Democrats of both the native and national varieties (and Republicans with presidential ambitions) have been chipping away at Gov. George W. Bush for what they see as his failure to stake out a leadership position on the hate crime bill that got spiked by the Texas Senate. And their next line of argument is that Bush isn't tuned into anything at all, at least not to anything that's of concern to the Texas Legislature. That ain't necessarily so.
It's true that he's been preoccupied with other things and that even Republicans in the Legislature have been whining for a long time about his lack of attention to some issues that are important to them. It's also true that Bush is now working on several issues behind the scenes and even starting, at this late, late stage, to talk about specific pieces of legislation.
Curiously, he offered opinions on some bills at the same time he was ducking on hate crime. While the hate crime legislation was coming apart, the governor's only public comment was that he'd look at it if and when the Legislature sent it his way. At the same time, he jumped to say he liked the then-current version of a parental notification bill moving through the Texas House, despite the opposition to that bill in the ranks of anti-abortion groups and despite a real chance that the bill would never make it all the way to his desk for a signature.
Bush said he was happy with a House committee's version of electric deregulation legislation, except for a provision that increased the financial burden on industrial companies -- unfairly, he said -- while easing the burden on residential electric customers. Again, he was following details on a bill that was still far from his consideration. (His presence on that bill was direct: His legislative aides lobbied heavily on that provision, even to the point of walking behind the committee table to try to persuade members during the meeting. The provision stuck even after a second vote.)
He especially praised provisions of the electric utility legislation that would promote anti-pollution measures at plants, and he weighed in on another environmental topic, saying he's not crazy about legislation that arguably makes it easier for other states to send nuclear waste in Texas' direction. And he said he was busy working with senators and representatives on the details of the tax and education package that will be financed by the state's huge budget surplus.
Spin Accounts for the Other 10 Percent
The governor's involvement or lack of involvement in the hate crime bill may not be the most important thing going in this legislative session. As several Republican senators said after their negotiations on the bill failed, the Legislature has done plenty of other stuff this session and will probably be remembered in terms of tax cuts and education spending and for what it did to and for utilities. That's true enough for them -- they're working on a local stage. Most Texas senators will probably never see any fallout, and so they're not out of line seeing it as a secondary issue.
It's different for the national candidate from Texas. Whether he and his spokesbots like it or not, the governor played out that piece of politics on the national stage. While it might not be the most important bill to Texas lawmakers, the hate crime bill is the only piece of legislation that went through the Pink Building this year that also made the front page of the New York Times. That publication wasn't alone among the nationals: We're aware of inquiries on the subject from a number of other outlets. Those national reporters were being spun both by Democrats and by Bush's GOP competitors with the echo of a question that dogged Bush's father before him: Where's George?
Taxes at the Eleventh Hour
Several issues were flying at high rates of speed when we went to press, but this might help if you're trying to figure out what happened on the way to the last legislative blast of the session.
The governor's ambitions have been evoked on any number of issues, but they've been evoked most forcefully on tax breaks, cuts and relief. Fairly early in the game, he dropped his campaign call for a total of $2.6 billion in tax cuts. He gave up on his call for $2 billion in property tax relief. By the end of May, the governor had even come off of his direct call for $2 billion in total tax relief, dumping numbers altogether and saying simply that he wanted significant tax cuts that "people can feel."
Even so, folks on his side of the aisle were pushing every available button and pulling every available lever to try to reach a total of at least $2 billion in cuts. Budget and tax gurus were trying to negotiate a deal in time to get on the calendar; the Legislature's rules make Tuesday the last day that most bills can be considered on the floor of the House and Wednesday the last day for the Senate.
The budget was tailored to accommodate tax bills totaling about $540 million. That would include sales tax breaks for diapers, medicines, and back-to-school supplies and clothing. It would also include franchise tax breaks for companies that create jobs or that invest in research and development or that make capital improvements. Companies under a certain size would be exempt from franchise taxes, but lawmakers were still bargaining over that certain size, with some saying it should apply to companies with under $100,000 in annual receipts, some arguing for a floor of $250,000.
The Senate, not surprisingly, balked at the prospect of cutting back the $400 million in sales tax cuts sent over by the House. They didn't want to take a politically unpopular whack at a consumer tax cut in favor of boosting tax cuts for business.
House leaders were balking at demands for inclusion of $60 million in tax breaks for Internet companies, and were waiting for the Senate to make the sales tax cuts.
Several lawmakers, notably on the Senate side, were holding their noses over a franchise tax credit targeted to help Intel Corp. build a plant on the north end of Tarrant County. Part of the trick -- or stench, depending on your viewpoint -- is a fiscal note that says all of the cost to the state will come in the future, and not in the current budget cycle. It's the next Legislature's problem.
Tax Relief? You Make the Call
The tax-writers were also waiting for some sign from Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, whose Public Education Committee's $3.8 billion education bill includes property tax cuts of debatable size. House Republicans said they wouldn't know what to do with other tax cuts until they'd heard how big the property tax cuts would be. Watch the semantics when they're done: There are distinct differences from officeholder to officeholder over what in the education bills can be called tax relief. That said, the various tax bills add up to something between $1.6 billion and $2 billion, depending on who is talking and on which mix of taxes they are including.
We wrote previously about legislation refunding almost $200 million from the state's workers compensation fund to companies that had paid the premiums. There's a way to squint at that and call it tax relief without actually telling a fib, but it's a real stretch. Most of the folks we talked to during the week were unwilling to include that in their math when trying to come up with $2 billion for the governor. It is some kind of relief: The people who paid in too much in premiums will see a refund.
The various sales tax exemptions being kicked around would affect cities, since they ride piggyback on the state's sales tax levy. They don't like the idea of losing that money, but they don't want to oppose tax cuts. The Texas Municipal League weighed in with a gentle threat in the form of a one-page note to lawmakers. It says a $500 million sales tax cut would cost cities about $80 million, enough to force an average property tax increase of 2.8 percent. The tag? "We just wanted you to know."
One Panel, Two Weeks, Three Choice Issues
So far, there's only been one big mistake, and that's a backhanded way of saying that Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, has had a full plate for the last several months. He and his State Affairs Committee have sweated over utility regulation and legislation that would require doctors to let parents know before performing abortions on teenaged mothers. It all came to a boil in the last two weeks.
Given all that, some legislators weren't surprised that points of order were called on the parental notice bill (one problem was with missing an internal deadline; another was that Wolens' committee heard testimony on the bill at a meeting where testimony was not allowed). That's the second session in a row that the bill has come out of the State Affairs Committee with a problem, but the bill was quickly put back on track this time.
Telephone and electric utility legislation are less emotional issues but are still politically delicate; Wolens managed to pull together overwhelming support for both in his committee and was presenting the first act to the full House at our deadline.
The electric bill came out of committee with at least two potential derailers on board. First was an amendment, mentioned earlier, that would force utilities to pass more of their so-called stranded costs to industrial customers and away from residential customers. The author of the amendment, Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, worked out a compromise before the bill hit the floor, by spreading some of those costs to other businesses and some back to the utilities themselves.
That amendment resulted in one of the quickest third-party economic studies we've seen. Two economists at the University of North Texas were in Austin with a study in hand within days of the committee's vote. Their study, sponsored by the industrial companies, concluded that the amendment would hobble the industrials and hurt the state economy without giving any significant relief to residential ratepayers. Specifically, they said that industrial customers of the four biggest utilities in Texas would pick up a burden of $1.5 billion over ten years, while the average household customers of those utilities would save between $14 and $60 per year. That said, we couldn't find many members who were willing to switch the load back to the voters, er, customers, and away from the companies.
The second potential deal-breaker was a huge tax break for natural gas sellers that were added to the bill by Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview. His opposition came not from the folks in the utility fight, but from the Legislature's budgeteers, who said the price tag was too high to fit into their plans.
A Very Busy Signal
The phone bill came down to a last minute Hail Mary pass that is still playing itself out. Last Sunday evening, Wolens holed up with Reps. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and a couple of other folks to work out a new approach to the legislation, which cuts long-distance access charges and gradually frees Southwestern Bell and other local phone companies from regulation while gradually opening their markets to competition. Put another way, the House came up with a new approach to the legislation 18 weeks into a 20-week legislative session.
Wolens laid out the ideas, but not the bill, the next afternoon, and told members they'd get a written version about 24 hours later. Two hours after that, they were to have their amendments ready, and he told them their changes would be regarded as hostile unless they came in before the deadline, and unless they addressed only the new ideas in the bill.
A few hours after turning in the amendments, he told them, he wanted to put the whole shebang to a committee vote. It unrolled just like he described it, and his committee voted it out unanimously after three hours of talking. The short take on the result: Most of the small companies that want to compete with the monopolies said the bill doesn't help them. Bell liked it, but as usual wanted to make a few changes. AT&T officials who began the session telling lawmakers they didn't want legislation ended up saying the same thing. But in the middle of the session, they were pushing for a bill, and their heavy ad campaign, as we've mentioned, was what convinced many legislators that they had to pass something that they could claim would lower long distance charges.
The Doctors Will See You Now
Texas doctors got their deal done in the parental notification bill, but were taking on water at the end of the week in their efforts to win the legal right to collectively negotiate with health plans.
The doctors wanted to stay out of the abortion fight, mainly because the members of that trade association don't agree on the subject. They apparently do agree, however, on the need to keep doctors out of jail. What started as a criminal penalty in the parental notice bill was knocked down to a hefty fine in an amendment that won approval on a voice vote. (This was on the bill's first run, which was interrupted by a point of order; a second run of the bill was scheduled to take place after our deadline.) Instead of Class A misdemeanors, doctors who fail to obtain the right form of notice before performing abortions on teenagers would face fines of up to $10,000. They won that change while managing to stay in the background.
The Texas Medical Association had no such luck on the bill that would give doctors the ability to band together to negotiate with health plans. They're opposed in that effort by the Texas Association of Health Plans and by the Texas Association of Business and Chamber of Commerce, and the faxes back and forth have outdone most of the other squabbles this session.
TMA easily prevailed in the Senate, but its opponents might have found a piece of paper that could damage the doctors' arguments: A letter from Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander said any increases in health care costs that result from the doctors' ability to bargain could cost state and local governments a fair amount of money. She stopped short of saying that the legislation would force prices to go up, but estimated what would happen if costs went up by certain amounts. For instance, a one percent increase in costs, she wrote, would cost governments about $10 million, including the costs to local governments and the state's share of costs at the teacher and employee retirement systems. Run up the numbers and you run up the costs: Rylander estimated that if the negotiating doctors raised prices by five percent, it would add $40 million to the price tag for those three areas.
TMA's most recent blast is in the form of a poll by the Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group, which contends that 73 percent of Texans think doctors ought to be allowed to negotiate with HMOs. But the poll didn't ask whether the doctors should be allowed to join hands before entering negotiations; individual doctors have the right to negotiate already. The doctors say that's an empty right, however, since no doctor acting alone has the market power to gain any leverage in that kind of a negotiation.
Welfare as a Natural Resource
The Senate's secret deliberations on hate crime legislation ate up most of the upper chamber's last day to consider Senate bills, but at least one piece of lawmaking forced them back to the floor before the midnight deadline. Earlier on, the House had killed the sunset bill for the Department of Human Services, and the Senate had to come in and pass legislation putting off that sunset date for another two years. Without that, the agency would have gone out of business. What was odd was that the sunset bill came out of the Natural Resources Committee, which doesn't ordinarily consider such things, because the chairman of that committee, Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, was its sponsor and the Senate was in a hurry. It's not, we're told, a new vision for welfare reform.
Some have noticed a clog in the stream of gubernatorial appointments, but it's a seasonal deal. In fact, appointments pretty much stopped on May 7 and will crank back up after lawmakers leave. That's a legal and timing quirk: If you're appointed to something while the Legislature is in town, you have to be confirmed before they leave or you don't get the appointment. Not being confirmed, even if it's just because senators were busy doing other things, is the same as being rejected. So the appointments office shuts off the spigot at the end of each session, allowing the Senate to finish up its half of advise and consent before the lights go out. With a week to go, senators were wrapping up their confirmations of 145 people nominated by the governor for various offices. People nominated after the end of the session can hold their appointed offices until the Legislature returns and has a change to pass judgement on them.
A Little West Texas Dust-up
The state doesn't usually pay for construction of county hospitals, and members of the Legislature generally don't hold press conferences personally blasting each other. But when Rep. George "Buddy" West, R-Odessa, stepped on the toes of Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, by killing $3 million in state money that was destined for a hospital in Midland, Craddick went home and went on the attack.
Craddick, the dean of the Republicans in the Texas House, wanted to run the money through the Texas Department of Health. That item wasn't in the House or Senate version of the appropriations bill, but got slipped in during a session of the conference committee. West spotted it, asked for votes from two others on the House side of the conference committee, and got it spiked. That didn't bring any money to Odessa, but it did keep it from going to Midland.
Then the fight broke out. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who voted with West, had one of his bills killed in the Senate Education Committee. The chairman, Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, scrawled a note across the bottom of the bill: "Don't mess with Midland!"
Craddick jumped on a plane to Midland, held a press conference, and landed the story on the front page of the newspapers in both towns. Standing next to him at the event was Bob Barnes, a former Texas Restaurant Association president who some folks think will challenge West in next year's Republican primary. Craddick said West's action was contrary to local efforts by the two cities to get over a long, long sibling rivalry. West said Craddick has routed money to the hospital before, but contends that it's either illegal or unethical to "sneak" state money to a local hospital that way.
West says some of his Odessa constituents complained about the money going to Midland. But Craddick and others say the hospital expansion would have benefited both cities.
Legislative Tidbits & Oddments
If you watched the 1995 session and the tort reform measures that passed that year, you'll probably remember when then-Rep. Mark Stiles, D-Beaumont, told insurance regulators to make sure the benefits of tort reform were passed along to consumers. The tort reformers had argued that their measures would result in lower insurance claims and Stiles said he wanted to put some teeth in the rhetoric. The Stiles deal expires next year, but Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, got it extended another two years... For the second time, Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, gets hit by his own. Senate Democrats took aim at the courthouse restoration program first proposed by Gov. George W. Bush, saying the money would be better spent on other things. Several voted against it at the end of the debate, but the bill passed. Earlier in the session, some Democratic House members raised the same issue. Gallego, the House sponsor, is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus... After a day of negotiations, the House and Senate signed off on the Children's Health Insurance Program. Their last sticking point was over who would run the program; unless it's unable to handle it, the Texas Healthy Kids organization, which is private, will run CHIP. If the private concern can't do it, the decision will go to Don Gilbert, head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Irony check: Rep. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, pushed to give Gilbert more power over state health programs earlier in the session, but authored the amendment that would have taken most of the CHIP oversight away from Gilbert... The delays caused by leaks at the Robert Johnson Building have now officially put renovations of the Reagan Building on hold. Everything will happen eight to 20 months later than planned, we're told.
Statistics behind a couple of hot issues: The state recorded 316 hate crimes last year, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. More than two-thirds were motivated by race, ethnicity or national origin; about one in five was motivated by sexual orientation, and 8.2 percent were motivated by religion. Three of the crimes were murders... About 5,500 teenagers had abortions in Texas last year, according to the Texas Department of Health. Without a law in place, there's no way to know for sure how many of those were done with the knowledge or consent of the teenagers' parents. But between 1,400 and 2,100 of those were done without evidence of parental involvement, according to legislators working on the parental notification bill.
Political People and Their Moves
It has been less than seven months since the last state elections, but with the end of the legislative session, the rumors of who might run for what, and of who will run their campaigns, have begun. To wit: Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says she likes the Senate and has no plans to run for the Texas Railroad Commission, in spite of rumors she was being drafted by fellow Republicans to run against one of their own, Charles Matthews. Rep. Peggy Hamric, R-Houston, has been the subject of similar rumors. She doesn't say they're right, nor that they're wrong. And former Sen. Jerry Patterson, a Pasadena Republican who currently heads the Texas Association of Health Plans, says he's been approached about the same race and will meet with folks to talk about it after the legislative session... Commissioner Michael Williams, appointed by Gov. George W. Bush to fill the spot left open by Carole Keeton Rylander, has hired Todd Olsen and Ted Delisi to work on his campaign in 2002. Those two, you'll remember, bought Karl Rove's firm so he could devote all of his time to the state's undeclared presidential candidate... James Douglas was ousted as the president of Texas Southern University, but he'll return next year, teaching at the law school... Steve Mansfield got his second public spanking from the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. Mansfield, who's on the state's highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, is accused of trying to sell his complimentary UT football tickets. After his 1995 election, the State Bar of Texas reprimanded the Republican judge for lying about his credentials... Second Lady Tipper Gore will be in Austin Tuesday for a lunch fundraiser for the Veep. The 16 co-sponsors for that Al Gore event are all females, all Democrats, and all members of the Texas House... President Bill Clinton will appoint former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro to serve on the board of Fannie Mae, the quasi-governmental mortgage banking concern... Deaths: Former Harris County Sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen, from a brain tumor.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, after holding a press conference to blast Rep. George "Buddy" West, R-Odessa, for taking money destined for Midland out of the state budget, on whether that sort of public fight has broken out before: "I don't know, but it's my district, and he meddled."
Rep. West, on the same subject: Tom's not used to having someone stand up to him and he's throwing a fit about it. He's had tantrums like this before, and he'll have them again."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, addressing his colleagues at the end of daylong negotiations that failed to produce a hate crime bill: "If it's too hot for you this session, don't worry -- I'll be back."
Republican congressional candidate Bob Backlund of Connecticut, a professional wrestler trying to follow in the political footsteps of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who's now Minnesota's governor: "There's a lot of people that watch wrestling that don't give a hoot about voting, but because of who's running, they're going to vote."
Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, promoting legislation that would hide information about who does and doesn't have a concealed handgun license from anyone not in law enforcement: "This is simply no one else's business. The name of this is concealed handgun permit, concealed handgun license. If it's publishable information, it's not very concealed."
Gov. George W. Bush, on how his environmental record should be judged: "I think you have to ask the question: Is the air cleaner since I became the governor? And the answer is Yes."
Austin political consultant Bill Miller, on the confidence level of Republicans helping the governor with his presidential campaign: "Not only are people assuming he's going to win, I think most of them have already served in the Bush Administration and have started thinking about which college they want to teach at."
Longview News-Journal Publisher Glenn McCutchen, after Gov. Bush made his reporter stop taking notes in a meeting between the governor and members of the Longview Chamber of Commerce: "If you can go off the record with a group of 25 people, that's an interesting proposition. It's like he's saying, 'I'm standing before you and my lips are moving, but nothing is coming out."
Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 45, 24 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.