We begin with an "if": What happens if Gov. George W. Bush moves from the white mansion at 11th and Colorado in Austin to the larger digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.? Well, unless he refuses to take the office, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry would move into the governor's office.
The state constitution is unclear on this point, and leaves open the legal argument that one person could hold both offices, presiding over the Senate and acting as governor, all at the same time. Think about it: Appointments would be made by the governor, then approved by the Senate. The senators doing the approving would get their own legislation to the floor of the Senate only with the approval of the lieutenant governor. That's just one of a zillion examples of how this could play out.
On the political side, it would allow a lieutenant governor to hold off challengers for both offices. Members of his party would stand by, waiting to see whether he wanted reelection to the corner office on the East end of the building, or whether he wanted to run as a putative favorite for the governor's office. Senators who have their eye on that corner office might stand back, not wanting to risk offense to the returning incumbent, if in fact he returns to that post.
And if, in this one instance, the selection of a presiding officer of the Senate is run like a speaker's race in the House, with senators choosing a leader from among their colleagues, the possibility that Perry might return introduces another level of difficulty for the candidates. It also gives Perry some measure of control over who succeeds him, if he's planning to move into that white mansion.
The COW in the Pink Building
The Democrats who want to hold those seats will run no matter what, but dual incumbency could hold off Republicans who'd like to run without significant primary opposition.
For hopeful and wanna-be Republican challengers, Perry as a combination guv-lite guv incumbent would present a forbidding financial challenge. He'd have formidable fundraising stroke with risk-averse givers: Folks who are ordinarily reluctant to give against incumbents would be doubly skittish, and might stay out of both races until Perry made up his mind about which office to seek.
Supporters would be doubly eager to jump in, and the holder of the two offices would almost certainly start one race or the other with a bulging campaign treasury.
All of that is preface to this: The House passed a constitutional amendment that would clear up the succession language in the constitution. If that passes the Senate and then the voters, a lieutenant governor would automatically give up his or her own seat to move down the hall to the governor's office. Then the Senate would name a presiding officer from among its own, and that senator would sit at the tall desk while also remaining a senator until the next elections.
Though he would potentially be the first beneficiary of that constitutional vagueness, Perry says he's in favor of the clarifying legislation authored by Rep. Tom Ramsay, D-Mount Vernon.
And to handle this particular potato, Perry made his first referral of the session to the Senate's Committee of the Whole (known as the COW). That means the entire Senate will be in the room and everybody can watch each other while they decide some of the rules of who moves up if Bush moves on. After some confusion about who was going to sign on as the Senate sponsor (first it looked like Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, and then like Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay), the legislation will be carried by Sen. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi. Perry is expected to make Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, the chairman of the committee, and the COW will convene within the week.
If you're a headline skimmer, you either believe that Gov. George W. Bush (a) might call a special session, or (b) says that a special session is unlikely. Actually, both sets of headlines are accurate.
He's telling reporters that special sessions are always in a governor's bag of tricks and that he thinks the issues of taxes, education spending and the budget will work themselves out during this last month of the regular session. Bush also says he has not threatened anyone with a special session.
The conversations between the governor and the budgeteers and the tax writers are still going on, and everyone at our deadline was still waiting for Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander to issue her final revenue estimate so they could see how much money is really on the table. You'll remember former Comptroller John Sharp put out a fat estimate almost a year ago during the political season. Rylander lowered that by $700 million at the beginning of the legislative session, and it's safe to say that just about everybody -- without regard to their agenda -- would like to have that money back.
Rylander isn't saying when the money will come, but it wouldn't be unprecedented for a comptroller to wait another week or so, to see what happens with early franchise tax returns that come in during the first few weeks in May. Those numbers can make the estimate gel.
The immediate pressure point is one we've written about. Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, says he doesn't have any slack left in the Senate when it comes to the balance between teacher pay raises demanded by Democrats and tax cuts demanded by Republicans. The House appears unlikely to send him back the package he already got through the upper chamber. The governor wants a "significant" tax cut and wants to spend some of the state's surplus on education.
The governor won't detail his bottom-line deal, at least for public consumption, but he's no longer saying he wants $2 billion in tax relief. Both the Senate and the House have pulled up well short of that amount, each saying (in their completely different fashions) that there is not enough money available to cut taxes by that amount and keep up with spending needs in public education and other areas.
If the numbers from the comptroller are big enough, there are two theories making the rounds. One is that everybody's troubles disappear, that the new money removes the pressure and the clouds part and the birds sing and all that. The other is that any increase would just provide that much more money to fight over. The teachers and the tax cutters aren't the only people in the Pink Building with wish lists in their hands.
Not a Drop to Drink
It is true that Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, has put the brakes on about three dozen bills that would either create new water districts or make changes to those already in existence. And it is also true that Brown-sponsored legislation that would make it easier to transfer water from one river basin to another is all but dead in the House.
But it's not true, he says, that those two things are linked.
Chances for the inter-basin bill have always been slim, at least on the House side, and there was a fair amount of politicking done in the Senate earlier in the session to kill the same bill. Brown knew that was going to have problems.
But his opposition to the water district bills dates back two years, to work that was ordered -- and that is now being completed -- in the last session's major water legislation. The state is still mapping water sources and uses, a process that won't be complete for more than two more years, and Brown doesn't want people all over Texas to use the time between now and then creating a bunch of new exceptions to state water policy.
He's not suggesting anyone is trying to slip through before the study is done and the plan is in place, but look at the numbers: There are 40 water districts in the state now, five of them created last session and the rest in existence well before then. This year's requests would raise that by 50 percent.
That House member right over there with the red and white concentric circles on his back is Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview. In one week, he got blasted by his own political party for legislation that would restrict railroad commissioners running for higher offices, and earned a loud gasp from party colleagues when he appeared at the Senate Democratic Caucus' event on hate crime legislation.
Merritt says his bill on the railroad commission is designed to slow the revolving door there. Only about a third of the last 30 commissioners have completed their terms; the offices have become well-established launch pads for statewide political contests for Republicans and Democrats alike.
The current commission has three Republicans on it: Charles Matthews, Tony Garza and Michael Williams. Garza is Hispanic and Williams is black; GOP Chairman Susan Weddington wrote a memo to Republican House members contending the legislation would invite an attack on Republicans for blocking the progress of minorities in politics.
She wrote that she fears Democrats will take Republican votes for the bill as a sign that Republicans "don't want minorities to succeed in our party. They will use this and rightly so!"
Merritt said he planned to answer complaints with amendments that would exempt the current commissioners, and that would allow railroad commissioners to run for other offices without resigning, but only in the last year of their terms. He got the amendments on, but pulled the bill down before a final vote, postponing consideration until June 1, the first day after the session ends.
A Partisan Invitation at a Bipartisan Event
That fuss was nothing compared to the blowup that followed the press conference. Merritt, a House co-sponsor of legislation that enhances penalties for so-called "hate crimes," was one of only nine GOP House members to vote for the bill. And although several House members stood up front at the Senate news conference, he was the lone Republican among them.
Also there, but not at the microphone, was Democratic Party Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm. And if you didn't know which political party Merritt hails from, it would have been hard to separate him from the pack on the basis of what he said, knocking his party for opposing the bill and saying he was there to represent everyone in his district -- not just the Republicans. He said the GOP has been encouraging lawmakers to vote against the bill. He said the party doesn't understand the legislative process and should just let members vote the way their constituents want them to vote.
At one point, Malcolm was inspired to speak up and invite him to switch parties. Some of the Republicans we talked with after the press conference were ticked off enough to say they'd pay for the bon voyage party. Oddly, as he was making the Democrats' argument for them, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, scooted Merritt from the podium, ostensibly to keep the show moving.
The hate crime legislation has passed the Senate twice, in 1993 and in 1995, but is in trouble of dying there this year. The House passed it, with a handful of Republicans joining all but a couple of the Democrats. But the state Republican Party is against it -- its executive committee recently voted to keep that position. Gov. George W. Bush, who earlier expressed doubts about the legislation, now says he'll take a look at it if and when it gets to his desk. He answered half a dozen questions on the subject with exactly the same words last week, ducking any discussion of the issue.
A side note: Several political consultants we know say that the House's vote on hate crimes could expose some Republicans to a campaign attack for voting against mothers, of all things. The legislation enhances penalties for crimes committed on the basis of hate for certain groups. The bill includes race, sexual preference and other categories. File this one under the rule of "Never Improve a Bill You Plan to Oppose": The House accepted a Republican amendment that added pregnant women to the list of groups, and then all but nine Republicans voted against the final bill. That not only opens the opportunity for attack; it blunts the basis for Republican attacks on Democrats who favored the penalty enhancements for other, less popular, groups.
Dial Tones and 60-Cycle Hums
There hasn't been a week yet where people were saying optimistic things at the same time about this session's major telephone and electric legislation. So it is at this writing: electric folks are optimistic and the phone folks are nervous. Sit tight, cause it'll change again.
What started as electric utility deregulation is now a 191-page bill that has a slim chance of making it through the Legislature. That is to say, the odds of passage have improved. The on-again, off-again package is on for the moment, and it's closer to the Senate version than any of the House versions to date. None of these bills do what the industry originally said it wanted; deregulation is now called restructuring, and one utility lobbyist pointed out that what started as a reduction in regulation would actually add over two dozen regulators to the staff of the state's Public Utility Commission.
The House's newest electric bill, authored by Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, would allow utilities to sell bonds to recover so-called "stranded costs" -- the difference between the book values of their assets and the lower market values of those same assets. Those bonds would let the utilities recover those costs more quickly. The companies say they need to recover those stranded costs from ratepayers or they won't be able to compete with new companies whose costs are already at market value.
Consumer groups don't like that idea, since faster recovery for the utilities means ratepayers are paying more money. But they got a bone of their own: Companies over a certain size that are jumping into the business for the first time would have to offer service to residential customers under his bill.
The bill also freezes rates at current levels, then cuts them by six percent when competition starts. And environmental groups like this version, which requires the use of renewable resources and forces electric plants to cut their pollution levels.
Unless the newest version has powerful opposition, it will pop out of the House State Affairs Committee within the week. All that said, this bill has been dead and then alive and then dead several times. We're past predicting its future.
That same lack of prediction goes for a prickly piece of legislation that would lower access charges on intrastate long distance phone calls. A week ago, the prognosticators were sure there'd be a phone bill by the end of the session, and they might still be right, but there's still a fight going on.
The access charge reduction in the bill is more or less settled, and the battle now is over what the phone companies can charge for particular services. Broadly speaking, Southwestern Bell and other local phone companies want more freedom to set rates on more services. New and potential competitors want those companies restricted until the competitive playing field is closer to their idea of fair. A Bell official told lawmakers that competitors will be fine if they will just stay in their niches.
An Uncertain Future on the Floor
Both bills have some interesting sledding ahead if they get out of committee and all the way to the floor of the House. House members have been reluctant to commit to anything on the electric bill, mostly along the lines of "What's the problem we're trying to solve and, by the way, doesn't that thing have stingers on it?" Many of them still aren't convinced their constituents want a bill. When the conversation turns to phones, some members say unapologetically that they don't know the issues and aren't particularly anxious to vote on the legislation. Others would like a chance to vote for a cut in long distance access rates, and the bill probably wouldn't face a big fight on the floor.
That's not true of the electric bill. More than one person mentioned the floor fight over the 1991 tax bill in talking about the electric bill this week, and the consensus seems to be that if the legislation isn't rock-solid when it gets to the floor, it won't survive much debate. (The 1991 tax bill shrunk from more than $3 billion to about $30 million during floor debate, as members stripped provision after provision over the author's protests. Floor leaders were non-existent, and the Senate had to reconstruct a tax package to make up a budget deficit.) The analogy is that there won't be many floor leaders for a bill that would restructure the electric utility industry. If the negotiators can hold the various parties together, they have a decent chance at getting a bill through.
It Makes Everything Up to Now Seem Civil
This isn't in Quotes of the Week because we promised not to name the source, but it's a good line with a grain of truth: One of these attorneys general is in a lot of trouble. Attorney General John Cornyn filed papers accusing his predecessor of fraud. He says former AG Dan Morales faked a contract with attorney Marc Murr, which resulted eventually in an arbitrator's decision that Murr should get $260 million for his involvement in the state's tobacco settlement.
You can take the measure of the amount of venom from a sentence in the filing that wasn't in the newspapers: "Just weeks before they secretly met with a state arbitration panel they had collusively handpicked, Morales created a bogus three percent contingency fee contract for Murr."
Morales and his lawyer blamed the filing on what they said is a Republican fear that Morales will run for governor sometime in the future.
Who Knew He Liked Basketball?
Former lieutenant governor candidate and Comptroller John Sharp is endorsing former New York Knick and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, D-New Jersey, for president, ditching Vice President Al Gore, a longtime political ally. (And skipping a chance to endorse Gov. George W. Bush, who was so popular during the election season that Sharp used a picture of him in his television ads.)
Sharp, a Democrat who started the Texas Performance Review, helped Gore set up a national version of the same thing and worked with the VP on other projects as well. He says Gore is hurt politically by his association with President Bill Clinton. He says he heard Bradley speak, talked with him, and decided to throw his endorsement to the candidate from New Jersey.
A New Tax Cut, Homestead Exemptions, and Gambling Notes
Legislation that would take $200 million in surpluses from the workers' compensation pool and send it back to the premium payers is now being billed as a tax cut by Rep. Bill Siebert, R-San Antonio. This is a great lemonade from lemons story, if it works: Siebert, apparently at the urging of the governor's office, pitched the idea of taking $400 million in surpluses at the Texas Workers' Compensation Insurance Fund, tossing it into general revenue, and using it for tax relief.
That idea lasted almost a day, with most of the complaints hanging on the state's tenuous claim to the money, and to the idea that the refunds should go to the people who paid the premiums that resulted in the surplus. Now Siebert, along with Reps. Kim Brimer, R-Arlington, and Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, are pitching it as tax relief, albeit for a small group. The new pitch, contained in legislation that's now passed the House, is that the surplus money is the result of maintenance tax surcharges paid by companies with comp insurance. Refund it, cut the tax in the future, and Viola! It's a tax cut. That same bill creates a study on worker safety that will be worth watching during the interim.
Here's one for next session: The federal bankruptcy overhaul that got through the U.S. House has a provision that would kill the state's longstanding homestead exemption unless the state Legislature acts to opt out. The feds aim to limit personal bankruptcies, which have nearly doubled in number over the last decade. Among other things, the bill would limit to $250,000 the amount of value in a homestead that could be protected. Anything over that would be available to creditors in a bankruptcy. But the current version of the legislation would allow Texas and other states with homestead exemptions to opt out of that cap. The state constitution exempts all of a homestead, no matter how much it's worth. The federal bill is by no means final, but it's moving.
The deal between the Texas Lottery and the state's budgeteers that we told you about a couple of weeks ago is now complete. The lottery was a two-time loser in the last legislative session when lawmakers capped the advertising budget for the state's gambling operation and limited the amount of each dollar wagered that could be paid out in prizes. Lottery officials have blamed those two restraints for disappointing sales figures. Now, lawmakers have agreed to a trade of sorts, saying the lottery can raise payout ratios if, at the same time, they cut advertising revenues.
Political People and Their Moves
Maybe he ignored the advice he got at home, and maybe he didn't: Attorney Jerry Hughes of Westlake (an Austin suburb) lost his seat on the Eanes school board. He's the husband of Karen Hughes, press secretary and a close advisor to Gov. George W. Bush... Attorney General John Cornyn looks to Alabama for new blood, hiring Anita Drummond to head Texas' Crime Victims' Compensation Fund. Drummond ran the Alabama counterpart for 11 years before becoming a consultant... Among the dozens and dozens of people reelected last week, Al Lipscomb became the first person elected or re-elected to the Dallas City Council while under indictment. Lipscomb is awaiting trial on charges he took bribes from the owner of a taxi company. He has maintained his innocence from the beginning... Jim Dedman, press aide to Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, leaves that post after four-and-a-half years to start law school at Baylor... Jeff Moseley's jump from Denton County Judge to El Queso Grande at the Texas Department of Economic Development started a musical chairs adventure back home: Kirk Wilson is now the County Judge. And Jerry Valdez, who had been the county's economic development director, leaves Denton to join Moseley in Austin... The chairman of the Public Utility Commission will claim a victory this session whether or not lawmakers pass the utility legislation he's been working on: Pat Wood III bailed out of the negotiations for the birth of Patrick Henry Wood IV... From a journalist's perspective, this is proof you can go from bad to worse and still prosper: The new president-elect of the State Bar of Texas (and only the third female to win in such an election) is Lynne Liberato, an attorney whose original intent in going to law school was to become a better journalist. She's a partner at Haynes and Boone in Houston.
Quotes of the Week
Republican presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander, at a weekend forum in New Hampshire that drew eight of the candidates in the race, but not Texas Gov. George W. Bush: "I'm sorry to hear Texas is in such difficult shape that the Legislature has to convene on Sunday night."
James P. Hoffa, the new president of the Teamsters Union (and the son of Jimmy Hoffa, who headed the union in the 60s), on the need to enlist politicians of both parties: "We will not be the ATM machine for the Democratic Party. We intend to approach issues from both sides of the aisle."
Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, on his war with former political supporters at Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and their reaction to his "No" vote on a bill they support: "They're mad because they couldn't buy my vote... You'd be amazed how much that goes on here. It's a sad part of the process."
Ruth Steward, who lost a race (by a 3-to-1 margin) to indicted Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb, on her political future: "I'm going to sit back and see if he gets convicted. If he gets convicted, it looks like I'll be running again."
State GOP chairman Susan Weddington, in a memo to lawmakers about legislation barring railroad commissioners from running for other offices without first resigning: "I can think of few bills before the Legislature this session that will do as much damage to the Republican cause as will the passage of HJR 85 if it is supported by Republican votes."
Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, the sponsor of that bill, on that memo from his own party chairman: "If Susan Weddington wants to be a legislator, she should have run for office."
Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, on taxes: "I have not had a single call from somebody saying 'I want you to cut my property taxes.' Not a one."
Connecticut information technology commissioner Gregg "Rock" Regan, on what his state will do if technology glitches stop the elevators there on January 1, 2000: "We have contingency plans. The contingency is the stairs."
Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee, on the biennial anticipation of a final revenue forecast from the state's bean-counters: "We're all still waiting for Comptroller [Carole Keeton] Rylander to lay the golden egg."
Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 43, 10 May 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.