It's a strange thing to walk through the Texas Capitol on a weekday afternoon. There are the familiar crowded committee rooms, the halls filled with lobbyists, the shark tank in the Capitol extension filled with Cub Scouts, smokers and people whose cellular phones won't work anywhere else in the underground.
People seem busy. Some hurry. About the normal number look panicked. But ask them what's going on this session, and likely as not, they'll say, "Umm.... Nothing, really."
If you can't find the theme of a legislative session, television can sometimes help you get your bearings. When the cameras move in a pack, they generally land where public attention is focused.
But the cameras aren't moving in a pack. The Senate hearings on publicly funded private school vouchers didn't draw the lenses, although that issue stands a better chance of catching the public eye when it reaches the floor of the Senate. A semi-filibuster on water rights didn't cause a ripple. The public has not tuned in to electric or telephone industry issues, campaign finance, children's health insurance, teacher pay, or a new constitution. And to some extent, legislators perfectly represent their constituents' lack interest in those matters.
The only thing that seems to be able to get a unison reaction from the cameras is the potential presidential race. The cameras, in this case, reflect reality: The denizens of the Pink Building can't name a dominating issue that has to move in the next two months. Instead, their attention is on the long list of issues that might climb from the long B-List onto the A-List of Legislative Things to Do.
Counting to Eleven is Not as Easy as it Looks
It's always been harder to count legislative votes than, say, to count with Big Bird on Sesame Street. Good vote-counters have a peculiar talent for distinguishing between all the various shades of "Yes" and "No." That said, senators seem to be having a particularly hard time lately.
First, there was the sure-fire opposition to the parental notification bill: Opponents said they had the votes to block consideration and passage of that measure, but coughed up only eight when the tally was taken. Then there were the two botched efforts to get a gun bill through. Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, came to the floor twice thinking he had the votes in hand, and twice pulled his bill down before a vote could be taken to prove he had come up short.
It's going to happen again to someone on school vouchers, but we don't know which side is miscounting and won't for a week or so. The sponsor, Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, got the bill out of committee and isn't making predictions about floor votes. He not only won't put a number to it, he says flat out that he's got some work to do to bring some of his colleagues along. But some of the advocates on his side claim they do have the votes.
It depends on what's being counted. It looks like Bivins does have the votes to pass the measure if he can get it opened for consideration. He might or might not have the 21 votes needed, but it's a safe bet that the votes are still in play. Otherwise, this would already have zipped out of the Senate on its way to a less-than-enthusiastic reception from the House.
Most voucher opponents we've talked to concede that a slim majority of senators would vote in favor of Bivins' bill. But they're trying to prevent that vote from ever taking place. What's in question is whether any voucher opponents on the Senate floor will vote to allow the measure to come up for consideration. The handicappers on that side say at least 11 senators will not allow that.
CHIP Numbers Are Oochin' Up
The Senate's proposal for a Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) would cover kids whose families make up to 150 percent of the federal poverty income level. That number has been kicked around for six months (the baseline number last year at this time was 133 percent), and now seems ñ in the immortal words of a gray-haired wizard we know ñ to be "oochin' up."
House Democrats have been pushing, as we've noted, for 200 percent. And now some House Republicans say they'll support a plan that covers all kids up to 185 percent. They'd come back in a year and if the money was there, would bump it up to 200 percent. Others say they are willing to start at 200 percent from the outset, as long as the state has the money. The financial difference between the 150 percent limit and the 200 percent limit amounts to about $8 million in the first (incomplete) biennium of a CHIP program, and $26 million or thereabouts in the second two-year budget period.
Rep. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, is touting a plan that would cover kids at 200 percent, be administered by a public/private organization instead of the state, and would put up higher barriers to prevent people from dumping private insurance to get into the state program.
Erasing the Party Lines
Separately, but just as importantly, Rep. Ken Marchant, R-Coppell, and other House Republicans have begun to diffuse some of the vibrations that have threatened to make CHIP a partisan issue. They've made a lot of progress, apparently: House members haven't cut a deal yet, but they are negotiating and both Democrats and Republicans seem encouraged enough to refer to their differences as "talking points" instead of as "sticking points." Among them:
ï What happens if people drop their insurance at work to sign up for a state-paid insurance package? That's called "crowd-out", so named because the government-subsidized package in that example crowds people out of the private insurance market. Some members want to make sure the state doesn't create an insurance package that attracts people away from the private insurance market, either by being cheaper or by providing better benefits. Averitt's proposal would limit enrollment in the program to certain periods of the year and would require people to wait for several months after dropping private insurance before they'd be eligible for CHIP. Under the Senate bill, the state would watch first to see if there's really a problem.
ï Should a state agency run the program or should a private or semi-private organization run it? The current legislation would put CHIP administration in the hands of the Texas Department of Health. Averitt and others would let Texas Healthy Kids, a public/private entity, administer the program with private rather than state employees. The fear ñ and it's not confined to one side of the aisle ñ is that putting CHIP inside the health and human services bureaucracy could eventually give it the dreaded smell of an entitlement program. On the other hand, Healthy Kids is relatively new, and CHIP would force the organization to grow at an almost unmanageable rate.
ï Who should be covered? The Senate plan would cover younger kids whose families make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That threshold would drop for older kids. The House plans we've seen floating around ñ from conservatives and liberals alike ñ would put all kids at the same level. Among other things, that avoids having a program that would cover some kids in a given family but not others, insuring, say, a six-year-old, but not a 13-year-old sibling.
ï What's covered? The Averitt plan cuts away some of the benefits that would be offered under the Senate plan. He'd cover fewer days of care for mental and substance abuse problems and would trim benefits available for physical therapy. His plan would improve dental coverage over the Senate version. The counterpoint is that those benefit cuts would be particularly hard on children with chronic problems who have special needs.
Spending Cap? What Spending Cap?
The latest scheme to put money into tax cuts ñ by sweeping unused workers' compensation insurance funds into the state's general revenue account ñ illustrates yet another exception to the state's constitutional limit on spending growth.
That limit only applies to tax revenue, which doesn't include insurance premiums. Since the state didn't raise the money by collecting a tax, it can spend the money without worrying about whether that spending would outpace the overall growth in the Texas economy.
It might not have mattered where the money came from. Since it is apparently headed toward tax cuts of some kind, the spending cap probably wouldn't apply, anyway. Spending only counts against the cap on growth if it goes into programs. Writing a refund check to taxpayers, no matter how directly or indirectly, doesn't add to the tally.
That said, the insurance money shuffle unearthed by the Austin American-Statesman might cause a fight. The quasi-public workers' comp fund has $800 million in it, and only $400 million is needed there. Gov. George W. Bush is proposing to take the extra $400 million out, on the theory that the fund was originally backed by the state's guarantees, and so the overage ought to go to the state. Watch the insurance companies that provide the coverage and the businesses that pay premiums for that coverage to make contending claims to the reserves. But insurance regulators tell us the money is there if the Legislature is willing to grab it.
The Better the Economy, the Worse the Problem
Seven months before the next biennium ends, the state's contract for electronic benefit transfers will expire. The company that provides that "Lone Star Card" system ñ Gtech Corp. subsidiary Transactive Corp. ñ will be freed from a contract that it contends has cost it millions. The company tried to sell its EBT operations to a Citicorp subsidiary, but the U.S. Justice Department killed the deal on anti-trust grounds. All along, Transactive officials have said they'll honor the contract.
But the end of the partnership could cause problems for each partner. Gtech, which also runs the highly profitable Texas Lottery, would like to stay in the state's good graces, or at least not make any new enemies. They won't want to pack up and walk away, even at the end of the contract period.
The state, which has been crowing for several years about the success of the EBT program, would rather not admit that the savings achieved by the EBT program probably could not be achieved if the private contractor had charged Texas enough to make itself a profit. That's complicated by the good economy, which has brought about a dramatic decline in the number of people receiving state benefits. That circumstance has been good for the state, but is one of the big reasons Transactive is losing money on a contract predicated on much larger welfare rolls.
The concerns over the contract probably don't require the state to set money aside, according to Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant. But his Senate Finance Committee will be asking whether the agencies involved have contingency plans in case they need to take over the EBT program themselves.
Keep Your Eyes on the People with the Stethoscopes
The House added three abortion amendments to the Texas Department of Health sunset bill. One would require doctors who do more than 300 abortions each year to register their offices as clinics. Another would increase the penalty for failing to maintain a license from a $500 fines to $4,000 in fines and up to a year in jail. And the third would limit doctors' ability to assess the mental condition of patients seeking late-term abortions, removing one of the reasons those operations can take place.
The Senate-approved bill to require parents to be notified before their underage daughters can have abortions carries a criminal penalty for doctors who don't comply.
Doctors, like the rest of the Texas population, are split on the abortion issue, but watch for them to fight on the crime and punishment issues. As a general rule, they oppose criminal penalties for doctors, and they're already working against some bills that would impose them.
The Delegation from the 51st State
We've written about various requests for funding and other state attention to and from Texans on the Border, and about the request from the Senate's Border committee to concentrate some spending on that part of the state. Now a group of Border mayors has thrown in, asking the Texas Department of Transportation for $980 million that would be used on NAFTA-related needs in the counties of El Paso, Laredo and Pharr.
The mayors were acting as the sales people for the Texas Border Infrastructure Coalition. That group wants the state to revise funding formulas that tend to direct highway dollars and other spending away from the Border and into areas with more population or with a better ability to attract state funding by using locally raised funds as bait. The Border argument on that issue is "If we had the money to attract matching funds, the problem wouldn't be so bad as it is."
The coalition, made up of city officials from along the Texas-Mexico line, will also back some of the tax credits already working through the system. They've endorsed tax breaks for job creation in certain parts of the state and for research and development spending. They're promoting a number of other things, some from the comptroller's report on the Border (the source of the "51st state" moniker), some arising from local concerns not covered in that or in other reports on the region. But their immediate focus is on roads.
We're not aware of anyone who had earmarked $1 billion of the budget surplus for Border infrastructure, but the news here is that the Border folks have an audience in the state capital. The region finally seems to have attracted some attention from legislators who reside hundreds of miles from the Rio Grande and from any number of statewide officials who watched what Gov. George W. Bush was able to do with the support of Hispanics in the last elections.
The coalition's spending plans resemble some of those outlined by the Senate Border committee, which are still percolating in Senate Finance. The Senate's not alone: The House Appropriations Committee will report out a spending bill in the next few days that tinkers with some of the funding formulas. It directs the state's transportation folks to consider increases in their NAFTA budget, to look at other specific programs that might be sources of money, and to do quarterly reports for legislators along the border on how things are going. It also directs the transportation department to put together a task force to consider Border highway needs.
Where to Sit, Where to Run
Last week's item on the seating arrangements at the Railroad Commission prompted several oil types and bureaucrats to call and tell us that commissioners there often have kept their seats on the wings even when they assume the title of chair. So Charles Matthews did have history on his side when he gave up the title of chairman without giving up the seat. But the new chairman, Tony Garza, wanted the middle seat to go with his title on the basis that that's how most panels and commissions do it. This weighty matter, as noted previously, got on the commission's agenda, and in the interest of closure, we can now report that all three of the state's elected railroad commissioners believe that the middle chair on the dais should be occupied by the chairman. So be it.
ï This probably won't come as a surprise, but as it turns out, the junior U.S. Senator from Texas apparently didn't like being told she should stay put and not consider a race for governor if George W. Bush should move on to higher office. News accounts had Republican Party Chairman Susan Weddington musing that it would be better for the party if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, would stay put and gather seniority, letting Lt. Gov. Rick Perry or someone else run for governor if and when Bush leaves Austin. That apparently set off a string of firecrackers from Hutchison's friends, admirers, supporters and staff. They pelted the state party offices with calls telling Weddington to pipe down. The chair is staying out of it, but others tell us in that vicinity that her remarks weren't aimed at Hutchison, but at keeping the party's whole lineup in office. At our last check, Hutchison was not ruling anything out, including a run for the governor's office sometime in the future.
Praying for the Football Team
This one's got football, high school graduations, prayer, and now, you can add Attorney General John Cornyn. He will soon weigh in with a friend of the court brief on a school prayer case out of South Texas. The Santa Fe ISD allowed students to vote on whether to have a student-delivered prayer at commencement and at football games. The lawsuit that resulted has wormed its way to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which ruled the policy unconstitutional on the grounds that it would allow a student to proselytize and make sectarian prayers.
The dissenting judge on that panel contended that the rest of the court was trying to control the content of the prayers and by doing so, was ignoring the First Amendment. Now the school district is asking the entire court to hear the case (a subset of the court issued the first ruling), and Cornyn is jumping in with them. He'll follow the dissenting judge's argument in his filing, we're told.
Other notes from the AG's office: Cornyn hasn't officially said so, but he will probably not appeal a federal judge's ruling that prevents the state from clamping down on state university experts who testify for the other side in lawsuits against the state. The Legislature included a rider in the last state budget that attempted to stop that practice, but an Austin-based federal judge knocked it down ñ that pesky free speech argument again. Pending legislation would require universities to report to the state when one of their professors or other experts is testifying in a case against the state.
Cornyn aides say the attorney general will not seek new appropriations to cover the costs of paying outside lawyers by the hour. Cornyn is trying to renegotiate contingency fee contracts with various law firms that are working for the state, asking the firms to go to by-the-hour compensation. From a state budget standpoint, that means paying the lawyers as they work instead of out of any proceeds that might result from their work. A spokesman for the AG says they'll find any money they need (assuming any of the law firms agrees to a rewritten contract) in their current appropriation.
Odds & Ends
Proof the last elections are over: Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, got a pat on the back from Lt. Gov. Rick Perry for passing a program that would have the state providing college scholarships to economically disadvantaged students who keep their grades up. That's patterned on Georgia's HOPE scholarship program, and this isn't the first session Ellis has filed the bill. But it is the first session after former Comptroller John Sharp used the issue in his race for lite gov ñ against Perry. The Ellis version would cost about $50 million a year. It would give scholarships to students from families that make less than $25,000 if the students maintain 2.5 grade point averages in school... A filibuster is an instrument of disruption, unless you're just trying to attract attention without making people mad. And that was apparently the aim of Sen. David Bernsen, D-Beaumont, who took over the microphone in the Senate for about two-and-a-half hours to talk about water rights. He said later he just wanted to raise the visibility of that issue. He allowed the Senate's other business ñ committee meetings and such ñ to proceed during his protest. That water bill, which we wrote about last week, is on the way to the House. That's where the issue of junior and senior water rights came up last time. And last time, the House made it a deal-breaker provision. The idea still has some rough road ahead in the House, but one of the biggest opponents, former Rep. Mark Stiles, D-Beaumont, has retired. Sen. Buster Brown, R-Lake Jackson, is hoping that improves his chances this time out... Everybody has a pet provision when they start talking about campaign finance reform. But one of those ñ contribution limits ñ ain't gonna fly, according to House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center. He told a gathering of newspaper editors that the contribution limits don't have the support they'd need to pass, and indicated the House will concentrate on disclosure requirements. Among the things that have been discussed are last-minute reports that would force candidates to reveal sources of income right up to Election Day, and electronic filing, which would require candidates to file reports via computer that could then be made available to the public, almost instantly. Lt. Gov. Perry, who spoke to that same group, said he'd support the idea of instant disclosure on the Internet.
Political People and Their Moves
Austin attorney and former Railroad Commissioner Barry Williamson will be the new finance director of the Republican Party of Texas. Susan Weddington has been doing the fund-raising there since she took the job more than a year ago... David Gold, who folded his political direct mail firm into Austin-based Public Strategies, Inc., several years ago, is leaving the public affairs juggernaut. Gold will spend more time on projects like helping build an arts museum in Austin, and says he'll do some political work (which PSI no longer does) for Democratic candidates. He'll also try to build an arts marketing operation... Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander has hired John Colyandro as her senior executive assistant. He was her chief of staff at the Railroad Commission and worked for the last year at Koch Industries. Until he got the government bug in 1996, Colyandro was a Republican political consultant... Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs has hired Patrick Rhode from the Entergy Corp. to handle communications for her agency. He's worked as a television reporter and did a stint at the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs... Appointments: The governor tapped James Cox, Jr., of Austin and Tomas Cardenas, Jr., of El Paso, for spots on the General Services Commission board. Cox, a CPA, retired last year as head honcho of an Austin company that builds water quality equipment. Cardenas is president of a company that helps build manufacturing plants in the U.S. and Mexico... On the legal beat: Former Texas Lottery Director Lawrence Littwin, who was fired after five months on the job, is already suing Gtech Corp., the state's lottery operator. Now he's seeking state permission to sue the lottery agency itself... Eliza May, the former director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, filed suit against the state and against the state's largest funeral home operator, Houston-based Service Corporation International. She contends she was fired from her job because of her investigation of that company. May, you'll remember, was fired after she sent an employee to the Texas Ethics Commission to look at SCI contributions to state officials, including Gov. George W. Bush. Board members say that's not why they fired her; now the court will decide.
Quotes of the Week
Beaumont trial lawyer Walter Umphrey, on whether his share of the fees from the state's successful tobacco lawsuit will change him: "I've been successful for a number of years, and other than airplanes and helicopters, I don't have a flamboyant lifestyle at all."
Ray Cochran, a 92-year-old resident of Western North Carolina, on his interview with federal authorities looking for accused bomber Eric Rudolph: "They said, 'What's your occupation?' I said, 'Sitting on this damned chair.'"
Peggy Borchert of Fort Worth, on her opposition to publicly funded private school vouchers: "Whatever the government funds, it must regulate. This is the first step in government regulation of private schools."
U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, asking questions in a pending case challenging police departments' right to take news crews along on raids: "What's the help provided here? I don't see why you have to take the news media people into someone's home... it sounds like fluff."
Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, pulling down ñ for a second time in two days ñ legislation limiting lawsuits against gun manufacturers: "I'm not a lawyer. So maybe I don't have all the I's dotted and T's crossed exactly right."
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, at the end of her testimony on oysters before the House Appropriations Committee, on whether she could tell the panel anything about mountain oysters: "As a matter of fact, I can get a cut-rate deal for you."
Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, on East Texas opposition to a bill that allows interbasin water transfers that would benefit San Antonio and other metropolitan areas: "East Texas got rich off selling a resource that was not replenishable ñ oil and gas. [Water] is replenishable. When it rains, those reservoirs go back up. They can get rich again and be a vibrant part of Texas by selling this water."
Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 37, 29 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.