If Carole Keeton Rylander had never said anything about money back at the beginning of the session, the state would be about where it is today in terms of the amount of money available for government spending and tax cuts.
Rewind. Comptroller John Sharp put a big number on the table last summer, and he and everyone else running for office spent the next few months talking about ways to spend it. Rylander took office and lopped $700 million from the estimate, saying that even with the lower amount, the Legislature would have $5.6 billion to spend. And she suggested there would be enough left after the spending for the state to set money aside for a rainy day.
Now Rylander says the economy is better than it looked in December -- when she made the decision to take some money back -- and so she is adding $807 million to the pot. Rylander's new estimate made just about everybody happy. The new money makes it possible to settle up the differences between the governor's office, the House leadership, and various legislative factions, each of which has had a different take on how the money should be spent.
Until she let loose with a bigger number, the state comptroller had brought all of the financial deals in the Legislature to a halt. Her cover story was that the state's franchise taxes are due on May 15th and that she wanted to see those numbers first. She finally brought in a number a few days early, after the folks working on the budget/tax/education packages had done all they could without her. The chief budget-writers, Rep. Rob Junell, D-San Angelo and Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, were reduced to saying they couldn't print their 3-inch-thick appropriations bill on time if she wouldn't let go of the numbers quickly. Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, simply shut down his Public Education Committee, which is where teacher pay raises and property tax cuts are stalled. Without a number, he said, he had no reason to meet. And Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said his tax bills were stuck until the Legislature could get a look at the total amount of money available.
Cooking a Deal on Taxes, Education and Spending.
Gov. George W. Bush has officially backed off on the details of the financial package. He followed Rylander's announcement by telling reporters he wants substantial spending on education (which includes property tax cuts) and tax cuts people can feel. That's the answer you get if you ask what exact mix of taxes he wants. That's the answer if the question is about his campaign pledge of $2 billion in property tax cuts. That's the answer if the question is about teacher pay raises. He admitted that what comes out at the end won't be exactly what he said he wanted back in January.
Bush did say he's working with legislators on the financial equation, and did say he wants some amount of sales tax cuts, property tax cuts and business tax cuts. The number that emanates from those meetings is $2 billion, which would be the total of all the cuts together. The rest could be applied to education and to teacher pay raises. Some lawmakers -- notably House Republicans -- are still pushing for an across-the-board cut in sales taxes.
Business people who were hoping to see franchise tax credits for job creation, research & development and capital investments are still in the game, since the House is sitting on the Senate bill that includes those cuts. Finally, sales taxes could be revived, in spite of the drubbing given Democrats on the floor of the House when those bills came up a week ago. A sales tax omnibus bill passed earlier by the Senate is still a viable vehicle that could come out of House Ways & Means on short notice.
Stuck in a Compromising Position
It's tough to make anything happen when no deadline is looming, and that's one reason that parental notification legislation got stuck in a conference room off the House floor even as it came up on the House calendar for a vote. But the deal that was worked out on deadline was coming apart over one word, at least temporarily, as we went to press.
The word is "conclusively." Most of the folks we talked to said the way that word is used in the bill would limit the ability of prosecutors to go after doctors who proceed with abortions on minors without first properly informing the parents of the underage mothers.
That bill would require underage women to tell their parents before ending their pregnancies. For several weeks, the legislation was hung up because of disagreements over who a teenager could notify to satisfy the law. The narrowest version -- approved by the Senate earlier in the session -- would allow a young woman to notify a judge instead of her parents. Other versions would allow other bypasses, allowing teenagers to go, for example, to other family members, or to counselors.
That got everyone stuck, although the bill has enough sponsors to sail through the House. The House State Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, voted out the House version of the bill and that was put on the calendar for a vote. That forced everyone to the table, because of the late date and the way the rules work. If the House voted on its own bill instead of the Senate bill, the Senate would then have to go through another set of committee hearings and posting delays.
To keep things moving, the House had to move the Senate bill, and the only way for interested parties to make happen was to sit down and talk. Talk they did, and they agreed to a deal that made both sides a little unhappy. They agreed to let the House vote on one amendment, which would expand the list of bypasses. The outcome of the vote wasn't part of the deal, just the fact of it. Any other amendments from the House floor would be opposed by everyone who signed onto the deal, presumably enough House members to keep all but the one amendment from having a chance.
The negotiators, including Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, Patricia Gray, D-Galveston, Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, and Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, all signed off on that. What happened next depends on who you talk to. One side or the other came in with a few more changes, and sent the deal back to negotiators. Both sides agree that the problem is with the word "conclusively," and that the issue is fairly simple: How difficult would it be to bring criminal charges against a doctor who performs an abortion without the necessary notification to parents or someone else?
Is There a Doctor in the House?
The Texas Medical Association has been flying under the radar on the parental notice bill, saying its membership is so split on abortion issues that the association can't take sides.
However, however, however: The group generally opposes legislation that puts the crosshairs of criminal penalties on doctors, as the parental notification bill does, and they've been involved on the edges, trying to change that language. They are among the proponents of the word "conclusively," since it makes it tougher for prosecutors looking to throw doctors in jail. If, in the last moments of negotiations, the word "conclusively" were to fall out of the bill, the doctors might put up a more public fight than they have so far.
The whole issue has caused problems on both ends of the spectrum, since a workable compromise would involve so many members who can't be considered 100 percent supporters by either side.
Anti-abortion advocates wanted a parental consent bill to begin with, and don't want any more dilution added to what they consider to be an already watered-down bill. On the other side are members who don't want any restrictions added to the law. Neither group was particularly happy with the compromise, and any fix is likely to leave both sides holding their noses.
Legislative Wedgies, Other Random Acts
Now that the calendars are winding down, things in the Pink Building are moving fast.
Take, for instance, the emerging group of Border lawmakers who have banded together to try to pull more state attention and more state money down to their area of the state. They were strongly behind Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander's proposal for floating some so-called GARVEE bonds to increase the amount of highway spending in their areas. The bonds would have been paid off with future federal highway money.
The idea was opposed by highway contractors, who argued, in part, that the interest payments on the bonds would cut into the amount of money available for roads. Six or seven percent would be diverted from asphalt to bondholders. They were only part of the reason the bonds got killed in the Legislature, but they were the most visible part. And now there is a counterattack. The state's budget will momentarily have a rider that calls upon the comptroller to do a performance review of the Texas Department of Transportation, which is where all of the highway contractors do their business.
• We'll give you the short form of this one: Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, tried to pass a bill out of the State Affairs Committee chaired by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, while she was out of the room. It was a bill she opposed. She was not amused and, in retaliation, starting building speed bumps in front of Wentworth's legislation. The back-and-forth stopped after the media got caught in the crossfire; one of the Wentworth bills that stalled was an open records proposal the newspapers like.
• The House unanimously and unwittingly voted for legislation that includes a provision taking away virtually all of the powers of the State Board of Education and gives them to Commissioner Mike Moses. That provision got tacked onto a bill late at night by Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, and the House gave final approval on a unanimous record vote.
• Several folks were wondering how this got all the way to the floor of the House, but Rep. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, made it to the front microphone with legislation that would have killed the state's late train by making it illegal for statehouse candidates to accept political contributions after Election Day. That's historically the period when lobbyists and other interests make late donations to campaigns they opposed before elections. It's a time, in other words, to eat crow. Averitt gave it a run and got shouted down. But after they loudly yelled "No" to the bill, a line formed at the clerk's desk, as a dozen or more House members lined up to make sure the official record showed them in favor.
• Most handicappers didn't give it much chance, but the House okayed legislation by Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, that would force some new reporting requirements on lobbyists. He added an amendment that could shake up the lobby world: Lobbyists who sign up new clients would have to notify both the Texas Ethics Commission and their other clients within 72 hours of signing up. Most of the lobbyists we know who have looked at it say the only way to satisfy the requirement would be to send a copy of each piece of legislation being worked on to each client.
• Republicans in the House noticed that they didn't have as many bills on the calendar as their Democratic counterparts and they began to get mad about it. They're still mad, but there is a counter-argument offered up by the House leadership: Republicans didn't file as many bills as the Democrats did. By management's count, Democrats filed an average of about 31 bills each. Republicans filed an average of about 21 bills each. And both Democrats and Republicans -- again, according to the folks with big offices -- got about 17 percent of their bills to the calendar.
• The constitutional revision that got crushed by indifference might be alive after all, but not during this session. Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, filed a bill that would set up a commission that would revise the constitution gradually over the next six years. A rewrite by Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, and Rep. Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, got a hearing and then slowly passed away because of the enormity of the task. In Brown's version, the constitution would be revised in bite-sized chunks.
Stamp Self, Address Envelope
The first letter from Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, to school officials in his district reads like a mild attack on Lt. Gov. Rick Perry and a more direct attack on publicly funded vouchers for private schools. So much so, in fact, that there's a second letter from Cain to those same people that cites Perry's diligence and leadership in working with the Senate on vouchers and education.
Cain says both letters were mailed to superintendents and to some school board members in his district. The first follows the line from Senate Democrats, saying that the state's surplus should go to education, teacher pay raises and tax cuts. It says Perry is pushing vouchers, and says a program like that would jeopardize funding for teacher pay, benefits and health insurance as well as on other spending dear to school officials' hearts, like facilities and maintenance funds.
Letter number two, mailed five days later, spells out in detail the most current slimmed-down pilot program being pushed by Perry and by Senate Education Chairman Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo. It says the two have "worked diligently to refine the pilot program." And it says the Senate, under Perry's leadership "has passed several pieces of landmark legislation that will improve Texas schools."
Belay that (Sneaky) Rule Suspension
While we're on the subject of Senate hijinks, consider this case of attention deficit disorder. Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, stood up last week and asked for permission to suspend the rules so that Senate committees would be allowed to meet while the Senate was in session. The rationale, supposedly, was that the crush of deadlines and bills coming over from the House would make it impossible to do all the needed work in the available time.
Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, it passed. Later that same day, somebody woke up. The Senate had, without objection, taken away every senator's right to filibuster in any but the narrowest way. Left in place, the suspension would let all of the upper chamber's business proceed, with the exception of floor action. Filibusters work best when they shut down the whole machine, and with several big issues still unsettled -- tax cuts, teacher pay, social promotions, utility regulation, hate crimes, parental notice, and a little thing called the state budget among them -- there are still plenty of fights that could inspire a senator from either side to stand up and talk for a couple of hours or days.
The Democrats in the Senate saw even darker motives, although it was one of their own who suspended the rule. That suspension would make it possible for senators to tend to other business instead of working on the floor. If the right number of senators on one side of a given issue -- vouchers, say -- were off the floor, it would be possible to pass with a partial Senate what is not acceptable to the full body. That got a round of denials from everybody, but it is what the Democrats were talking about when they came back to protest Madla's suspension.
They came back the next day, held a rugby scrum up at the lieutenant governor's desk, and decided to undo the suspension.
Attorney General John Cornyn has promised to give to prosecutors anything he turns up in his internal investigation of the contract between attorney Marc Murr and the State of Texas as represented by former Attorney General Dan Morales, but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll go to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Aides to Cornyn say they are still looking to see where the case should go, based on where people live and where contracts were signed and so on. Ordinarily, criminal referrals involving state government go to Travis County, but not always.
Cornyn has said in court filings that the contract with Murr was actually cobbled together more than a year after the date that appeared on it. And the Dallas Morning News hired a couple of experts who concluded that the signatures on the contract, including Morales', were lifted from a separate document. Cornyn's aides, asked whether and when he'll prove the allegations, say that could happen if any prosecutors decide to pursue the case.
Phone Banks and Teamsters with Scalpels
The so-called Union Doctor bill is moving in the House, but the opponents are pushing hard on at least two fronts. First, they've got phone banks cranked up, calling business people all over the state and telling them, as they did before the Senate vote, that the legislation would allow doctors to form unions, to bargain collectively, and to go on strike. That, the argument goes, would run up health care costs for businesses in Texas.
To that, the doctors say "Spinach." They say they already have the right to form unions if they want to, but that they need to be able to talk to one another so they don't get hosed by having to negotiate with insurance companies and health organizations one doctor at a time.
The American Medical Association's literature on the subject argues the business case a little better than it argues the doctor's case, at least for Texan sensibilities. The AMA wants the doctors to have the right to form bargaining units, and points to Texas as a potential leader on that front.
The Texas doctors hardly come to the fight unarmed. They won easily in the Senate in spite of phone banks and steady lobbying from the HMOs and business groups. And they say they're confident they will prevail in the House.
That House vote will come within the week, which is why the phone banks are so busy. Busy phone banks, in turn, are prompting the latest controversy: One of the groups running a phone bank operation against the bill is called the Main Street Committee. That apparently outside group has an insider in its leadership: Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson. She says she's within the law and her rights and is fighting what she thinks is a rotten piece of legislation. But a legislator using an outside committee to try to swing votes is unusual, even by her own estimate. Wohlgemuth said her phone bank was relatively small, compared to those being run by other groups against the issue, and said most of the calls to lawmakers were the result of those bigger efforts.
It's Never Too Early to Draw New House Districts
Republicans who were hoping to take over the statehouse last year were encouraged by demographics that were decidedly leaning their way. By their numbers, 88 of the 150 districts are more than half Republican on a good day. Discount that for the vagaries of personality and politics, and you get the current makeup of the Texas House, but GOP strategists see the demographics of the state moving their way. And they will be in a position to do something about it two years from now.
Next year, the Legislature will draw new districts for members of the House, the Senate, and the Texas seats in the U.S. Congress. Texas House members are already looking at numbers and maps and trying to get a bead on what's ahead. The numbers, while very preliminary, are interesting.
Pollster Mike Baselice, who's doing the number-crunching, starts by assuming the state will grow 20.5 percent when you compare the last census data to new census data that will be out in two years. For purposes of drawing political districts, that means districts that grow faster than that will have to give up some area, and those that grow more slowly will have to acquire some population.
Speaking very roughly, that accrues to the benefit of the suburbs and to the detriment of places like West Texas. Harris, Dallas and Bexar counties, for instance, each will probably lose a seat in the Texas House, according to the early GOP numbers, but their suburbs will add. Northeast Texas will likely lose a seat; West Texas will lose two, again while the 'burbs are growing.
The GOP has a clear leg up as of last November, when the party took over four of the five seats on the state's redistricting board. If the Legislature comes up with a plan that the Republican governor doesn't like, he can veto it and send it to that five-member panel, made up of the House speaker, the comptroller, the land commissioner, the attorney general and the lieutenant governor. Four of those are Republicans now, and if the GOP can take enough seats away from the Democrats in the next election cycle, they can elect their own speaker and hold all five seats. The Republicans face some problems, even though they'll control the game. The shifting population in the state could mean bad news for rural Republicans whose districts border growing suburbs.
Political People and Their Moves
What was that about politics and odd bedfellows? Former state Sen. O.H. "Ike" Harris, R-Dallas, is teaming up with Austin Democrat Ed Wendler to sponsor a fundraiser for Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, a Democrat. That'll be held at Harris' house... Nice sandwich: Former U.S. Rep. Tom Loeffler hosted that fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. The other draw on the invitation was co-host George W. Bush... Loeffler and Dallas investor Tom Hicks resigned from the board of the UT Investment Management Co., or UTIMCO. Moving into those slots on the board of the $12.6 billion fund are two Houstonians: Patrick Oxford, a lawyer, and Charles Miller, a businessman... Sen. Gregory Luna, D-San Antonio, is hoping to return before the end of the session, aides say. He is recovering from bypass operations in both legs and insertion of a pacemaker and, we're told, is doing well... Bryndan Wright of Arlington, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Irving, is planning to run against U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas. Daniel Davis, who was an aide to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, will also run in that race, also with the GOP label... Two more likely Democratic candidates in the race against U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions: Regina Montoya, a Dallas lawyer (and spouse of U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins), and Gary Harrison, who is a criminal lawyer and a nurse anesthetist. Harrison is the only Democrat who's actually filed in that race... For the second time, Houston City Council members John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough, and former member John Peavy Jr., were tried on charges of conspiracy and bribery, and for the second time, the jury deadlocked. Prosecutors haven't decided whether to try again... Appointments: Gov. Bush named Garland Benton "Ben" Woodward of San Angelo to take the place of State District Judge John Sutton, who is resigning at the end of June. The governor selected Linda Hughes, a Dallas psychiatrist, to serve on the board of regents at Texas Woman's University. And for the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Bush named Lisa Dickson of Dallas and Robert Valadez of San Antonio. She's a vice president at Brinker International; he is an attorney. All of those appointments are subject to Senate confirmation... Born to Rep. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, and to wife Shannon, a former legislative aide: Ryan Edward Janek. He's their first.
Quotes of the Week
Gov. George W. Bush, on the apparent legislative death of one of his pet issues: "I think people are afraid that vouchers will hurt public schools. I disagree. I think vouchers will help parents whose children are locked into failed schools. But the opponents of vouchers have done a good job."
Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, on comments by President Bill Clinton and a phone call to her by presidential hopeful Bill Bradley of New Jersey, on a proposed hate-crime bill: "They're trying to make this political, and I resent it. I think it's absolutely awful."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on the same bill: "The Republicans are worried that if they pass the bill and if the governor signs it, the religious right, the ultra right, will seek political retribution."
Attorney General John Cornyn, in an interview with the Dallas Morning News on allegations that his predecessor, Dan Morales, and Houston attorney Marc Murr, put together a fraudulent contract: "I haven't reached a conclusion yet on whether the evidence reaches the level of criminal fraud."
Investing wizard Warren Buffett, on why he invested in Dairy Queen and other less-than-flashy companies instead of jumping on the high technology bandwagon with other investors: "The Dilly Bar is more certain to be around in ten years than any single software application."
Texans Against Gun Violence spokesperson Nina Butts, speaking after the Littleton, Colorado, high school massacre on why the State of Texas needs laws that prevent minors from buying guns: "Our culture can absorb crazy kids, but we can't absorb crazy kids with guns."
Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on proposed laws limiting the behavior of teenagers: "I think the message from adults on these laws is two-fold. On the one hand, we're trying to protect you from something dangerous. On the other hand, we're trying to protect ourselves from you."
Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 44, 17 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.