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Legislative Concentrate: A Five-Week Session

A lobbyist of some repute (take that either way you want to) pulled out a legislative calendar to make an interesting and graphic point: There are exactly five weeks between the end of the Easter legislative break and the day the House rules begin to brake legislative activity.

By Zach Vaughn

A lobbyist of some repute (take that either way you want to) pulled out a legislative calendar to make an interesting and graphic point: There are exactly five weeks between the end of the Easter legislative break and the day the House rules begin to brake legislative activity.

That 35-day sprint from break to brake will see a good chunk of the session's legislative action. More to the point, if something you're interested it hasn't already made it through the grinder, it has only five weeks of life left in it. Pass it now, or die.

Less attention has been paid to the Senate rules than they are probably due. Speaker J.E. "Pete" Laney, D-Hale Center, got the House rules changed right after he took office, famously grabbing control of the legislative clock for two or three sessions. The Senate has come around, and their rules also wind things down slowly at the end of the session.

But the Senate still handles legislation earlier in the session than the House does. Lt. Gov. Rick Perry ended the pre-Easter period with some numbers indicating that the Senate is passing bills even faster than they did two years ago. The House is, as usual, moving a lot more slowly.

Don't have the rulebook handy? The 10th of May is the last day that House committees can report out House bills. As a practical matter, subtract two to four days from that to allow time for processing between the substantive committees and the Calendars Committee that puts things on the plate for the full House. The rules give the full House until the 13th of May to consider House bills for the first time. But a bill that gets considered on that last day would have little chance of making it to the Senate – and through its set of rules – in time to stay alive.

Lots of Motion: Some Linear, Some Circular

The biennial realization that the session is short and the interim is long has kicked in, and you can classify legislation by its ability to travel the straight road home: 1) It has wheels that won't come off, assuring that it will get home safe and more or less intact; 2) It has wheels that could come off, but it might very well get home alright; 3) It has no wheels, but might catch a ride; 4) It has no wheels, no vehicle, and an awfully long way to walk; and 5) It is inert.

The only bill that falls into the first category is the budget, and, by close relation, the tax and education bills that are still being written around the $3.5 billion allotted to them. That fact alone historically has made the budget a vehicle for all manner of bills that couldn't pass on their own. But for the first time, there are tight restrictions on riders being added to the budget, which is historically the way to tack a bill onto the only sure ride in town. That makes it more difficult to bring home a piece of legislation that can't pass on its own, and makes that third category smaller than it used to be.

Several issues could get through if everything goes their way. Put the utility bills – electric deregulation and telephone access fees – in category two or three. House members in particular are wondering out loud whether there is any benefit to be had by sticking their necks out on two complex issues when there's little public clamor to do so. Another tough call is where to classify public funding for private school vouchers. It's getting a full push from the Senate leadership, but has problems even there and might never be seen on the floor of the House except as an amendment to some other bill. Put it in category three.

Tinker with the categories a bit and classify things by whether members really need for them to pass this time, and only the budget makes the cut.

This Really is Exploratory

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry says his call for a study of higher education sounds vague because he isn't asking the question with the answer already formed in his mind.

He's proposing to set loose a blue-ribbon panel to look at what happens in education after high school in Texas and come up with some direction for it. It bothers him, for instance, that colleges and universities have to repeat the same arguments every two years to get their budgets approved by lawmakers. With a longer-term master plan in place, he suggests, the ups and downs of budgeting and legislative interest in higher education might level out.

He also wants the group to knock around ideas about community colleges and technical schools and the like to see how they should go about training people for jobs.

The aim of the project, according to Perry, is to come up with a "clearly articulated direction" for higher education in Texas, so that colleges and universities don't come to Austin every biennium "begging for funding, without a long-term plan." This could dovetail with current efforts from Texas colleges to strengthen the state's emphasis on higher ed.

Other Moving Objects in Higher Education

We have a feeling this ain't over yet, but at the moment, the marriage of Texas A&M University and the South Texas College of Law is off. State District Judge Suzanne Covington of Austin says the union didn't have the right blessings. The state's Higher Education Coordinating Board had voted against the affiliation, and had maintained that the two schools had no right to join up with permission from higher authorities. The schools say they'll appeal.

Texas Southern University isn't out of the wilderness yet, but the school is getting better news out of the Legislature than it was just a few months ago. The State Auditor's Office has been riding the school for several years and now says things are improving. Lawmakers haven't rescinded their threat to combine TSU into another university system, but that possibility is far more remote now. Now that the auditor says there are signs of improvement, the school can try to get funding it says it needs from lawmakers. Late last year, those same lawmakers had expressed doubts about throwing more emergency money to the school and hinted they were looking for merger partners.

Voter Notification

The Dallas-based FREE PAC is starting a series of newspaper ads to push legislators who haven't stated their support for legislation that would require parents to be notified before a minor could obtain an abortion. The group says it will start by targeting two Democrats who represent conservative districts, and "will consider placing additional ads in conservative districts until the legislation is passed." They don't say who else they might target, but their samplers name Reps. Barry Telford, D-DeKalb, and Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, as the starting points. They describe Merritt in an ad that's running in his hometown paper as "the ONLY Republican not co-sponsoring" the legislation. The ad aimed at Telford is a little milder, saying he "has not declared support" of the bill.

On a semi-related subject, the Senate bill enhancing penalties for injuries to children still in the womb was pitched by the sponsor, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, as a non-abortion bill. He even called the people pushing that idea paranoid. But there's at least some basis for their contention that the bill has support among anti-abortionists. Some of them with long memories (and good filing systems) produced old letters and an Texas Republican Party press release detailing the plan to get "feticide" legislation passed as part of a legislative action plan on abortion. For his part, Ogden told other senators during the debate that he didn't consider it an abortion bill and would pull it down if amendments took it in that direction. It passed, and is now on the way to the House.

What's to Explore?

Remember when Arthur yanked the sword out of the stone and became King? During the 23 days from March 8 to March 31, Gov. George W. Bush raised more than $6 million for his exploratory presidential campaign. For the trivia buffs in the audience, that's $260,869 per day. Only sitting Vice President Al Gore raised more money during the period, and he started earlier than March 8.

Bush's fears that his presidential aspirations would meet with a resounding thud have apparently been answered. The campaign hopes to double the bank balance by the end of June, and some of the money people around the state say he could top $20 million by then if the bloom stays on the rose. Aides don't want the expectations to get too high, but at the same time, the campaign hasn't really put down a full-court press on fundraising. There has not been a single event involving Bush, for example. Likewise, there has not been enough time to crank the direct mail campaign up to full speed.

Bush is now saying he'll wait until late fall to say whether he'll forego federal campaign fund-raising limits. Candidates who agree to the limits are entitled to some easy money (from that check-off on your income tax return), but they're limited in what they can spend. Those limits hurt Bob Dole in his attempt to unseat Bill Clinton, and Bush aides have said repeatedly that they would like to avoid the same potholes. The money folks, again, think this will be a relatively easy thing to do.

The press game is underway. National magazines are doing long and mostly positive profiles of the governor, political reporters outside the state are steadily calling local counterparts, and everyone who ever spent time around Bush is starting to get calls. The current turn on this is evidenced in innocuous stories about Cathy Young of Palo Alto, California, who once was engaged to Bush.

Mansion watch: The latest visitors were from Pennsylvania. We mentioned a few weeks ago that Gov. Bush seemed to have heard from lawmakers in every state but his own. Support from GOP legislators was never in question, but now it's a matter of record: 69 of the 72 Republicans in the Texas House signed a petition – circulated by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland – supporting Bush's presidential candidacy. The holdouts were Reps. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, and Robert Talton, R-Pasadena. Heflin said the governor hadn't asked him. Howard said he stays out of primaries. Talton apparently has other reasons, but isn't talking. Bush met with the House GOP Caucus right before the Easter break on the bottom level of the Capitol. As that began, Talton was getting on the elevator, heading for the third floor – five levels in the other direction.

Rounding Down the Tax Rate

Meanwhile, down in the basement, Bush was telling House Republicans that the best way to support him is to support his legislative package. Several GOP members we talked with said the governor seems unconcerned with the details of the tax relief that finally comes out, so long as it can be called relief and involves a serious amount of money, say, $1 billion or better. Several of the state's politicos looked at the expected budget surplus last summer and thought, however briefly, about lowering the sales tax rate. Those thought balloons popped and were replaced by targeted tax cuts on particular items, on breaks for companies that invest in things the state wants to promote (investments, R&D, etc.) and on cuts in local property taxes.

Now some are moving back to the original idea. A cut of one-quarter of a cent would cost about $1.1 billion, easily within the amount that's available. And that would leave money for other sundries, like franchise tax breaks and teacher pay and you-fill-in-the-blank.

The state's sales rate of 6.25 percent was set in 1991, after an earlier, temporary increase to that amount expired and the rate slipped back down to 6 percent. Now, House Republicans are floating the idea of a cut – billed as the first sales tax cut in state history – in place of property tax cuts. Part of this is borne of simplicity. A sales tax cut can quickly be reduced to bumper-sticker material. And part of this is borne of frustration. Legislators have been groaning for two years about the $1 billion tax cut they tried to give Texans two years ago. Many people never got it, and many people saw a cut that was too small to make any difference.

That's Nine Zeros. Eleven Digits. Three Commas.

If it's important when the Dow Jones Industrials Average sidles up to the 10,000 mark, then is it significant when the state budget edges up to the $100 billion milestone? The budget approved by the House Appropriations Committee is right up there, totaling $97 billion and including a cloudy area where two other House panels will fill in details on tax cuts, teacher pay raises and other goodies.

The House will vote on the budget in a week. But the sexy stuff, as noted previously, will come out of the Public Education and Ways & Means committees, which have about $3.5 billion between them to spend on the governor's tax and education programs or on alternatives.

The public education part of the budget increases more than 13 percent (against an overall increase of 9.6 percent). That's a dollar increase of $3.6 billion; paired with higher education, the total dollar increase leaps to $4.3 billion. The bottom line, including federal and state sources (and $1.8 billion from tobacco) increases from $88.5 billion to $97 billion.

So far, the proceeds of the state's tobacco lawsuit are going to health-related programs. That's in line with what former Attorney General Dan Morales originally planned. It's also in line with what Rep. Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, and Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant, said they would do after they got Morales to admit he couldn't force the Legislature to spend the money his way. The appropriations bill that came out of Junell's House committee follows that idea, as does the budget that Ratliff and his committee are tweaking.

But others have other plans: Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, has been working with Dallas bond attorney (and U.S. Senate spouse) Ray Hutchison to some of the tobacco money to back bonds that could be used build roads and bridges and such. The advantage of using bonds is that it allows lawmakers to spend future earnings now. The total amount of the tobacco settlement is $17.3 billion. The amount available in the current biennium is $1.8 billion, and the bond idea would get more of the money loaded onto the front end. Taken alone, that idea doesn't necessarily alarm the groups that want all of the money to be used for health-related spending, but Brown's proposed uses for the money have the health groups on alert.

Tax Notes, Electricity, and The Bingo Bird

Something closer to the Bush tax plan is working on the East End of the Pink Building, and has a less partisan twang to it. The tax bill sponsored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, would take certain goods – diapers and some medicine, for instance – out of the sales tax base. It also includes the two-week tax holiday for back-to-school sales that was in the governor's original plan. (It was removed after a lower-than-expected revenue estimate was released by Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander). Ellis' bill would cost the state $250 million (and would cost cities and counties and other local tax entities as much as $75 million)... There are stirrings in the wings on the Internet tax proposed by the governor. Some lawmakers apparently thought the tax break applied to all on-line sales, which is not the case. Bush has proposed killing the sales tax on the fees people pay for access to the Internet. That's typically about $20 a month. Taxes on items sold over the Internet is a whole 'nother can of worms that won't flower until the state is losing a significant amount of money on those sales.

• Deregulation of the electric utility industry is cranking along, apparently headed for a hearing in the second week of April and a committee vote as soon as a week after that. Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, has been telling members of his House State Affairs Committee that he doesn't want to vote out an electric bill with a narrow majority in support – he would like to see ten votes or more in favor of it. He's been locked in meetings on the subject for days and should have a draft out after Easter.

• Better living through technology: Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, has a bill that would allow satellite bingo in Texas. The underlying idea is like those multi-state lottery games, where more people are playing and so the jackpots are larger. If people in three or four or more bingo halls around the state could be linked up by satellite, prizes could get up into the range of $30,000 or $40,000. Prizes in Texas games are currently limited to $2,500.

The Wide World of Torts

Pity the Senate chairman who has a bill stuck in his own committee. Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, is trying to get his subcommittee on Technology and Business Growth to spit out the so-called "submissions" bill, which would limit the liability of third parties in some tort actions. The bill was referred to Fraser's five-member subcommittee and is at least temporarily stalled. We're told it should be unstuck soon. We're also informed, by folks sympathetic to the legislation, that it will then get stuck in the House. They are less than optimistic.

Ask members about torts and most will say, "We did that four years ago."

Only two pieces of tort legislation have gotten much public attention, and both are touted as something other than tort bills. The Senate has sent the House a Y2k bill that purports to limit the liability of computer hardware and software companies whose products have glitches as the clock rolls to 12:01 am on January 1, 2000. To avoid liability, they would have to warn their customers in advance and provide some kind of solution at reasonable cost.

The second semi-tort was stuck on the floor of the Senate, but Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, finally got his gun out of the holster. The Senate voted out his bill protecting gun makers from lawsuits from cities and counties, but only after adding an amendment to make sure the state attorney general wasn't stripped of the power to sue in the process.

Depending on the source, there are nine to 12 bills in business groups' tort packages. But at this point, only those two have reached the floor of either chamber.

Scratch Here; Odds & Ends

BABN Technologies, a Canadian-turned-Texan company that makes scratch-off tickets for lotteries, finished third among three contenders that were seeking the new printing contract at the lottery. But in the face of a detailed protest from the company and some heat from the San Antonio legislative delegation, the lottery decided to reopen part of the bidding for the contract.

The company, which is now based in San Antonio, has never successfully bid for the scratch-off contract here: It won the business instead by buying the firm that did win the bid. As a result, the Texas scratch-off tickets account for about 20 percent of the activity at the company's Alamo City plant. That worked for a while, but when the contract was up for re-bid, BABN lost.

Now, lottery officials say they'll let the bidders submit new pricing information (but not new technical info) and then they'll re-score the bids. That, in turn, seems to have made all of the bidders unhappy. BABN wanted other parts of the bidding reopened. Scientific Games, which won the first time, wanted the results left undisturbed. That's a $15 million to $30 million piece of business, depending on how many tickets are sold during the term of the contract.

• Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander is unloading the Family Pathfinders' program started by her predecessor, John Sharp. The program pairs welfare families with church and civic groups – about 500, so far, according to Rylander – and is being moved to the Texas Department of Human Services. DHS has a related program called Charitable Choice.

• The Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, stopped in committee. And an announcement from the Republicans – officially saying they were on board, with some new provisions – got postponed. But expect this to move this week. One note from our story last week: The Senate version of the CHIP plan would cover children under age 10 up to 200 percent of the poverty level. We said 150 percent, and we hereby eat those words.

• It's about a federal bill instead of a state bill, but it's too funny to leave out: The Independent Cattlemen's Association of Texas, with other like-minded groups, wants Congress to require sellers to say where their meat comes from. The group pushing that effort nationally – and sponsoring local meetings like the ICA hearing a couple of weeks ago – is called "Demand American Meat Now," or DAMN, for short.

Political People and Their Moves

Put Denton County Judge Jeff Moseley on the list of folks who might become the next executive director of the Texas Department of Economic Development. The last director, Rick Thrasher, lasted only year at the post. Moseley, you'll remember, considered entering the GOP primary for the Texas land commissioner, but never got in. TDED's board will meet this week to vote on a successor to Thrasher. Moseley is not the only candidate who got an interview, but he's apparently the front-runner... Lisa Payne, who has headed the Dallas County Democratic Party for four years, will give up that job in May. She'll stay on the state party's executive committee... Secretary of State Elton Bomer hired Scott Storment as his "Colonias Coordinator", a position he had recommended after his visits to those Border settlements a few weeks back. Storment had been coordinator of Border programs for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission... New on the Texas Tech University Board of Regents, if the Senate's willing: Carin Marcy Barth of Houston, president of an investments management firm; E.R. "Dick" Brooks of Dallas, chairman and CEO of Central and South West Corp., a utility holding company; and Brian Newby of Austin, a partner at the law firm of Roan & Autrey, PC... Dr. Hans Mark, formerly of NASA, formerly of the University of Texas, is now working at the Pentagon. He is director of Defense Research and Engineering in the U.S. Department of Defense... The White House nominated Barbara Lynn, a Dallas lawyer, to succeed Barefoot Sanders as a federal district judge in that city. She's the third nominee for the post. U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins and former state District Judge Michael Schattman were both nominated, but the state's two U.S. senators, Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, blocked both appointments. The nominees for federal judgeships in North Texas come from a panel of three members of Congress, all of them Democrats.

Quotes of the Week

Jimmy Young, editor of a dog magazine called "Bayed Solid", on events that feature staged fights between hunting dogs and feral hogs: "It's a fellowship. Kids running around, wives talking, men lying about their dogs. Any way you look at it, it's a heritage."

Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, on East Texas opponents of his legislation that would ban those hog-dog fights: "Some of these folks just snuck into the gene pool."

Texas State Auditor Lawrence Alwin, on recent improvements at Texas Southern University in Houston: "We have not said everything is hunky-dory, but we have seen some things happen in the prior two months that were not happening before."

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, on his support for sales tax breaks: "If you just did a property tax break, there would be people in Texas who would not get tax relief."

Public Utility Commission chairman Pat Wood, on why it would be better to settle the phone fight in front of lawmakers instead of regulators: "Whichever way we would decide, one side or the other would sue over the decision. I get the feeling we'd be in court a whole lot longer than it would take for this issue to be decided in the Legislature, even if it takes them until the 2001 session to do something."

Glenn Smith, a spokesman for Southwestern Bell, on why that phone company pounced on a rival's mistake to try to take over ownership of the "Partnership for a Competitive Texas" name used by a group that includes the rival: "We think it's deceptive to have AT&T's name associated with the word "competitive."

Gov. George W. Bush, on the $6 million feedback in response to his explorations: "It's a good sign. I wanted to make sure that behind the polls and the phone calls that there was some substance."

U.S. Education Secretary turned drug czar turned author William Bennett, on the governor's past: "The Irish have a saying: The merry-hearted boys make the best men. Young and male, some of us in college, some of us in high school, did things we're not particularly happy about or proud of later. That doesn't concern the American people."

Cathy Young, who was engaged 32 years ago to George W. Bush, on what he was like in his carefree bachelor days: "If he had wild days, they weren't with me."

Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 38, 5 April 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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