200 percent level; older kids would only be covered if their families earn 150 percent of the poverty level income or less.

The latest group of House members to rally around the 200 percent number said they have the support of the Legislative Study Group, the Mexican-American, and the Black caucuses, which together have 74 members. They also said they have the votes to get a 200-percent bill out of committee, and named the panel members they said have promised to vote with them.

It is difficult to nail down the arguments against CHIP. Some members worry about caseloads. The state has estimates -- but few hard facts -- to tell lawmakers how many children will sign up for CHIP (or for Medicaid as a result of expected heavy promotion of CHIP), and how much they will cost. The estimates from the Legislative Budget Board and from the state's Health and Human Services Commission are that the state has set aside enough money from its tobacco settlement to cover the costs. But nobody will have absolute certainty about the numbers of kids until the program is running and people actually sign up for it.

Waiting Lists, Teenagers, and Misapplied Pressure

In the worst case, the state will have more eligible kids than it can afford to insure. That could, on one hand, increase pressure to spend money to take kids off of the waiting list. Alternately, some lawmakers are concerned about the possibility of insuring 17-year-olds that sign up early while six-year-olds that were slower to sign up remain on the waiting lists. The younger children are more likely to need medical care, they say. Others fret that older kids might need doctors for reproductive services and such. Although those services are excluded from the coverage, that false buzz about letting older kids participate has a toehold in the Capitol.

Others are worried about politics. The 200-percenters are overwhelmingly Democrats, and several Democratic legislators are opening pushing CHIP as a partisan issue. There was the ham-handed attempt to tie the CHIP vote to the vote on oil severance tax breaks. Another shot -- aimed at the governor's proposal to spend money fixing historic courthouses -- fell flat because that bill is sponsored by Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine, who heads the House Democratic Caucus.

Attempts to pull Gov. George W. Bush into the fight have made otherwise sympathetic Republicans hesitate: Even those who might be in favor of the biggest CHIP deal possible don't want to register their support if that means their standard bearer will lose face. But one effect of making the debate partisan is that it forces those on the other side to make two decisions -- one about CHIP, the other about politics -- instead of just one. Bush, by most accounts, will go along with whatever the Legislature passes, and is trying to stay out of the public discussion until then. Publicly, he has said he won't take a position on the issue until after he sees what the Legislature does.

The Other Appropriations Committees

If it seems that House Appropriations is proceeding busily but almost mechanically on the state budget, it's because a lot of the decisions on discretionary spending will be made in other committees. Appropriations is sending $3 billion downstairs to the House Public Education Committee and another $500 million or so down the hall to House Ways & Means, the two panels that will decide what to do with the various education and tax plans concocted by officeholders this year.

So, at the session's halfway point, the big money game moves down to the same room where Gov. George W. Bush's tax plan was killed last session. And members are openly questioning whether his plans for this session's surplus have any better chance that his tax plan had two years ago. Like the governor, the House is looking at education and tax relief, but their versions might well differ, and that will be something to watch as the sub-appropriations committees do their work.

Some of the graybeards in the Pink Building can remember a time when public school finance was done in other committees and then plugged into the budget at the end of the session, but taking part of the budget and, in effect, subcontracting it out to other committees, is a little unusual. Two reasons: The budget is, for the first time in years, not going to have much general law hidden inside in the form of riders. The budget folk can't include education stuff in their bill without riders. And since it requires new law, it has to go to the education committee. What you're seeing now was foreshadowed at the beginning of the session, when slight changes in House rules gave the Public Education panel the power to debate and decide matters involving school finance.

The performers in this three-ring circus are already throwing out the scripts. Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, quickly took the education committee off the course Bush would have preferred by suggesting the Bush-backed social promotions bill could be expanded to include sometimes expensive education ideas that weren't in his original package. And Sadler can safely be expected to fieldstrip and clean the rest of the education/property tax package before he lets it out of his committee.

Ways & Means Chairman Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, says flatly that he doesn't consider himself or his committee bound by numbers suggested by the state budgeteers. That sounds less confrontational when you talk to him than it looks in print: Oliveira says he has questions about several of the items in the tax grab-bag, and he and his committee might have different preferences on which way to go with which taxes. Everything, he says, is up in the air.

That said, expect the tax-writing committee to kick out some sales tax breaks -- diapers, back to school clothing, that sort of thing -- within two weeks. Franchise tax breaks for small businesses (those that make under $100,000 annually) will probably be next. Then Oliveira will look at research and development, investment tax credit and job creation tax breaks. He has previously said he'll start with the same package proposed in the Senate by David Sibley, R-Waco.

Meanwhile, On the Other Side of the Rotunda...

The Senate will also wander from the governor's original path, but less so and probably with his support. Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, has uncorked his long-awaited education/property tax package, which would require about $2.5 billion.

Forty percent of that, or $1 billion, would go into a clever teacher pay raise (keep reading). In addition, the legislation would change the formulas in a way that forces school districts to raise teacher pay when the districts raise more money. The package also increases the multiplier used by the Teacher Retirement System from 2.0 to 2.1. That's a critical number in the formula that determines the size of each teacher's benefits; the Senate change would apply to both current and retired teachers.

Another $1.35 billion would go to a combination of property tax relief and school equity; Bivins says average property tax rates would be cut by a dime.

Changing the Key of the Teacher Pay Music

Lawmakers have been talking for months about how to get a pay raise to teachers that won't get swallowed up by the districts through which the money must pass, and Bivins just might have found a way. Instead of giving the money to districts to pass along, he has proposed raising the amount the state pays into the Teacher Retirement System by an average of $2,000 per teacher annually. That's that much less that would be deducted from the average teacher's paycheck, and the districts would have a harder time scooping up the new state money for something other than teacher pay.

That suggestion is worth noting for its tenor as well as its content: Some lawmakers expect the discussion of teacher pay raises to shift from gross pay to take-home pay. It's cheaper for the state to increase the amount of money on the bottom line than on the top one, and it arguably would make more difference to the average teacher. Talking about net pay also gets lawmakers at least partly out of the trap created in the last governor's race. Most teachers locked onto the $6,000 a year pay raise that was endorsed by Democratic candidate Garry Mauro. Legislators don't want to spend that amount, and talking about net pay instead of gross could save them from doing so.

Amassing Voucher Troops; High-Dollar Superintendents

ï With vouchers headed for committee hearings within the next few days, some of the troops are lining up. Add these folks to the side opposed to letting public school kids take their public school money to pay for private schooling: lobbyists Buddy Jones, Rusty Kelley, Jack Roberts, Louis Bacarisse, Steve Bresnan and C.J. Treadway. They're not all signed on with the same customers, though. Lobsters one, two and three represent the Texas Association of School Administrators; lobsters four, five and six are working for a Houston-based group called Parents for Public Schools.

ï Sign of the times: While school administrators in Texas and around the U.S. are finding themselves in the line of political fire from their boards, school districts that want to keep their administrators are paying more. The latest lesson comes from Fort Worth, where school board members just voted to give a pay raise to Thomas Tocco. Maybe it's because the Dallas ISD is looking for a new superintendent, and maybe they did it for other reasons, but Tocco will make $54,000 more per year than he had been getting; his annual pay will average $228,000 for the next four years. For the moment, that makes him the highest-paid superintendent in Texas.

Railroad Commission: A New Seating Chart?

The next time the three-member Texas Railroad Commission meets, the panel will vote on where the chairman should sit. Like most committees, commissions, panels, and directorates, the chairman of the RRC has always sat in the middle. But Charles Matthews, who had been chairman, apparently won't budge. Tony Garza, who was elected to the commission in November, was elected chairman after Bush appointee Michael Williams took office at the first of the year. Matthews, meanwhile, has taken to signing letters "Senior Commissioner". Now Garza wants the seat that goes with the title, and since Matthews isn't yielding, it's on the agenda for an official vote.

ï Being on the state payroll shouldn't prevent college and university types from providing expert testimony in lawsuits against the state that employs them, according to U.S. District Judge James Nowlin of Austin. That ruling came in a two-year-old challenge of a budget rider aimed at preventing that kind of testimony. The first round of this came when Nowlin put the rider on hold with a temporary restraining order (which was upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals). His new version says the rider is illegal. The AG's office is still deciding whether it will appeal this newest ruling. The rider itself is one of many that were stripped from the state appropriations bill as part of a general cleanup this session: Those rules -- often stuck into the budget after they've failed to win approval as stand-alone bills -- are being excised from the budget and forced back into regular legislation. Pending legislation would require colleges to alert the state when professors and others are consulting or testifying against the state, but wouldn't prevent them from doing that work.

Same Input, Same Output

Opponents of the parental notification bill that cleared the Senate last week thought -- as did several senators -- that they had enough votes to either block the bill or amend it. But either through bad counting or through broken promises, the 12 votes they were relying on turned to eight, and the bill is on its way to what some members think is a relatively sympathetic Texas House. The amendment opponents had sought would have allowed minors seeking abortions to notify a counselor as an alternative to telling their parents or going to court. But senators apparently got ahead of themselves in threatening to hold up the notification bill altogether if that amendment didn't get on.

The legislation, by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, is nearly identical to what she got through the Senate last session. That one died in the House, but Shapiro is optimistic. She cites the relatively early date of Senate passage this time and her own vote count in the House, where she says upwards of 80 members support parental notification.

Sen. David Bernsen, D-Beaumont, was one of the ringleaders on the counselor amendment to Shapiro's bill; he ended up voting for Shapiro's bill and by numerous accounts, got his arm twisted pretty hard in the process by Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. One senator popped off that Perry apparently learned more in the way of persuasive techniques from his predecessor, Bob Bullock, than most lawmakers knew. That arm-twisting got paired with a one-week delay in a floor vote on water legislation to fuel a rumor that Bernsen traded the first issue for the second. That rumor was roundly denied by most of the players.

One of the Oldest Fights on the Books

The legislation that started the Bernsen trade rumor would make it easier to transfer water from one river basin to another and would take away the so-called "senior" rights of some water owners in the state. Not to over-dramatize it, but water is at the root of some of the most fundamental fights of the American West, and it's up for a Senate vote this week, or at least was on the schedule at our deadline. Those transfers are a lot more popular with cities than with farmers and others in rural areas, and the current practical ban on moving water from one basin to another was a House condition in last session's big water bill. House members simply said they had to have that to approve the bill.

That was then, this is now: Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, has revived the issue and says he's got the support to get the bill out of the Senate. There's some question about that, but if he does, some of the House members who opposed it last time say they'll do so again. And some early suggestions that the issue splits on party lines proved wrong. In the Senate, for instance, both Bernsen and Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, oppose the measure. And Brown has a number of Democrats on his side, including Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, a city that has been fighting water battles for decades.

We claim no expertise here -- you'd have to be a pretty good hydrologist or city planner to figure out how the votes split on the issue.

Overgeneralizing, but not by much, you can figure a politico from area with a shortage of water will vote for this and one with an abundance will vote for it. It's a little trickier, but not much, to figure out where there are shortages. Some parts of the state apparently have plenty of water, but their abundant supplies are outstripped by their needs. And some areas of the state have water they won't need for several years, but want to preserve their rights to it for future growth.

The junior and senior rights come into play in dry times. When one river basin's water is running low, that basin can basically suspend its sales to other river basins, honoring its own water needs before those of the people in another place that has a contract for the water. This is one of those things that gets the DBI, or Dull-But-Important, moniker from the press. It's not likely to show up on the television news anytime soon, but to the people involved, it's a huge issue.

Keeping the Grass Roots Green

Consultants who gin up grassroots support for issues and organizations say it's relatively easy to sign people up, but difficult to get those people to do anything once they've joined. It's not hard to fill petitions with signatures of interested folks, for instance, but it can be difficult to get those signers to write letters, make phone calls and visit lawmakers and community leaders. That's one reason interest groups pay so much to organizers and instigators who can get people worked up enough to write their state reps and state senators about whatever issue the groups are pushing.

One of those instigators -- Craig Casselberry of Houston -- is pushing a computer software package that groups can send to members to keep members in contact with the home office and with legislators. The program was cooked up by lobbyist Durward Curlee and former state Rep. Tim Von Dohlen; Casselberry's Quorum Direct is marketing the package.

The oddest piece of their business plan is that they hope to make their money not from the trade associations and issue groups that use the program, but from advertisers eager to get onto the computer screens of the members of those groups. Some groups will be more lucrative than others will, but it's not hard to imagine an advertiser who would like to be on the computer screens of all the doctors in the state, or the lawyers, or whatever.

People using the program could find out who represents them in the Legislature or in Congress, then write a letter around the talking points their organization wants them to use. The organization (and the advertisers whose ads appear on the screen while the program is running) would get feedback on how many members wrote letters or made contact, because the computer program would periodically contact the computers back at headquarters.

Future versions will go further, including names, addresses and phone numbers for key political and political finance people in each House and Senate district. That would allow the members of a group to contact the people who are in contact with the legislators who make the decisions.

Casselberry has signed up Putting Children First, the pro-voucher group, and some others, but it's still early to tell whether and how well this works.

Separately, but along the same lines, the National Federation of Independent Business has booted up an Internet page that lets its members do some of what the Political Clout software does. NFIB members can go the site, find out who represents them, and write an email or letter (talking points are provided). The address is

History in the Present Tense

The neighbors of the Pease Mansion in Austin, which property was just acquired by the state, want the state to make that house the official residence of the governor. That's putting the cart ahead of the horse, but it's something to think about as legislation to restore the home works its way through the Legislature. The house -- an 11,441-square-foot handyman's special on 3.8 acres -- was the private residence of two former Texas governors, Elisha Pease and Allan Shivers. It was given to the University of Texas, which wanted to sell it. The state bought it from the school for $2.6 million, and now, lawmakers are looking at restoration plans that could easily top $3 million. The house has one thing in common with the Governor's Mansion: Abner Cook designed both.

Elsewhere on the history beat: The push to keep the Pease Mansion in state hands was started by former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. He also pushed to get a history museum started, and that's why there's a giant hole instead of a parking lot to the north of the Stephen F. Austin Building. Now, the Senate he used to run has named the museum after Bullock. The former lite gov, who always said he didn't want anything named after him, said he was surprised. And flattered. He apparently won't gripe.

Way out on the western end of your radarscope: The Tigua Indians of El Paso have filed a $4 billion lawsuit against the state. They contend that a goodly amount of what is now the East Side of El Paso was taken illegally from them a long time ago. Now, they say, they want the rent and profits they would have received if ancestral Texans hadn't stolen the land from their ancestors.

Political People and Their Moves

The stress update from our roving Cardiovascular Unit: Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, went to the hospital on a gurney, suspecting possible heart problems (he's had ticker trouble in the past). The doctors found none, and he's fine. Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, went to the hospital without a gurney, and had an angioplasty done. He came out fine, then went back in, thinking there were problems. Nope, he's still fine. And Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, busted his toe on the treadmill, which he was using as part of his doctor-ordered rehabilitation from bypass surgery... Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander has named Mike Doyle, who survived Bob Bullock and John Sharp at the comptroller's office, as director of Treasury Operations. Doyle left the comptroller's office to become deputy state treasurer under Martha Whitehead, then headed the Treasury division when voters merged it into the comptroller's office... Jon Snare is the new general counsel for the Republican Party of Texas, replacing Michael Williams, who was appointed to the Texas Railroad Commission. Snare is a partner at Dallas-based Arter Hadden... Kevin Brannon, a political consultant who worked in one of his earlier lives for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, is signing on as the lobbyist for A.N.G. Holdings, Inc., parent company of Aurora Natural Gas... Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb will run for re-election and has officially entered a plea of innocence to charges he accepted bribes from a taxicab company official. That trial is set for May 17; Election Day is May 1... The governor named three new folks to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, pending a Senate nod: retired state District Judge Mary Bacon of Houston, replacing Carol Vance, whose term is up; Don Jones of Midland, an oil company executive, replacing Nancy Patton, whose term is also up; and William "Hank" Moody of Washington, TX, a retired accountant, who is being re-appointed... We left out a name when we were dropping names last week: The woman referred to only as the "wife" in that item about all those Delisis in Texas politics is Deirdre Delisi, who works for Lt. Gov. Rick Perry.

Quotes of the Week

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, on her legislation requiring parental notification before a minor's abortion: "This is a parental rights bill. In fact, most parents are shocked... that their minor child can have this invasive medical procedure without their knowledge."

Harris County prosecutor Kari Sckerl, discounting a claim that one man killed another on the basis of an unwanted sexual advance: "If you have the right to kill someone who makes a pass at you, then I submit to you that we won't have very many people alive in this country."

Lobbyist and former state Sen. Carl Parker, on why the state began paying lawyers on the basis of results instead of by time worked: "The beauty of contingency fee agreement is that the lawyer doesn't take the case unless he thinks he can win it. A lawyer will take anything if you pay him by the hour."

Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, on legislation protecting religious organizations from government infringements that aren't backed by a "compelling reason": "I've never carried a bill quite like this: one where the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and Christian Coalition have both endorsed it, one where the atheists and the Eagle Forum oppose it."

Dallas City Council member Laura Miller, wife of Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, using the fact of a female majority to illustrate why council members should be paid full salaries: "I mean, we only serve, we eight women, because our husbands pay the mortgage. Is that what we want for City Hall? I don't think so. I mean, $1.6 billion a year, eight housewives taking care of the money? I mean, that's crazy."

Bill Cunningham, a leader of Move Forward Hurst, a group trying to make it legal to sell alcohol in grocery stores and restaurants in that city, on the need to reduce the number of required signatures from registered voters on petitions: "When 23 percent of the people (on the voter rolls) are dead or have moved, then getting 35 percent is unrealistic."

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, during the Senate debate on electric industry restructuring: "I'm going to stop asking questions until I figure out who's on first."

Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 36, 22 March 1999. Copyright 1999 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

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