Someone asked this week whether we had been able to find a defining moment of the legislative session. Our candidate: It happened on March 2, Texas Independence Day, on the lawn of the Governor's Mansion, when Gov. George W. Bush said officially that he's pondering a presidential run.
That announcement (and what led up to it and what followed), and the absence of the usual fiscal and policy crises, colored everything that happened in the Legislature this year.
Sure, the session seemed flat. It was flat. It was especially flat for those who have come to expect some drama and some theme from any session of the Texas Legislature.
The big issues of recent years stand in repose. There are apparently enough prisons. Public schools are apparently constitutional. The overhaul of the tax system that seemed so important two years ago is safely back in the pantry now. Workers compensation rates compel no outcry, and most business people who were stirred up about lawsuits and trial lawyers four years ago are temporarily sated.
Anyone who hasn't paid attention to Texas politics and government for the first five months of the year got a quick synopsis on the day after the legislative session ended. Gov. Bush held a press conference to talk about the session, wrapping up his wins and losses and taking stock.
He talked about education and tax cuts. He said he was glad there was no special session. He remarked upon the lack of partisan politics in the session. In short, he declared victory.
For Texans, there wasn't much news about the session that hadn't already been reported, and the next morning, the governor's remarks merited only buried coverage in most newspapers. Some wrote nothing at all, having summed up the Legislature's work in earlier editions.
And Now, A Look at What's on the Covered Plate
But this isn't a Texas story: The national press easily outnumbered the local hayseeds at what was really the governor's first press conference outside the cover of the legislative session. CNN and CSPAN went live, underscoring national interest in Bush's plan to venture outside the Texas border next week, when he makes his first forays into Iowa and New Hampshire.
From that national perspective, the session was great for the governor. Bush walked out with about two-thirds of the property tax relief he sought, and all but $100 million of the rest of the tax cuts he wanted. What's more, he got something to sell to voters and to financial supporters.
Rhetorically, the governor can rightly claim that he got a record tax cut in 1997 and then broke the record in 1999, and that he and the Legislature added $3.8 billion to school spending.
Only the smallest fraction of people know or care about the details; they'll be told over and over that Bush's pushes led to record cuts in property taxes and significant cuts in sales taxes, to teacher pay raises, to higher standards and better provisions for students. Voters will also like tax breaks for over-the-counter medicines and the annual clothing sales that sprout from the back-to-school tax holidays approved by the Legislature as part of the tax package.
Among other goodies, the governor's folks pushed hardest for Internet tax breaks that, while small, were important to a group that's important to the presidential aspirant. Financial and business supporters will appreciate the franchise tax break for small businesses -- a two-fer that makes the businesses happy and ends a costs-more-than-its-worth policy for the state's tax collector. Bush also scored with tax breaks for research and development spending, another bouquet for the folks who are important to his immediate future.
Equal Parts Republican and Democrat
One observation made frequently right after the elections seems to have been lost during the legislative session, but it probably had something to do with the character of this Legislature: There are almost equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the Texas House and Senate. The Republicans have a one-vote margin in the Senate; the Democrats have a six-vote margin in the House; a five-vote difference overall. A mild virus in the Pink Building could flip the partisan coin on any given day.
There were, to be sure, some partisan and near-partisan moments on both sides of the Capitol Rotunda. The money that teeter-tottered back and forth between spending on education and tax cuts swung one way in the Senate and the other in the House, largely if not purely on party politics.
The Republican issue that most scared Democrats -- the use of public money for vouchers for private schools -- was supposed to edge through the Senate and die in the House. But it never got out of the Senate in spite of the illness of one of the strongest opponents. Many House members worried all session about how their colleagues would vote if that issue came up; a voucher scare in the last hours of the House's business almost knocked a fatal hole in a compromise on schools and tax cuts.
The Democratic issue most frightening to Republicans -- the hate-crime bill -- passed the Democratic House but was killed in the Republican Senate. A parental notification bill, typically a party-line issue, hit some speed bumps but ultimately passed with overwhelming majorities in both chambers.
When it was all over, most folks gave high marks to the chairs on both sides. House Speaker J.E. "Pete" Laney, D-Hale Center, remains unequaled at controlling the flow of bills in the Legislature. Lt. Gov. Rick Perry had a strong rookie session, avoiding the problems that befell his predecessor, Bob Bullock, during his own first session in 1991. Perry steered the Senate through its own version of a leadership race, as senators quietly sniped at each other's bids to succeed Perry, if the day comes for Perry to succeed Gov. George W. Bush, should the governor become president.
Laney's big agenda item, campaign finance, died in the Senate. Perry's big agenda item, school vouchers, never came to a vote in either chamber. Two big issues that were at various points considered very dead got through: electric utility deregulation and legislation that loosens the regulatory leash on local phone companies and lowers long-distance access charges. The Children's Health Insurance Program, which began with partisan overtones and all the makings of a good row, ended peacefully with folks on both sides of the aisle claiming credit.
With the even partisan balance in both chambers, there just weren't many big fights.
Notes on the Man Who Would Be
If you like oddball statistics, here's the latest: A majority of the Republicans in the legislatures of 24 states have now endorsed Bush for president, according to his campaign. New Jersey was the latest... Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer is the 17th of the nation's 31 GOP governors to endorse Bush. Add another: His campaign isn't counting the candidate himself in that total... The Bushies, anticipating ambushes on the Internet like the one we pointed out last week, registered a bunch of unflattering names for Web sites, such as www.bushsucks.com. That looks goofy at the outset, but it's a smart way to keep some of the bad stuff out of the hands of your enemies. While they were at it, the governor's presidential ground troops also ordered some other site names that could be used when the other half of the presidential ticket is named (if, in fact, it ever comes to that). Among the registrants are sites for Bush-Engler, Bush-Pataki, Bush-Ridge and Bush-Whitman, which could be used if any of these Republican governors gets a number two slot: John Engler of Michigan, George Pataki of New York, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, and Christine Whitman of New Jersey. Similarly named Web sites for a Bush-Dole ticket are owned by private parties in Florida and California, but nobody has laid claim to another idea with a familiar ring to it: Bush-Quayle.
Saying No to the Speaker...
Republicans in the Texas House say they have three to five dozen signatures on a "Keep your powder dry" letter regarding the next speaker's race, and there may be at least that many different motives for signing. The letter commits the signers to concentrate on winning a Republican majority for the House, which currently has 78 Democrats and 72 Republicans. The letter says such a majority would make a GOP speakership "possible", but makes that a secondary goal.
All that said, the signers have agreed not to fill out pledge cards for any speaker candidates until after the general elections in 2000. That includes, implicitly, current House Speaker J.E. "Pete" Laney, D-Hale Center, and any of several Republican wannabes. For arguing purposes, the long list of potential candidates includes Reps. Kenneth "Kim" Brimer of Arlington, Tom Craddick of Midland, Toby Goodman of Arlington, Edmund Kuempel of Seguin, Mike Krusee of Round Rock, Ken Marchant of Coppell, Brian McCall of Plano and David Swinford of Dumas.
They also pledge to stay out of any speaker campaigns unless they've filed appropriate documentation with the Texas Ethics Commission. At first blush, that might seem like a curious thing to say; after all, it's illegal to run for speaker without first filing the correct papers with the state. But it's not illegal to run a draft campaign or to seek, as a third party, support for a candidate who is not declared. In other words, there's a loophole big enough to run a campaign through, and the Republican signers have agreed to close the loophole for the next two years.
That would shut down shadow campaigns like the one run last year by Craddick (who said then and now that he wasn't a candidate). The dean of the Republicans never openly declared his candidacy, but angled to take the top job if the GOP could get a majority elected to the House. They didn't, and he didn't. But the experience left several Republican strategists convinced that the Craddick race had become, at best, a distraction, and at worst, an incentive to Laney and the Democrats.
The Republicans considered another pledge that would have committed signers to voting for a Republican speaker if voters put a Republican majority in the House, but decided against it. During the last election cycle, a handful of Republicans -- mainly from rural areas and mainly from West Texas -- said they would probably stick with Laney unless the numbers were overwhelmingly against him. The letter-writers decided to leave that fight for another day.
... Without Saying Yes to Anyone Else in Particular
The memorandum, which wasn't supposed to be given to anyone outside the GOP caucus, was taken by some as a power play by Craddick. The line is that Craddick, who has been through this before, would have a leg up on other Republicans in a short race for speaker -- that jamming the whole thing into the eight to ten weeks between Election Day and the start of the next legislative session would benefit him.
Others took the memo as a partial slap at Craddick, since one of its provisions would have prevented him from doing what he did last year, when he simultaneously tried to assemble a Republican majority and muster the votes to lead that majority once it was in place.
With about 62 signatures (the number claimed by some Republicans), the memorandum would become the official policy of the Republican caucus, which requires a two-thirds vote before it takes a position. With the 41 signatures claimed by others, it would be a significant memo, but not a caucus policy. In either case, Marchant, the chairman of the caucus, says the letter is not a reflection on Laney.
Other caucus leaders say the memo is at least partly a payback to the speaker, who busted several GOP committee chairs who had worked against him and other House Democrats in the last elections. That balance could be interesting to watch: Some Democrats have tried to convince Laney that he's going too easy on opponents, while Republicans say he's been too hard on them.
The leaders of the effort -- including most of the people listed above as possible speaker candidates -- will meet later this summer to put together plans for the elections. That will include fund-raising and polling strategies and probably the hiring of a campaign manager to oversee the effort.
Is It Already Time for Senate Races?
Golly, it seems like it's been weeks and weeks since we wrote about an election, but here we are, just, ahem, 10 months away from the primaries and just 17 months from Election Day 2000. Some of the candidates are already in the starting gates, and those fundraising letters are rolling rapidly off the presses, both for officeholder and candidate accounts. So far, it's mostly in the elbow-throwing stage, but there are already some hot spots and points of interest.
While we weren't watching, Beaumont attorney David Fisher, a Democrat, signed up to run for the SD 3 Senate seat currently held by Republican Drew Nixon, R-Carthage. State Rep. Clyde Alexander, D-Athens, is also looking at the race, but at our last check, said he would decide after he'd had a couple of weeks to get over the legislative session. Some Democrats, mindful of Republican interest in Alexander's district and of his support for the current speaker, would rather have him remain in the House. That brand of mathematics will play in the plotting behind a number of races in the next election cycle. Nixon's political career plunged after his arrest for solicitation a couple of years ago (the woman on the other end of the transaction was an undercover cop), but after saying he probably wouldn't seek reelection, he's reconsidering it.
SD 21 Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has told friends she won't decide for sure until August whether she will change her mind and seek another Senate term. She has told voters for years that she would not run again after she had been in office for at least 12 years. Now that the time has come, she's pondering the situation. She had lost some fund-raising ground to Rep. Henry Cuellar's unannounced but active campaign for the seat, but he says he won't run against her if she decides to stay. Former state Rep. Richard Raymond of Benavides has been interested in running, but like Cuellar, doesn't plan to challenge Zaffirini. The incumbent's fund-raising base was also hit when she burned some Laredo Democrats with a post-election fund-raiser for Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. And after Perry split her committee's jurisdiction in half, Zaffirini lost the health-care jurisdiction that provided some of her out-of-district fund-raising base.
Congress, Railroads and Freshmen
Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, was out of the gate quickly with the official announcement of his run for the CD 7 seat now held by U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, who has said this will be his last term. Culberson has hired several former Archerites, but the congressman hasn't picked a favorite in the field of (so far) five GOP candidates. Nonetheless, Culberson's literature features a big picture on the front with him and Archer talking on the lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol, which at least looks like he knows the incumbent. Culberson's crew includes Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth as general consultant, and Jennifer Terrell and Kindra Hefner as fundraisers. Terrell raised money for Lt. Gov. Rick Perry last year; Hefner previously did work for campaigns of U.S. Reps. Jack Fields, R-Humble, and Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands.
Terrell will also be raising money for the reelection campaign of Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews. Terrell is only part of that deal; she's the "T" of AKT, which also includes Hans Klinger, who will manage the Matthews campaign. Matthews wants to be the first Republican elected to that post and then reelected. Most commissioners (of both parties) move on to run for other offices after their first elections. Matthews, as we mentioned last week, might draw opposition in the primaries, but he's got some fairly strong support from people in the oil business the commission regulates.
House Republicans and Democrats picked their freshmen of the year, which -- no knock intended -- has become less about the talent of the recipients than about their vulnerability in the next election cycle. The Republicans figured out, before the Democrats did, that the awards could help a freshman win a second election, but both sides now take the future election risks of the candidates into account. That said, the folks who took the awards this session generally got high marks from their colleagues. The freshmen honor was shared on the Republican side by Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, and won on the Democrat side by Alan Ritter, D-Nederland.
A (Little) Cut in the Size of Government
It's not often that the state actually kills an agency, but the Legislature whacked the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority in the closing days of the session. Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, folded that outfit into the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which will be up for review by the Sunset Commission in two years. The low-level agency was supposed to find a site for a hazardous waste dump. Legislation that would have directed that effort came up short -- lawmakers passed up attempts to target that to a specific area or company -- and now those duties fall, apparently, to the TNRCC. That gives rise to an interesting question: Can the TNRCC, acting in one capacity, grant a license to the TNRCC, acting in another capacity? We're not making this up, honest. The agency is asking legislative leaders for a meeting in the next two or three weeks to try to sort out that question and to figure out what should happen next.
This one is not an agency, exactly, but another government program almost got whacked before ending up in the governor's office. The Council on Competitive Government, started years ago as a way to encourage private firms and public agencies to compete for some kinds of business, lost its funding for a while. But it was revived and will be moved to the governor's office.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Attorney General John Cornyn, apparently prompted by open records requests from the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News, released copies of federal subpoenas for state tobacco lawsuit files related to Houston attorney Marc Murr. Murr, you'll remember, was hired by former Attorney General Dan Morales to advise him in that lawsuit. And one panel of arbitrators said Murr was entitled to $260 million. Another panel awarded him $1 million for his part in the cases. But he has given up his claims to any money and returned $82,000 he had received so far. Cornyn has accused Morales and Murr of faking the contracts between the private attorney and the state.
Reincarnation Department: Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, saved his long-dead bill that requires the attorney general to get legislative approval before hiring outside lawyers. That was aimed at the tobacco lawsuit, which ended in a settlement that paid the state $17.3 billion while also sending hundreds of millions to each of the five law firms hired by former Attorney General Morales to go after the tobacco companies. If the governor signs it, the measure requires the attorney general to get approval from the Legislative Budget Board before hiring outside lawyers for any case that might bring the state an award of over $100,000.
Random Bits and Oddments
• People in West Texas won't stop going 80 miles an hour on the Interstates, but it will remain illegal; the bill that would have made those high speeds okay didn't survive the final bell. Some lawmakers were worried about an unrelated bill that would have let big trucks go the same speed as cars, and didn't want a bunch of 18-wheelers flying down the road at 80 mph.
• If you lease a car in Texas, you have to pay property taxes (Nah, we didn't know that, either), but that could change in November. That issue made it through as a proposed constitutional amendment and voters will get a crack at it later in the year.
• Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, who campaigned saying she would be aggressive about school performance reviews, will take on one of the biggest districts -- San Antonio -- as her first such project. That's the sixth-largest school district in Texas, and Rylander said she picked it because of its financial problems and low test scores. She'll start the six- to seven-month review in September.
• We wrote some time back about a deal that would allow the lottery to increase the amount paid out for prizes while cutting the amount the numbers games could spend on payouts. Well, it changed a bit: During the first year, the lottery can increase its prize payouts by five percentage points while keeping the advertising budget intact. After that year, they go back to the deal we explained the first time: Every one-percent increase will cost the agency $1 million off its $40 million ad budget.
Political People and Their Moves
Hello, we must be going: The team that took over the desks at the Democratic Party after last year's elections is already clearing out, saying their departures signal nothing but the end of the legislative session. Executive director Harold Cook, party spokesbot Liz Chadderdon and finance director Shannon Finley are all leaving. Cook, a longtime campaign operative who had some differences of opinion with Democratic Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm in this latest job, says he's looking at various options. Chadderdon has signed on with Bates Niemand, a direct mail firm in Washington, D.C. And Finley is on her way to Nevada to work on a U.S. Senate race there... Alan Bernstein, longtime political writer for the Houston Chronicle, is giving up that post to write about something else for a change. Julie Mason, who's covered City Hall and other mayhem for the paper, will take over local political coverage... Howard Graves, a retired three-star Army general, is on his way to the top job at Texas A&M. He'll replace current Chancellor Barry Thompson, who's retiring this summer. Graves, a Rhodes scholar who served as an assistant to Gen. Colin Powell in Desert Storm, was most recently a professor at the University of Texas... Tom Treadway, executive director of the General Services Commission, let his staff know that June 18 will be his last day at the post he's held since 1995. He's not ready to say what's next, but says he's got some ideas... We misspelled Janee Briesemeister's name last week. Sorry... Kathy Ikard, named late last year to run planning and research for Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, is leaving that post for personal reasons. Another Rylander hire, Yvonne Becerra, is leaving her job as media manager... Stanford Ryan Research becomes Stanford Research, with partner Tom Ryan closing the Washington, D.C., office so he can go to work for Phillip Morris. Jason Stanford, based in Austin, now owns it all... We don't generally do TV listings, but what the heck: A&E Biography is doing a profile on Gov. Bush on Wednesday, June 9. They're doing all the presidential candidates; a program on John McCain aired in February... Deaths: Former Texas Sen. William "Bill" Moore of Bryan, the famed "Bull of the Brazos". He was 81.
Quotes of the Week
Sen. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi, comparing Lt. Gov. Rick Perry to his predecessor, Bob Bullock: "With Bullock, he had to be involved in every decision. He wouldn't let us breathe by ourselves. But Rick Perry has come across like a breath of fresh air."
Gov. George W. Bush, on people's expectations as he starts a presidential bid: "They're really high. One of my daughters accurately pointed out: 'Hey, Dad, you're not nearly as cool as people think."
House Speaker J.E. "Pete" Laney, D-Hale Center, on whether he intends to seek a fifth term in that post when the Legislature reconvenes in 2001: "That's my plan."
Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, at an end-of-session lunch for legislators sponsored by Gov. Bush: "This is the first time I've ever had lunch with a president before he was president." And the riposte from the governor: "Thank you, Mr. Ambassador."
Amnesty International, in a report critical of the state's secretive clemency process: "In a jurisdiction that executes more people than any other in the Western World, Texas has turned the final safeguard of executive clemency into nothing more than an empty gesture."
Victor Rodriguez, chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, in response to the report: "Amnesty International is against the death penalty, so their conclusions are not surprising in the least... Texas has a fair and constitutional system and the courts repeatedly have said that."
Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, on whether legislative plans to increase teacher pay by $3,000 annually go far enough: "Is it enough? No, it will never be. Our society has placed a premium on some crazy things. We pay more money for somebody to beat the brains out of somebody than we pay for somebody who tries to educate the brains."
Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Bob Driegert, on Democratic Vice President Al Gore's successful fundraising foray in Dallas: "Money's money, and money from a state you're going to lose is as good as money from any other state."
Texas Weekly: Volume 15, Issue 47, 7 June 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.